Darian Caleb Jacobsen, a teacher at Cheeba Cannabis Academy with a cannabis plant inside a specialised grow room at the Cheeba Cannabis Academy in Johannesburg
Image: Ihsaan Haffejee / AFP
In a leafy suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, green leaves adorn the walls of a school where students learn how to grow cannabis—but smoking pot is banned.
The teaching aims to dispel stigma around marijuana, says Linda Siboto, the co-founder of the institution, which styles itself as Africa's first cannabis academy.
"It's important for us to professionalise this industry and basically showcase that we're not stoners with red eyes all the time talking about how great the weed is," he says.
The academy is hoping to ride a global re-think of cannabis regulations.
From Spain to California, a growing number of governments are allowing people to light up.
In Africa, tiny Lesotho green-lighted cultivation of medicinal cannabis in 2017, paving the way for others like Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa, which aspires to become a marijuana powerhouse.
President Cyril Ramaphosa last year said cannabis has "huge potential" to draw investments and "create more than 130,000 new jobs", a big pull in a country with an ailing economy and massive unemployment.
Named after a slang word for weed, the Cheeba Cannabis Academy is preparing students to partake in the expected bonanza.
"The industry, in order to develop, is going to need training and education," says Siboto, 42.
School days start with a yoga session, under a holistic approach, with subject matters including business, nutrition and futurism.
On a Thursday morning, about a dozen students sit at wooden desks before donning white coats to enter a laboratory at the back of the classroom.
There Darian Jacobsen, a passionate cultivation teacher, showcases different pruning techniques before moving onto some common-sense tips that learners note down on their pads.
"She's not dead, sick or dying, she's just a little thirsty," Jacobsen, 28, says of a droopy-looking plant he takes out of an indoor grow tent.
The academy started offering online classes in 2020 before moving to its current premises last year. The flagship course lasts 12 weeks and costs around $1,600.
The school has so far trained about 600 people and is hoping to get a leg-up from the government, which has announced grand but so far sketchy plans for cannabis.
South Africa's top court decriminalised private and personal use of cannabis in a 2018 landmark ruling.
It tasked parliament with drawing up legislation but that is overdue, creating much "confusion" over exactly what is allowed, says Simon Howell, a University of Cape Town researcher.
Selling the stuff outside the medical realm remains a crime.
Cannabis clubs, a system where members pay to have their plants looked after, have sprung up across the country, but the legality of the concept is currently being tested in court.
Meanwhile the government has handed out hundreds of licences to grow hemp and medical cannabis.
But even here the industry is struggling to take off, analysts say.
In theory, South Africa has all it takes to become a major exporter.
Cannabis cultivation is a more than a century old tradition in parts of the country.
Costs are lower than in some competitors, like Canada, for manpower is relatively cheap, the weather is mild and the local currency comparatively weak.
"We have incredible sun here and lots of land, legacy growers and experience," says Cheeba's co-founder Trenton Birch.
Also read: 'The power of cannabis': Japan embraces CBD despite drug taboo
Yet, critics say the licence system shuts out small farmers who have been growing cannabis illegally for decades, with starting costs hovering around a million dollars.
Many big growers are also having a hard time, says pharmaceutical expert and cannabis entrepreneur, Johann Slabber.
They produce more than enough to cover local needs but can't export to Europe—the main target market—because their standards are too low and raising them often entails starting over from scratch, he says.
Out of almost 100 licensed farmers of medical cannabis, only five are currently exporting "on bulk scale" he says.
The government has promised to streamline regulations to help the market to thrive.
Funding a manufacturing facility that buys yield from farmers, processes it up to European standards and exports it directly, could also work, says Slabber.
Still, despite the challenges, many are betting on the industry to succeed.
The global cannabis market is expected to balloon to up to $272 billion in 2028, according to various estimates.
South Africa's slice is forecast to jump to $22 million in 2026, from $5 million in 2021, according to market research agency Insight Survey.
Expecting an increase in demand for specialised workers, other education providers have started operating alongside Cheeba.