Malawi Joins Zimbabwe in Switching from Cultivating Tobacco to Cannabis


Malawi has just followed Zimbabwe in reaffirming an intended agricultural switch from tobacco to cannabis. Both countries are doing so for economic survival as the long-term viability of tobacco is giving way to another crop entirely.

There are several interesting aspects to this trend beyond the transition to greener and more sustainable economies post-COVID. It has long been accepted that the cannabis legalization revolution would start to spread like wildfire once there were a couple of regions or countries that took the plunge. This phenomenon can be clearly seen within the domestic United States as more and more states move towards legalizing both medical and recreational use of the drug. While it is a mantra also repeated by those who wish to stymie reform, there is little anyone can do to stop what appears to be an escalating global trend.

Recently, however, as of the last month, this phenomenon is going global and involving whole regions. In Central America, for example, both Honduras and Nicaragua just declared their interest in at least examining cannabis cultivation within a matter of weeks. 

So have Zimbabwe and Malawi.

In Africa, this is far more interesting just because of viability—as well as the momentum South Africa is clearly creating throughout the region, if not the entire continent. By declaring that cannabis is an important tool of economic development, they are clearly upping the stakes. In South Africa, officials have begun planning work on a so-called “cannabis hub” that will focus on everything from medical cultivation to phytoremediation. That is clearly influencing other countries regionally.

Both Malawi and Zimbabwe first announced that they were beginning to move from tobacco to cannabis cultivation during the pandemic. Now, such intent seems to be kicking into higher gear in both countries, as South Africa initiates a global call for participants in their ambitious project.

Like Zimbabwe, Malawi earns the vast majority of its foreign income from tobacco—in the case of the latter, contributing to over 60% of its economy. According to President Lazarus Chakwera, cannabis could be just the “exit strategy” from tobacco that the country needs. 

The country does not border either South Africa or Zimbabwe but sits just north of them and shares a common border with Mozambique (where cannabis is still illegal).

What this Means Regionally and Globally

The fact that cannabis reform is being increasingly touted as a form of development as well as foreign investment in multiple countries in Africa at this point (see also Morocco) is an interesting twist for several reasons beyond the issue of reform itself.

The first is that geopolitically, this strategic focus will attract more Western than Chinese capital. China has been a huge investor in the African continent for much of this century, investing in roads and other major infrastructure desperately needed here. Yet cannabis reform is clearly off the political table in China proper. While the country remains the world’s largest producer of hemp, it remains a crime to even possess hemp seeds on an individual basis. Southern Africa’s new interest in cannabis, for this reason, is unlikely to attract Chinese interest—but it certainly is garnering a lot of attention in the West.

Beyond geopolitical issues, the reality remains that the consumption of cannabis is growing globally—and for industrial, medical, and recreational purposes. Yet, as seen clearly in Europe, the expense of the regulated market is still contributing to high prices that both insurers and consumers don’t want to pay. A strong African cannabis market will play a huge role in bringing down this cost—just as it did for tobacco.

This does not, of course, mean that this new focus is a panacea—in Africa, South or Central America—or even western countries like Greece who have had the same idea.

However, what this new interest in cannabis as a form of both economic development if not environmental remediation seems to signify is that the world is moving towards legalization because of an inevitability that now cannot be held back or stopped. 

It is also a clear sign that the era of Prohibition is crumbling—and not just country by country, but now by regions.


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