This is the age of Africa cannabis: the continent unveiled its first SPAC; shipping the world´s largest cannabis cargo; dabbling with cannabis medical tissue.
But, who really owns Africa´s cannabis? Is weed-colonialism creeping into Africa?
To answer this, few hints exist among complicated corporate ownerships of Africa´s cannabis startups. Canada, in particular, stands out as a chief foreigner “grabber” of Africa cannabis scene.
Headlines rang loud that Africa at last has launched its first ever cannabis SPAC stock listing in 2022. A SPAC is a blank cheque company that lists on the stock exchange hoping to be merged with a cash rich suitor or get completely bought out.
Cilo Cybin, the cannabis startup in South Africa launched Africa´s first SPAC. On paper, Cilo Cybn is a South African weed company. But Gabriel Theron its chief executive says: “We plan to become a multinational. We are registering operations in Panama, the Netherlands, branching out.”
It´s doubtable that this so-called South Africa startup will remain South African.
“South Africa and Africa are simply staging grounds to cultivate cannabis. Profits; dominant equity holdings will likely be positioned overseas. This is the same modus operandi of ´oil colonialism´, your BPs, Chevrons, Total, and Exxon Mobil only drilling in Africa, but casting profits overseas,” says Carter Mavhiza, an independent public accountant.
White cannabis executives in Africa
Another interesting aspect to judge whether cannabis startups in Africa are just African name is to look at who is who in cannabis corporate leadership. A cursory glance at Cilo Cybn advisory board and executive board reveals that the main players are white males.
Highlands Cannabis struggles to identify itself
Highlands perfectly sums up this quagmire of whether Africa´s cannabis startups are really “African”.
Highlands earned plaudits in 2021 for unveiling Africa´s first cannabis contract cultivation scheme. Operating from Lesotho, the mountain kingdom that is Africa´s number 1 medical cannabis grower, Highlands fumbles when trying to explain its true ownership structure which has been characterized by confusing mergers, de-mergers, and rebranding.
Highlands formerly called itself Canopy Africa (supposedly weaned from Canopy Growth, Canada). When questioned in a news article in January 2022, Highlands struggled to describe itself as an “independent entity”.
Its director, Mark Corbett, was at pains to explain why it has been on a name-changing spree.
“Highlands Investments was formerly Canopy Growth Africa, however, it is no longer part of The Canopy Group. In 2017, Canopy Growth exited its operations in South Africa and Lesotho as part of a strategic review of its businesses. This resulted in a transfer of ownership of all of its African operations to Highlands Investments in April 2020,” Corbett told a reporter.
But in all essence, Highlands arguably a Canadian company not African, notwithstanding its past name which was Canopy Africa.
“Highlands is an interesting analogy of what a Canadian company that wants to be seen as African,” says Mavhiza the cannabis analyst, “Canadian weed colonialism in Africa is particularly strong via meandering name changes, corporate merges, buyouts and the likes.”
Africa shipped Africa´s biggest cannabis cargo. Really?
In August, Africa was bathed in illustrious news that the world´s largest-ever shipment of cannabis, 8.5tons, went from Africa to Macedonia, Europe. The star of the moment was non-other than, Highlands.
“Again, the exporter, Highlands, cannot be credibly called “African”. In my view, Highlands is a Canadian weed company operating in Africa. Africa is just a farming ground for cannabis, for now,” says Dennis Juru, president of The South Africa International Cross-border Traders Association.
Africa governments enabling cannabis “colonialism”?
Observers say, cries of cannabis colonialism creeping into Africa must be tempered with the realization that, it is African governments themselves that are rushing to doling out cannabis licenses without empowering local growers first.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is an example of a country where legalization and lack of capacity mean the state is preferring foreign cannabis companies to snap up all available licenses. 57 cannabis licenses were doled out in Zimbabwe in 2021 to players mainly from Germany, Canada, and Switzerland. A march broke out in South Africa in 2020, as Black farmers are furious, railed that regulators corruptly given cannabis licenses largely to white business persons.
“The history of cannabis in Africa is sensitive because it rings memories of the past agriculture colonial takeover of the continent´s lands,” Shamiso Mupara, an ecologist and delegate to Cop 26 in Scotland last year.
“There has been a spree, unplanned to legalize cannabis on a whim across Africa and dish out licenses in countries that, honestly speaking, are poorly ready to cultivate, and ship out cannabis in a manner that empowers local citizens first.”