By Uri Ludger
The Roots Party of Kenya is a political entity that has taken the country by storm and captured the imagination of Kenyans across the board. Lead by the sensational Prof. George Wajackoyah, alongside his running for the Kenyan presidency Justine Wamae, the party has presented a hugely unconventional roadmap to improving the lives of Kenyans under a new administration, should they get the mandate come election day. Wajackoyah’s infamous 10 point manifesto, that proposes among other things, a 4 -day working week and the suspension of the constitution for revisiting by the people, presents the legalization and commercialization of industrial hemp as its flagship solution to alleviate external debt and salvage the Kenyan economy towards prosperity for all.
Prof. Wajackoyah’s plans have been met with intrigue from the public but mostly criticism from the conservative majority of Kenyan society and law makers who associate cannabis, locally referred to as Bhang or Bhangi will delinquency, crime and destitution. He has been quick to emphasize that his plans for cannabis revolve around industrial and medicinal use. But what exactly is the difference between recreational and industrial cannabis, and can this crop really be the economic saviour of the country?
The difference between Marijuana and Hemp
The rhetoric from the Roots party suggests that hemp and marijuana are two different species of the cannabis plant, but in reality this is not the case. Scientifically, there is no real difference between the two. They’re just two different names for cannabis, a type of flowering plant in the Cannabaceae family.
However, legal precedent does prove a difference. United States Law defines Hemp as cannabis that has a maximum of 0.3% of THC content by dry weight. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol is the cannabinoid or chemical found inside the cannabis plant that’s primarily responsible for the “high” associated with cannabis.
This definition for hemp was first proposed by author Ernest Small in his book “The Species Problem in Cannabis: Science & Semantics.” published in 1979. Small admitted however that the percent rule is a random measure.
Is it economically viable?
Hemp has a lot going for it, and with more scientific research emerging to attest to its medical benefits, as well as historical precedence to attest to its industrial capabilities, the conversation around its legality in Kenya has slowly evolved to strong advocacy, especially in the last decade.
There have been several petitions in parliament. calling for cannabis legalization. In April 2017 and March 2018, Kenyan researchers Gwada Ogot and Simon Mwaura submitted the first petitions to parliament. This was followed by the late Kibra MP Ken Okoth announcing in Parliament that he will introduce the Cannabis Control Act 2018 to decriminalize the use of cannabis and enact regulations on its growth and use. In February 2019 Dagoretti South MP John Kiarie renewed calls for Parliament to craft a law legalizing the industrial and medicinal use of marijuana under the Crops Bill, 2019.
Kenyan academia has also gotten involved in furthering the conversation around adoption of industrial hemp as an economic revenue stream and medicinal alternative. In 2021, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology’s Directorate of Research and Innovation organized a webinar under the topic; “Research, Entrepreneurial, and Industrial Opportunities for Hemp.” The webinar brought together entrepreneurs and researchers and medical experts to discuss what a future with a legalized framework for hemp use would look like in Kenya and East Africa as a whole.
Dr. Kabare Karanja, a lecturer at the School of Business, suggests it is now upon universities such as JKUAT to take the lead on further research into hemp and its exploitation, in order to help guide its legal framework and mainstreaming in the country.
“This is the moment to try the unbeaten paths. This is the moment to pick up the opportunities that hemp farming can provide not just to the country, but the East African region as a whole.”
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabinoid found in the cannabis plant that is said to have numerous health benefits. Although the medical community is yet to come to a consensus, cannabidiol (CBD), derived from the hemp plant, has been shown to have neurological benefits against diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, neuropathic pain, and childhood seizure disorders. Its anti-inflammatory properties are also used to manage the symptoms of chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Dr. Fabio Icon, a medical doctor and researcher based in the United states, who also addressed the JKUAT webinar, says cannabis products have shown promising effects in children with autism, relief from pain, stress relief, seizures, sleep disturbances, cerebral palsy in individuals with fibromyalgia.
Africa Uncensored’s Elijah Kanyi spoke to Dr. Primus Ochieng, an oncologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi and advocate for the legalization of medical marijuana in Kenya. He says that patients under cancer treatment tend to develop anxiety related issues, which medical marijuana seems to help relieve.
“Some patients even stopped taking chemotherapy on the belief that there were testimonies that medical marijuana actually cures cancer.” He further states.
Hemp is a viable raw material for the production of paper. Industrial hemp has long fibres, so it is suitable for fine paper used in magazines, books, and stationery. It also has short fibres suitable for tissues, newspapers, packaging materials, etc. Industrial hemp paper is less prone to deterioration than wood pulp and does not discolour over time.
Hemp is also useful in the textile industry. It is lightweight and has three times the tensile strength of cotton. Garments made from industrial hemp have many great properties. They have excellent antibacterial, antistatic, and heat retention properties. In addition, hemp fabric dries quickly and offers excellent protection against UV rays. The porosity of hemp fabric increases its absorbency.
Oil extracted from hemp seeds can be used in cooking. Hemp seed oil contains high concentrations of polyunsaturated essential fatty acids, which are a substitute for saturated fat, and have a variety of health benefits, including preventing the development of coronary artery disease. Hemp seeds can also be used as food for animals and humans. After extracting the oil, the crushed seeds are a high protein source, making hemp a valuable livestock feed. The crushed seeds can also be ground into flour to make bread, cakes, pasta, and cookies.
Given the favourable climate and soils conditions in Kenya, hemp can be grown three times a year which ensures a more steady raw material supply.
Significant regulatory, infrastructural and market handicaps stand in the way of sustainability growing and exporting hemp enmass.
As evidenced by the strong push back to the Root’s party’s plans, there is a heavy negative connotation attached to Bhangi, and this sentiment is carried by legislators.
“Any path towards the inauguration of a legalized and regulated cannabis industry will present challenges. The laws governing cannabis use in Africa are both opaque and open to interpretation,” said Prohibition Partners managing director Daragh Anglim, who are behind the African Cannabis Report
Speaking to infrastructural limitations, growth of cannabis through regulated farming under greenhouses would be the immediately viable option in Kenya, because cannabis would have to be grown under tight controls for safety reasons, as opposed to open fields. This is what is happening in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with the farms also serving as bonded warehouses.
Apart from the fact that greenhouses are expensive, cannabis must be grown under irrigation to be economically viable.
“The reality is that unless innovative irrigation technologies are introduced, there is likely to be insufficient water to support mass scale operations in the region, particularly in newer cultivation methods such as hydroponics,” the report says.
Hemp is a strong revenue stream for the country that is worth exploring. It has a lot going for it in regards to the health industry and the industrial industry. However it is not the golden bullet that will be the salvation of Kenya as the roots party is purporting it to be. There are regulatory hurdles tied to societal prejudice, and infrastructural hurdles such as consistent water supply for irrigation that have to be overcome in order to maximize the potential of industrial hemp. And even then, a more diversified approached to salvaging the economy must be pursued.
Will industrial hemp be the salvation of Kenya, as the Roots Party suggests? Share your thoughts. You can also find out who you can vote for on My Candidate.