Bricks and biofuels: Cannabis can grow South Africa

We are finally gathering momentum towards a regulated cannabis industry in South Africa. But much of the narrative tunnel-visions on the so-called recreational or medicinal markets. Decades of prohibition has had us forget that, fundamentally, cannabis is an agricultural commodity, which can provide us with not only things like protein- and omega-rich nutrition for humans and excellent fodder for animals, but also multi-use fibre, biomass and other by-products. 

Hemp is cannabis — one and the same. Hemp simply refers to the “industrial” uses of cannabis, which is often selectively bred towards desired attributes. 

Two promising uses of hemp are the manufacturing of “green” biofuels and the building of low-cost and sustainable housing. 

Particularly relevant at a time when the war in Europe is causing oil prices to escalate is energy independence. There is also the need to keep things between the lines, so as not to make Earth any hotter. We must discuss fuelling and building our economic recovery, restoring the dignity of South Africans and creating jobs with things that don’t wreck our environment and leave future generations in a mess. 

Hemp grows happily and cost-effectively in soils unsuitable for nutritional crops — so it does not compromise food security — and can even suck up heavy metals and contaminants from places such as mine dumps. Great, so long as humans and animals don’t then go on to consume it. From the resulting sugar- and oil-rich biomass, one can then use clever bio-reactive and fermentation wizardry to turn that hemp into bioethanol and biodiesel — together biofuel — which, if produced mindfully, can be carbon-neutral overall. This is because the carbon in the hemp was pulled out of the atmosphere when the plant grew, instead of — as with petroleum- and coal-based products — being mined from underground, having been buried there millions of years ago. 

With vast swathes of otherwise non-arable and underused land in our country, but with the benefit of the African sun, rain and climate, we are able, if some clever and entrepreneurial people are permitted to get on with it, to grow ourselves into a degree of energy autonomy that doesn’t see us still accused of being one of the big polluters. Imagine driving in a car or flying in a plane, large parts of which are fabricated from hemp by-products, fuelled by hemp itself … Look at you, you grinning hippie!

That takes me to construction and to what has come to be termed hempcrete. Hemp fibre is a wonderous thing, not only good for weaving colourful ponchos for unwashed folks at music festivals – although I must say that I, a closet hippie, have a court-worthy jacket and tie, beautifully tailored from high-quality hemp fabric. Its by-product, hurd, can also be used as a non-load-bearing, fire-retardant and insulating building material, which gets harder with time. The hurd is mixed with a specific grade of lime powder, water and some other minor additives and is then compressed into moulds that will either produce filler walls or multi-use bricks. Allowing that mixture to activate and set with time (because of a chemical reaction between carbon and lime) one is left with calcium carbonate — limestone — which has locked-in atmospheric carbon.

What does this mean for South Africa? Well, with a few tweaks to our construction know-how, there is no good reason not to be growing the likes of RDP housing right out of the ground. For that matter, we could even, as possibly funded by government and big business, supply the hurd/agro-processing infrastructure and lime to people living in rural areas, provide training and funding, and allow them to build homes for themselves, using cannabis instead of scavenged nails, planks and corrugated iron. Housing, skills, opportunities, jobs and tax revenue all created from papegaaislaai. Hopelessly optimistic? Perhaps, but I’m trying to get a national discussion going, and a little bit of optimism has never hurt anyone.  

Vitally, there are already tens of thousands of tonnes of cannabis being grown in poor, rural regions of South Africa. That weed used to supply the black market, which has, at least for these people, largely dried up as a source of income — being an unintended consequence of the 2018 constitutional court judgment that allows connoisseurs and self-medicators to cultivate and consume in private. To the extent that this cannabis does not and might never meet government standards for human consumption there is little good reason that all of this cannabis cannot be off-taken and paid for by industry hubs/cooperatives, thereby fuelling our larger economy while boosting local, rural economies.

I must conclude by saying that I’m a lawyer, not an expert on hemp biofuels and construction, nor an economist, agronomist or bio-technologist. But I propose to start this discussion openly and so hope that whatever contradictions or criticisms may be forthcoming are accompanied by constructive guidance and solutions, as would serve to move our country onwards and upwards out of the slump that really predated, but was aggravated by, Covid-19.

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Paul Michael Keichel
Paul-Michael Keichel is an attorney with environmental law firm Cullinan & Associates where he focuses on the legal aspects of cannabis, psilocybin and related natural medicines.

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