The Small Town with Big Plans for Hemp Production
A company and a farmers’ association recently joined hands to start hemp production in Gouda in the Western Cape. They spoke to Glenneis Kriel about their plans to scale up the project to achieve commercial success.
In October last year, Hemp Africa SA, in partnership with a group of 54 previously disadvantaged farmers from the Gouda Farmers’ Association, launched a research and development hemp project on 0,5ha of land belonging to the Gouda community trust.
If all works out, the partnership hopes to turn Gouda in the Western Cape into South Africa’s hemp-producing hub.
“Our vision is to put 10 000ha under hemp production over the next five to 10 years and to then run the project like a kibbutz, which we want to call Mega Pharm. The idea is for two to three farmers to be responsible for growing 1 000ha each,” explains Nicole Pryor, Hemp Africa SA’s secretary.
While the initial plan is to sell the raw product to off-takers, they also plan to later create a co-operative and processing facility where value can be added to the raw material by workers from the community.
The big drive behind the project is to eradicate poverty and create job opportunities in the region. Gerrie Koopman, the farm manager and vice-chairperson of the Gouda Farmers’ Association, says that roughly 90% of the people of working age in Gouda, and especially young people, are without jobs.
“The project promises to breathe new life into Gouda by creating jobs and giving young people valuable work exposure. It is already employing eight people on 0,5ha, which will soon be increased to 11 [workers]. Just imagine the opportunities once we have scaled up to over 1 000ha,” he says.
The idea is also to use profits and perhaps hemp-based bricks to build houses in the community, as well as a high school and church.
Research and Development
But for now, baby steps are being taken as the community jumps through ‘big hoops’ to get the project off the ground. Gary Pryor, director of Hemp Africa SA and Nicole’s father-in-law, says they have a permit to plant 0,5ha for research and development and are in the process of getting a permit to grow another 50ha.
The community, however, has access to 300ha and the partnership is in negotiation with Drakenstein Municipality to get access to another 800ha.
So far the Holmes Group, which founded Hemp Africa SA in 2019, has invested R400 000 of its envisaged R580 000 in the establishment and running of the first stage of the operation, during which four different hemp strains have been planted for evaluation to identify the variety best suited for production in the region.
Hemp Africa SA and the farmer group also entered into a partnership with Power Ministries to help with the development of hemp-based products. Gary points out that Power Ministries has so far developed two products from the four strains with which they were supplied: a hemp oil for cosmetic purposes, and a nutritious food solution for humans.
The church already has a textile project for homeless people, and will also endeavour to process hemp into environmentally friendly duvet covers and pillow cases once sufficient volumes are available.
Pastor Benjamin Mawaro of the church does most of the research on the product development side, and is assisted by homeless people with the making of the products in return for food and training.
“We offer food garden training to improve people’s food security and help them become more self-sufficient. We are always looking for donations and funding to buy seed,” says the pastor.
Hemp Africa SA is constantly in talks with different hemp product off-takers to familiarise themselves with opportunities on the market, as well as the quality of products that are in demand.
Gary says that hemp’s versatility has turned it into a miracle plant. “It is of high nutrition as human and animal food, and can be used in textiles, building and the manufacturing of products. It has the ability to totally transform the Gouda community once we can get a permit to grow hemp commercially and scale up the project to grow volumes large enough to supply the market.”
But what is the difference between hemp and cannabis grown for the medicinal market? Gary explains that the project grows hemp of different varieties compared with what would be used to produce medical cannabis, as these varieties have lower tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels than medical cannabis.
In South Africa, hemp-based products are not allowed to contain more than 0,2% THC. Gary admits that this is a problem because of South Africa’s warm climatic conditions, which tend to push THC levels higher, but adds that they have found a way to reduce THC levels through heat treatment if it is too high.
The ideal, however, would be for government to change legislation to allow producers to grow hemp at higher THC levels.
Gary adds that cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the non-psychoactive cannabinoids found in hemp and medical cannabis that boosts its medicinal value, but it does not cause a “high” and is not addictive.
A major difference between cannabis produced for hemp and cannabis aimed at the medicinal market is the amount of security needed. Gary points out security fencing and the employment of guards to prevent theft are some of the biggest costs when you want to start a hemp farm.
The security requirements to produce medical cannabis, however, are significantly higher, requiring security cameras and even more security guards per area under production, making it over 10 times more expensive.
Gary says that cannabis grown for the medicinal market is also primarily produced in high-tech greenhouses with climate control and artificial lights to manipulate the production environment and create a consistent product that will conform to market standards.
Hemp, on the other hand, can be produced outside, but prices attained for it are lower than what are achieved in the medicinal market, which is why hemp needs to be produced on a large scale before the operation becomes commercially viable.
Nicole says a quote for a fence to secure the 50ha they intend planting once they have received their second permit came in at R890 000, while that for the irrigation system was R2,5 million. Along with this, they would need 250kg of seed. The seed to plant the first 0,5ha cost them R10 000.
“Personally, I think a farmer would need to plant at least 1 000ha to be commercially viable, so the permit to plant 50ha does not really make business sense. It would also be great to have a local seedbank instead of having to import expensive seed from overseas,” she says.
While it is still early days, Koopman says their biggest challenges so far has been the wind, which can be expected as the project is situated right next to the Gouda Wind Farm.
“The soil is sandy and the wind dries it out, which means that overhead irrigation has to be managed much more carefully to prevent loss. I am experimenting with nets as windbreaks to help prevent this,” says Koopman.
Birds, especially starlings and finches, also ran havoc feeding on the plantings one weekend. Koopman solved this by putting up reflective ribbons and scarecrows in the field.
They have also planted tomatoes all around the hemp field to act as an early indicator of pests and diseases and to serve as feed for baboons.
“The baboons won’t eat the hemp, but they can destroy your land if they get the chance. We hope they will stick to the tomatoes instead of going into the hemp lands,” he says.
There are two planting windows, in October and February, and each planting is able to produce two harvests per year. Hemp should be rotated with another crop after the second harvest to prevent a build-up of soil-borne diseases.
Nicole points out that they have identified a cannabis strain with the ability to grow through the winter. “It grows up to 4m tall and produces sturdy, fibrous stalks.”
At the time of writing, Hemp Africa SA was still in discussions with labour organisation SEESA on how the partnership with the Gouda Farmers’ Association should be structured. The idea is to give the association a 16% share in profits.
Hemp Africa SA was also in negotiation with the Black Farmers’ Association of South Africa with the aim of giving them a 10% share in the project. This would make Hemp Africa SA BEE-compliant at Level 2.
Aletta Stevens, treasurer of the Gouda Farmers’ Association, says: “We imagine it will take about a year before we would be able to share in the profits of the project, but the sooner we receive a permit to plant an additional 50ha, the sooner we can turn a profit.”
Profits will primarily be invested into the upliftment of the community and Gouda Farmers’ Association members. “We started the association eight years ago, with the majority of our members farming with a few livestock on communal land. The production of hemp, however, will have a much greater return per area than livestock,” says Stevens.
She adds that upliftment of the community will help to reduce crime, which is having a very negative impact on farming operations already.
“People are desperate, so we are sitting with very high levels of crime that are also affecting livestock production. They are even trying to steal our hemp, even though we put up clear signs stating that the hemp is not dagga and cannot be smoked.”