Behind Botanican’s sun-grown, organic medicinal cannabis and wellness products, is an adventure story like no other…

Laying the groundwork

2017 brought signs from around the world that attitudes and regulations concerning cannabis were beginning to change. At that time, Joy was stepping down from her position as Director of IkamvaYouth, the non-profit organisation she founded 15 years earlier, and Oliver was completing his MBA at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. Together, they began working on a novel idea: to build a company that would leverage the burgeoning medicinal cannabis industry to deliver social and environmental impact, and alleviate poverty in some of Africa’s most under-resourced regions where cannabis has been grown for thousands of years. The vision: to create Africa’s first legal network of local growers and bring fair trade cannabis to global markets.

Planting the seed

In 2018, Joy was welcomed into the African Leadership Initiative (ALI), part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. This afforded the opportunity to further develop the idea of Botanican as a social venture, and leverage a network of influencers and pioneers, all passionate about delivering social impact through their work. It is through ALI that Joy met Shiva , who offered to help Botanican pilot a project in Lesotho – the first country on the continent to legalise medicinal cannabis. Joy and Shiva presented the Botanican business plan to their ALI fellows and successfully secured seed funding which was critical to get the company off the ground. Back in South Africa, Oliver was working on the implementation model with Joy’s father, Gareth, who has over 30 years commercial agricultural experience, and the two of them began making regular trips to Lesotho to conduct research and investigate the possibility of getting a license to grow cannabis for medicine. It was in Lesotho that they met Shiva’s brother-in-law, Tlali Makotoko, who was instrumental in the license application process and became a core part of the team as Botanican’s Stakeholder Relations Director.

Building the farm

Thanks to Shiva and Tlali’s engagements with government ministries and stakeholders, Botanican was finally awarded a licence to cultivate and export medicinal cannabis from Lesotho. The season for outdoor cannabis production in Lesotho begins in September, and since Botanican’s license was only awarded in late October 2019, the team had some catching up to do. Fortunately, by this point, Tlali and Gareth had located an optimal site for the farm and engaged with the local chief and community around the prospect of Botanican setting up an operation in their village. Within 3 months, the Botanican team had managed to build the basic infrastructure of the farm with lots of help from the local community. This included erecting a fence around the site, building a nursery, and preparing the soil.

Thanks to Shiva and Tlali’s engagements with government ministries and stakeholders, Botanican was finally awarded a licence to cultivate and export medicinal cannabis from Lesotho. The season for outdoor cannabis production in Lesotho begins in September, and since Botanican’s license was only awarded in late October 2019, the team had some catching up to do. Fortunately, by this point, Tlali and Gareth had located an optimal site for the farm and engaged with the local chief and community around the prospect of Botanican setting up an operation in their village. Within 3 months, the Botanican team had managed to build the basic infrastructure of the farm with lots of help from the local community. This included erecting a fence around the site, building a nursery, and preparing the soil.

The first seeds were planted late November, and seedlings were transplanted in December. Botanican’s first crop was a trial of imported Spanish seeds, grown outdoors on half a hectare of land. The objective of this trial was to learn and understand the complexities and risks of a low-cost, outdoor model for growing medicinal cannabis in an unknown environment. We ran training sessions with the local community to emphasise the importance of removing all male cannabis plants in the area in order to reduce the risk of pollination of our female cannabis plants on the farm. Gareth also spent time training and up-skilling our employees and other local farmers in best practices when it comes to regenerative farming. Meanwhile, Tlali spent his time engaging with the local community, local government and other stakeholders to ensure that expectations were managed and to share Botanican’s long-term plans.

Growing the plants

Botanican’s first trial crop of 1,800 plants was planted late in the season, as the licence came through only in late October. Despite multiple challenges — from minimal time for soil preparation, to the lack of power for irrigation — the crop produced over 120kg of trimmed cannabis flower, with over 10% CBD content. This material was sent to the lab for processing into oils and tinctures which will soon be available for sale. At the same time, Botanican successfully conducted its first export of hemp leaf tea from Lesotho to South Africa. The coronavirus pandemic added an extra layer of complexity to this stage of Botanican’s development, but the team remained resilient, focussed and nimble as they navigated the constraints of national lockdowns and restrictions on trade. We are busy preparing the 8 hectare site for next season, and look forward to the many adventures that this next stretch will bring.

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