‘Industrial hemp can transform economy’

Zimbabwe Industrial Hemp Trust founder and chief executive Zorodzai Maroveke

LAST week, media mogul Trevor Ncube (TN) hosted an inaugural Ideas Festival in Nyanga, which sought to explore transformative ideas that can turn the economy around. Dubbed the “Zim Davos”, the festival touched on a number of ideas that were quite captivating. In this edition, we unpack the idea of how industrial hemp can transform the economy. Ncube sat down with the Zimbabwe Industrial Hemp Trust founder and chief executive Zorodzai Maroveke (ZM), who is the brains behind the legalising of hemp in Zimbabwe. This is how the discussions went:

TN: How did all this start?

ZM: I conceptualised this idea in 2016, through a simple concept note that leaked to the OPC (Office of the President and Cabinet) then. It drew the attention of the government. So, in 2018, because they made a change of government, things started to accelerate and of course I had more confidence to start pushing. You would find that the first piece of legislation was Statutory Instrument (SI) 162 of 2018, the production of cannabis for scientific purposes, for the production of medical cannabis for scientific and research purposes. Then in 2019, we had the decriminalisation, well actually the definition of hemp at law in the criminal code. The reason why I pushed for that is because hemp was still stuck in dangerous drugs, and we were saying this is unjustly criminalised.

So, through the Ministry of Justice, the criminal code then defined what hemp was, and gave powers to the Ministry of Agriculture coming up with the production of industrial hemp, that is SI 208. That was the production of hemp under the Agricultural Marketing Act. As people then started production, we noticed everybody was fixed towards botanical cannabis, whether it was medical cannabis or even hemp. They were grinding for the flower to make medicines because everyone thought that was the low-hanging fruit.

 But then, we started seeing a problem. The definition of hemp was: any cannabis of 0,3% and below of the psycho active compound. Now, we had already been told by our partners in Malawi that it was not sustainable because of our latitude. So, it meant everyone would get arrested because our hemp was going to be a little bit above the 0,3%.

That means you are growing marijuana. I then went for another lobby project in November of 2021 and submitted a position paper to the government so that this thing be removed and we define it at 1% for a start.

It took me another year, and I became very desperate because now we were having elections and I didnot know what was going to happen after the elections. I became a bit pushy and I said, Mr President, it has to include this 1% in those bills that were passed. We were very fortunate he did ascend two weeks before the election, and Zimbabwe became the second country in Africa to actually legalise it.

TN: What do you think has contributed to your success in being able to place these documents before the government and how should we go about it when we are faced with such huge challenges?

ZM: To any young people out there, understand the environment that we are living in, the political sense. Some will be too scared to try but the moment you become very passionate about something and it is a very big idea, it is going to become political. Understanding the terrain is what I mastered.

So I would say it was a strategy. There are mountains in front of me, but how do I go around these mountains? I basically mastered the art of navigating, I will not say the Zimbabwean political terrain only, but also the African political terrain.

I have understood African politicians and I have mastered the art of making them do things that they wouldnot normally do. By choosing a path of resistance, by understanding their interests, their concerns, their fears, and addressing them. By not being confrontational and by being respectful.  I have found paths of resistance but it has not been easy.

TN:  So where are we, obviously to help the industry, we've got to grow the crop. How many licenses have been issued? How much are we growing and the quality?

ZM: Industrial hemp and medical cannabis have been separated at law. You find that medical cannabis is an agro-pharmaceutical business. It is very complex, it is capital intensive because of the nature of the dictates of the market. It is strictly regulated under the Ministry of Health in Zimbabwe and the licences cost US$57 000. It is valid for five years. Today the government has issued about 60 licences. And I will tell you, not even a 10th of those licences are active.

Number one, we have policy issues that frightened investors causing investor fatigue. We have lost funding for these projects. There is no localised technical expertise. You have to import skills, which is very expensive again.

Sometimes it is about the market. So someone is scared to invest because they havenot secured a market. It is a chicken and egg situation. Sometimes they donot have the market, the funding is not there anymore, and the technical expertise, and then the policies keep changing.There has not been policy consistency on medical cannabis. That has been very discouraging.

TN: What about the other side?

ZM: So, industrial hemp is now just a crop regulated under the Ministry of Agriculture and then the agency's Agricultural Marketing Authority. The most expensive permit for hemp is US$500 and then that is the one for a merchant.

TN: How much hemp are we growing?

