There are many different formal and informal names for the cannabis plant, but ‘hemp‘ actually refers to the industrial variety producing internationally- traded products that are being consumed right now around the world
One plant making food, housing materials, clothing and medicine…
In Africa, the word ‘hemp’ is unfortunately linked to the marijuana variety of Cannabis known in Malawi as ‘indian hemp‘. However, this is not actually correct and traditional definitions prove difficult to reset in people’s minds. Hemp in Malawi is not equated with plant based plastics, nutritious food or military grade fabric but Invegrow has been trying to set this right but using the correct terminology to describe industrial hemp. We are not afraid to use the word hemp!
Cannabis is believed to be one of the oldest cultivated crops and was widely used in industrial and medical fields. Industrial products such as sails, ropes and textiles for uniforms were made from tall, sturdy cannabis plants and hemp’s strength and dura
bility was revered worldwide. Depending on the final product, the cannabis plant was bred with certain characteristics leading to the type of cannabis we know as hemp.
Other plants were recognized for being psychoactive and were bred selectively for medial and religious purposes. This lead to unique varieties of cannabis known now as marijuana. The separation of the cannabis gene pool led to two species (or subspecies) known as Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa.
Cannabis plants contain unique compounds called cannabinoids. There are around 85 in the plant but the most famous is Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) known now to cause the ‘high’ you feel when smoking the marijuana variety (or chamba). It is like the alcohol in beer.
Industrial hemp vs marijuana = thobwa vs chibuku
Industrial hemp, however, contains negligible THC (between 0.3-1%) and there is no effect when smoked. This is the major difference between the two varieties and can easily be tested! Since industrial hemp is grown in around 40 countries (and growing), each one sets their THC limits. Europe for example has around 35 approved varieties of industrial hemp seed that is suitable mainly for the Northern hemisphere and some of these have been trialled in Malawi.
Marijuana can produce over 10% THC and ‘Malawi gold’, as it is know, is known to contain even higher levels of THC. No research has been done as to whether low- THC hemp exists in Malawi and is something Invegrow would like to get involved in.
Another important cannabinoid, Cannabidiol (CBD), is proving to help with epilepsy and seizures, and pharma-giants like GW Pharmaceuticals are cultivating cannabinoids for their own drug ranges. Hemp produces more CBD than THC and it is non-psychoactive, and in fact research has shown that CBD could inhibit the psychoactive effects of THC.
Hemp and marijuana are grown for different uses, and therefore require different growing conditions. One is agriculture and the other is horticulture. Medical cannabis has been selectively bred over generations, and its characteristics are optimized in its cultivation environment to produce female flowering plants that yield budding flowers at the flowering stage of their life cycle (Sutton).
Hemp plants are “primarily male, without representing flowering buds at any stage in their life cycle.” Instead, centuries of selective breeding have resulted in “relatively low concentrations of THC, and tall, fast growing plants optimized for higher stalk harvests.”
Achieving maximum THC levels in marijuana is tricky and requires close attention to grow-room conditions. Marijuana growers usually aim to maintain stable light, temperature, humidity, CO2 and oxygen levels, among other things.
On the other hand, hemp is usually grown outdoors to maximize its size and yield and less attention is paid to individual plants.
Europe grew around 20,000ha of industrial hemp in 2016, with China being the largest producer of fibre and Canada of grain for food. Australia also grows and process hemp products and exports worldwide. In the USA for example, it is legal to import hemp goods into most countries and the USA imports around $500 million worth of hemp product annually (Hemp Industry Association).
Marijuana, on the other hand, has been the subject of more emotive debate. Since the USA opened its doors in early 2014 to medical marijuana, it has precipitated a worldwide movement to legalise ‘chamba’ for medical and recreational purposes. This has now been achieved in most US states and the regulations are being drawn up. Some states are generating considerable income from the regulated sale of marijuana over the counter. Other countries such as Israel, Canada and Uruguay are also reworking their laws to legalise marijuana. However, since is still considered a narcotic it is up to individual governments to assess viability in their own countries.
Research & development
Strict regulations on hemp and marijuana makes research difficult but there is still much happening on this front around the world
For example, the Nova Institute in Germany is looking into modern applications of hemp fibre in car parts, and researchers at the University of Alberta created a supercapacitor using raw hemp material to manufacture cheaper fast charging batteries.
GW pharmaceutical in the United kingdom is doing research into CBD and epilepsy, and the USA and Canada are making real headway in understanding how medical marijuana assists in a wide array of disorders, including cancer, HIV/ AIDS, depression, motorneurone diseases, and epilepsy (to name but a few). Researchers and companies are looking into making renewable plastics from hemp fibre.
However, as legalization is spreading across the world, it is our hope that this old cash crop makes a comeback, and with a whole new set of possibilities thanks to developing technology. Africa stands to benefit from this crop that can produce hundreds of different products, as long as there is political will.