All Eyes on Malawi - The Road to Hemp Legalization

On May 18, 2015, Boniface Kadzamira, an independent member of parliament, stood up in Malawi’s national assembly to make the case for the legalization of industrial hemp. “The whole house laughed at me. I was literally booed. They started saying that I’ve gone nuts,” said Kadzamira. “My family and friends weren’t happy either. They were asking, ‘Why are you, a God-fearing person, talking about chamba?’” he laughed, using the local term for cannabis. “Even my wife was saying, ‘I’m so ashamed. The neighbours are talking, saying you introduced this issue in the national assembly!’”.

A lot has happened since Kadzamira stood before parliament on that day in 2015. A full year later, parliament adopted a motion by Kadzamira, asking government to legalise the growing of industrial hemp in the country. Kadzamira moved the motion “considering the enormous economic, medical and nutritional value industrial hemp has.” While there were MP’s in parliament that day in June 2016, who urged government to exercise caution on the issue, fearing that unscrupulous people could take advantage of the legislation to promote the growing of illicit Indian hemp (marijuana), by July 2017, the debate on legalization was once again re-ignited in parliament, with many officials keen on the idea.

Boniface Kadzamira is a calm and impressively patient man, not easily fazed. Nearly three years on, he is far from that victim of shame and ridicule in 2015. With the country’s industrial hemp trials wrapping up, Malawi is expected to pass amendments to legalize hemp. Aside from the tireless campaigning by Kadzamira and his allies, a major catalyst for the proposed legalization is the hope that hemp will revive Malawi’s struggling economy, which is in a dire situation following a severe drought in southern Africa, and a decline in global tobacco consumption, Malawi’s current cash crop.

Hemp is an attractive alternative because thousands of products can be made from it. Legalizing it in Malawi would allow the country not only to cultivate the crop, but also to establish a range of new industries based on it – at least in theory. It also feels like a natural choice for the home of “Malawi Gold”, a strain of cannabis considered to be one of the world’s finest. Despite its continued illegality, cannabis use is actually alleged to be one the country’s major exports; nearly ten tons are seized annually.

As far back as 2015, economic experts have backed the calls for the legalization of Indian hemp (Chamba) in the country, saying that the country stands to benefit much if it starts growing the illicit plant. While Kadzamira stunned his fellow parliamentarians, economists were citing that “An acre of hemp produces more paper than wood pulp or tree. Apart from paper, you can produce fibre, fabric, soap, lighting oil, incense, medicines, food oil and proteins for both human and animals”. Economics lecturer, Ben Phiri, from Chancellor College, backed the call, saying that the illicit plant will help in the uplifting of the country’s economy. UNIMA Professor, Ben Kalua, was also a firm backer for the legalization, saying “We are not the first to know about the uses of the product and, in fact, in the US the market was manipulated to outlaw hemp-related production by vested interests. De-politicizing of the production of marijuana for industrial purposes has the potential to steer the country’s economy towards recovery,” said Kalua.

Looking back on proposals going back as far as the year 2000, calling for the legalization of cannabis for economic purposes and the Rastafarian community peacefully marching in support, Malawi has come a long way. While cannabis remains illegal and the possession of cannabis and its related products is still considered a criminal offense, Industrial Hemp trials are almost complete, with over ten varieties of hemp from around the world having undergone trials.

With companies like Ikaros Africa (medicinal and related products) and Invegrow (fibre and related products), Malawi is set to take centre stage in Africa, with the first hemp trials having been completed, and the MHA working closely with government and investors on the framework and guidelines for legalization. “Malawi Gold”, indeed.