(Photo: Unsplash / Matthew Brodeur)
JSE-listed firms Distell and Remgro have taken a tentative step into the rapidly growing cannabis sector with an investment into cannabis wellness brand Rethink.
The brand was launched by Paarl-based Releaf Pharmaceuticals in 2019.
The two firms, with Remgro investing via its venture capital arm Invenfin, have each purchased a 20% stake in the Rethink brand and range of products to establish a three-way partnership. Their vision is to grow its portfolio of cannabis-based products.
They will join a small group of JSE-listed firms, including Labat Africa and penny stock Nutrition Holdings, which are positioning themselves for opportunities in the cannabis industry.
Globally, liquor companies are watching the burgeoning cannabis industry with interest, and AB InBev, Molson Coors and Constellation Brands are all dipping their toes into the fast-growing industry.
With a worldwide shift towards legalisation of cannabis products, the sector is poised for significant growth. The global market for cannabidiol (CBD) oil and the overall CBD consumer health market could be worth an eye-watering $123-billion in 2027, averaging a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.6% until then, according to data from Research and Markets.
The global cannabis beverage market is narrower in scope, and Fortune Business Insights projects that by 2027 it’ll be worth $8.5-billion. That said, this market was worth just $367.4-million in 2019, meaning it’s growing at a much higher CAGR of 50.9%.
In South Africa, the market for CBD products has exploded in the past two years, with drops, vape products, teas, supplements and rubbing oils available at outlets ranging from health shops to flea markets.
The floodgates were opened in May 2019 when the minister of health legalised preparations containing no more than 20mg per daily dose of CBD. This was a temporary measure, but was ratified in 2020 when the minister published new regulations governing the use of CBD in products.
CBD is a naturally occurring chemical in cannabis plants that has gained recognition as a natural alternative to conventional medicine for a variety of health concerns. Its application is expanding to cover different wellness needs such as the relief of minor symptoms such as pain, inflammation, restlessness and anxiety, made available in different products including daily oils, capsules and teas.
The Department of Trade and Industry and the Agricultural Research Council have estimated that the informal and formal cannabis industry in South Africa is now worth R14-billion. By 2024 this could rise to R28-billion, 70% of the R44-billion estimated African market.
Distell has been watching the evolution of the cannabis industry with interest, says Dr Caroline Snyman, Distell’s head of innovation.
In countries where the legislation is enabling, there has been rapid growth of the industry. Canada is one example where the industry growth has accelerated. The US is another, though its federal model means different rules apply in different states.
“There is a global trend towards more conscious consumption and it will affect our industry,” she says. “We are all becoming more aware of what we put in our bodies, which is a trend that Covid has amplified and accelerated.”
For Releaf Pharmaceuticals, the partnership could not have come at a better time.
“Competition in the sector is growing and the partnership will support our efforts to build and position the brand in the market and to support the extension of the product portfolio.
“Our focus is on products that incorporate CBD oil for its medicinal benefits,” says Releaf CEO Martin Coetzer, a qualified pharmacist.
“We work closely with the regulator — the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority — and we are fully compliant. If we were not you would not find us on retail shelves like Dis-Chem, Clicks and the independent pharmacies.”
Invenfin brings a deep understanding of what it takes to support and build small businesses.
“The business has big growth plans in a sector that is still in the very early stages of development, and we believe the team has the technical skills to achieve those objectives,” says CEO Stuart Gast.
Partnering with corporate muscle is a major advantage for a small company operating in a sector where legislation is still evolving and regulatory compliance is onerous. For some smaller firms, SA’s regulatory burden is too onerous.
“South Africa’s regulatory space around marijuana is evolving and companies and brands are looking to establish a presence and gain market share,” says Gabriel Crouse, an analyst with the Institute of Race Relations. “The ongoing effort to legitimise this industry — within specific guidelines — is a good thing.”
However, as bigger players emerge on to the scene he worries about smaller operators, in particular the smaller growers. “I worry that small growers will get screwed by a corporate supply chain that will squeeze all of the potential life out of them.”
This is a legitimate concern, but it is one that companies like Releaf cannot do much about.
“We would like to support the local industry,” says Coetzer, “but at this point, legislation does not permit it. All our product is imported from Europe.”
Distell too is alive to these concerns.
“Business in South Africa has to think about shared value — it is becoming an investment principle,” says Snyman. “The only way that the cannabis industry can create economic value is if there is broad-based economic participation, and we intend to play our role to ensure that this is the case.”
The proposed Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill was passed by the Cabinet in August, and will be deliberated in Parliament during 2021. While it is an important step in developing enabling legislation, many activists and campaigners believe that it moves against global trends in that it ignores any commercial opportunities for cannabis and does not do enough to accommodate its medicinal uses. DM/BM