South Africa has a three-to-five-year window to enter and establish a strong position in the European medical cannabis market, before it is overtaken by hungriest, faster competitors from Latin America, parts of Asia, and other lower-cost producers.
The medical cannabis market is in its infancy in Europe, but this is rapidly changing as countries adjust their legislation to include this cutting-edge product in their medical toolkit.
Of current sales of 400 million euros, the European cannabis market is expected to be worth 2.7 billion euros in 2024, according to research from Prohibition Partners, a market intelligence firm specializing in the cannabis market.
“Initially, patients could only access the products in Italy and the Netherlands, but this is rapidly changing,” says Stephen Murphy, co-founder and CEO of Prohibition Partners. He says Germany is now Europe’s largest and most developed market, with a wide variety of products sold. Consumer appetite for the products is growing rapidly – with 200,000 patients in Germany accessing medicinal cannabis products in 2021, up from 20,000 patients the previous year. France, Poland, and all of Eastern Europe are also set to start operating soon, providing cannabis growers in South Africa with a potentially huge market, says Murphy.
Once European countries develop frameworks to manage the regulatory and safety aspects of their medical cannabis markets, research into the plant’s medicinal benefits is accelerating.
“Researchers have a much better understanding of what is in the plant,” he says. While it is already accepted that cannabis-containing medications may be useful in treating some rare forms of epilepsy, as well as nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy for cancer and chronic pain and symptoms of multiple sclerosis, research on cannabis or cannabis for other conditions is also underway. “We are not even on the growth curve to understand the opportunities. Depending on how the plant is raised, it can vary from an appetite suppressant to a stimulant. Over 75 cases are researched…”
The study was conducted and funded by EU-SA Partners for Growth Project, which aims to maximize trade and investment between Europe and South Australia.
However, South Africa has been slow to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the cannabis industry in general, and the medical cannabis industry in particular.
Regulatory and political uncertainty, slow licensing, market access, purchase agreements, and lack of information are seen as hindering South Africa’s emergence as a global player in cannabis use. However, the intentions are good, and in his State of the Nation address in February, President Cyril Ramaphosa identified the sector as a key part of South Africa’s post-Covid economy. He promised that the government would review the policy, regulatory framework and fast-track regulations for the cannabis industry in South Australia.
However, some of the companies based in Lesotho are taking advantage of the favorable regulatory environment there and are going further when it comes to positioning themselves in the European market.
MG Health, located near Marakabei in the Lesotho highlands, is one of those. It is the first medicinal cannabis producer on the continent to meet the European Union (EU) Good Manufacturing Practice Guidelines, which govern the safety and consistency of import of pharmaceutical goods into the European Union.
“This is the gold standard for drug certification in Europe and will put local companies first when it comes to exporting to Europe,” Murphy says.
As a result, MG Health, which was already supplying Germany, expanded into other European markets.
Kasief Isaacs, senior investment manager at Mergence Investment Managers, which has two cannabis investments in Lesotho, recognizes that there is a shrinking time window to build a credible export industry. “More and more countries are seeing the medicinal potential of cannabis and positioning themselves to be part of the supply chain,” he says. He also recognizes that the industry is rapidly evolving and that parts of this supply chain will become a commodity. Only companies that have had the time and foresight to develop high-value products and extracts, he says, will succeed. “Our long-term plan is to move to oils, extracts, and blends — the flower will be commodified.”
Lesotho has licensed 150 medical cannabis growers, but only 20 are active, and of these, only MG supplies EU directives. Another one is proceeding to the final stage of approval, five to six more may be up in 12 months and the rest are in early stage, but they may have access to enough committed capital to get there, he said.
The SA is trying to play catch-up and so far the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority has issued 55 licenses to grow medical cannabis. This is progress, but the process is expensive and fraught with uncertainty, says Erica Joubert, head of export promotion at the Western Cape Wesgrou Trade Organization.
Other legislation is making its way through the government. The draft National Cannabis Master Plan was published last August, and the first steps towards implementing the plan have been taken, with important amendments proposed to the Special Purpose Cannabis Bill submitted to Parliament in March of this year.
The original bill criminalized the cannabis trade, thus impeding the progress of the cannabis master plan. The amendments refine this approach, and seek to license “commercial activities” in connection with recreational cannabis.
It’s a start. The industry cannot grow without an enabling legal framework.
“The industry needs innovation around product development, innovation around technology, innovation for patient access, expertise, data, and traceability. SA, with very strong traditions in the sector and pharmaceutical and healthcare producers, has [an] An opportunity to take the lead in the industry. This will add another streak to the SA bracket,” says Murphy.