ZM: Right, we donot have more than 50 hectares. Because most people who hear that I'm growing hemp, they are growing botanical hemp. What I mean is they are growing it to get the flower. The flower which makes cosmetic products, but they are not doing the fibre grain crop ,which is where I come in, which is where my passion is. You find the difficulty has been in that. People donot understand fibre grain crops. Even the government, they have supported it, but they are also stuck to say, how do we remove it?

 TN: How much of the fibre grain are we doing?

ZM: Zero.

TN: The opportunity of hemp to be used as wood, can you talk to us about that? Do you have an example?

 ZM:  What we are saying is that industrial hemp is multi-disciplinary. That is why they have created laws, specific laws for hemp. It has not been put under any other crop or horticulture or anything like that. So when we are saying hemp can make wood, we have got furniture here. If we have alternative wood that we can get from a crop that grows in five months, compared to a tree that grows in 23 years, what have we been doing cutting trees? Are we being genuine about sustainability? These products can also go into construction.  When we are talking about wood, we are also looking at hemp wood pellets.

So we have alternative fuel for tobacco curing. You have seen gum trees being planted for afforestation.

Gum trees take about seven years to mature. So it means that one hectare is not going to be productive for food production or anything for the next seven years.

But you can get the same amount of wood pulp if you grow one hectare of hemp in five months. And you can rotate and grow food for seven years.

TN: Why are we not doing that?

ZM: There is a huge knowledge gap. In all fairness, we donot understand the agronomy of hemp because it is a new crop. We donot understand the industrial processing and all the technologies, all the AI, the manufacturing, until we get to the product. We donot understand the business case. Does it make money or not? So a guy with US$10 million would say, I like your idea, but show me the business case. How do I show someone a business case when I donot know the agro-technical side of things? We actually have to do research, grow it in the different ecological regions of Zimbabwe. If it is Gokwe that thrives, it means we have to set up our factories in Gokwe.

TN: That could be a big, heavy-lifting project. Do you think the government gets it?

 ZM: They get it, but I donot see the will to do what it takes to create a strong foundation for the commercialisation of industrial hemp in Zimbabwe.

TN: Let us move on to the next one, a textile. Hemp is a source of textile products?

ZM: We have done our research to say what are the low-hanging fruits in terms of the textile value chain and fabric is probably the most difficult one. As you can see, we have got hemp cotton. So, you can make sanitary wear, you can make fabric from it. We realised the low hanging fruit would be your industrial fruit styles. You can also make ropes probably for horticulture.

We export a lot to the Netherlands, like our horticultural products, but the Netherlands has said they no longer want plastic packaging. So the flowers cannot be tied by those plastic strings anymore. It has to be sustainable products. So for horticulture, for example, that rope would be handy. So you find that the opportunities are colossal.

TN: You talk about textiles and this then speaks to climate change, sustainability.

ZM: And a lot more. So we are saying that hemp has got a huge, significant social, economic and environmental impact. It also has positive political implications. This is why you find that the Zimbabwean government supports it because they understand the future of this. But when it comes to the implementation, because we've said that the regulatory framework is there, but on  policy we are now at a different level.  We need research and development to go commercial.

TN: Then construction?

ZM: We developed a brick as part of our research process here in Zimbabwe.  Construction is one of the biggest contributors to emissions and so on. This is big in Ukraine right now. The first hemp house was built in France many, many years ago. It is not new, it is not novel, there is nothing special, it is just Zimbabwe is behind. So with the construction, we do have an opportunity to actually do a demo building for the local council in Harare. Again, it boils down to funding but Zimbabwe has a huge opportunity.

 TC: What do you mean it's huge for us? Explain.

ZM: In the climate economy, they have what they call permanency. So you cannot just say we have grown trees and we have sacked carbon, because sometimes the carbon escapes. But we need what we say, trapping carbon for good. That is what the hemp brick can do. It sequesters carbon for the rest of its life and it petrifies and becomes a hard rock. So it is a carbon sink and can earn carbon credits.

TC: And paper?

ZM: Yes, we can also make paper using hemp. We have actually done experiments and made 10 samples of paper from hemp that is grown here at the prisons and we realised that the low hanging fruit would be toilet paper.

Zimbabwe is consuming 800 tonnes of toilet paper every month. 500 tonnes is important. I think you have seen on the streets the skin saver food restaurants. That is foreign currency we are using because we cannot produce high quality toilet paper. We have a local toilet paper manufacturer who is producing 300 tonnes. But what happens? They also need forex.

They export their low quality to Burundi, Zambia and Malawi, about 200 tonnes. We are left with 100.

 We still have a deficit in terms of the demand and now we are saying hemp can produce the raw material which this local company is not able to access because it  needs foreign  currency to get paper pulp from South America.

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