Weed could Save a Nation?
When I first heard about this I froze in awe for a good minute, mainly because this was not one of those YouTube videos explaining how marijuana, if legalized, could push even the economy of the poorest country beyond unseen success. And as I gathered more facts about this new found herbal diamond, I realized it wasn’t so different after all, because “hemp” can push even the economy of the poorest country beyond unseen success. Why do I say this with so much certainty, you could be wondering. That’s if you haven’t heard about hemp before of course, otherwise you would probably have an idea of what I’m talking about. Let’s define a few things for readers who are the former.
Hemp: “Hemp, or industrial hemp, is a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived products. It is one of the fastest growing plants and was one of the first plants to be spun into usable fiber 50,000 years ago.” (“Hemp”, n.d)
Hemp fabric: “Hemp fabric is a sustainable textile made of fibres of a very high-yielding crop in the cannabis sativa plant family. Historically used for industrial purposes, like rope and sails, hemp is known as one of the most versatile and durable natural fibers.” (Bamboohome, 2019)
If you’re Rwandese or a friend of Rwanda, here is why this should interest you. While all the other four members of the EAC are major producers of cotton, a crop widely used in the textile industry, Rwanda is a major importer. Most garments produced globally are made of cotton mostly because it’s cheap. In Rwanda, cotton make up forty percent of raw materials used in textile manufacturing. As a result, locally made textile products are expensive. Why don’t we start growing cotton too then? You might ask. But we’re actually better off not growing it. Some consider Cotton the world’s dirtiest crop, alone it accounts for 25% of the world’s pesticide use. Efforts have been made to reduce the use of sprayed pesticides and insecticides by creating cotton seeds that have insecticides bred into them before plantation. This, however, brings about a new set of problems as scientists fear it could lead to pest immunities, evolving pests to resist any pesticide. Fertilizers used on cotton are also the most detrimental to the environment, when they run off into ground water they can cause oxygen-free dead zones. On top of all this, cotton uses a lot of water. According to the Swedish Environment Institute, you need 20,000 litres of water to grow 1kg of cotton. That’s a lot of water for one t-shirt and a pair of jeans.
Is there an alternative? One more environmentally friendly?
Fortunately yes. For centuries hemp has been used not only for nutrition and medical purposes, but also in making fabrics, ropes, sails, papers, canvas and much more. It’s a hardy plant with thick and fibrous stalks which makes it usable in construction as well. Historians trace its use back to 8000 B.C. long before we invented modern technologies necessary to make clothes. Despite having close to no THC(the chemical substance in marijuana that gives people a psychoactive effect/high) it was criminalized in the 20th century simply for being part of the Cannabis sativa family. This was highly supported by the cotton industry for reasons that are obvious. Today, only 30 countries allow the growing of hemp with China being the biggest exporter despite their strict laws against the use of regular marijuana.
Hemp vs Cotton
Let’s try and map out a few key differences between hemp and cotton.
Earlier, we mentioned that to grow 1kg of cotton one would need about 20,000 litres of water. The same amount of hemp would take about 300-500 litres and being a natural plant, it can get most of this water from rainfall without extra irrigation systems(Stockholm Environment Institute).
With hemp being illegal to grow in most parts of the world, its rarity and purity makes it more expensive than cotton which doesn’t make sense if we consider the resources needed to grow each of these two crops.
Post harvest preparation
Usage of hemp is dated early in human history. It was used by ancient Egyptians to create various things from paper to ropes. The process of preparing fabric from hemp is simple and was known to earlier human civilizations. Unlike cotton that tends to be mixed with other plastics, hemp products are mostly 100% pure.
Cottons thins out and starts falling apart as it ages whereas hemp grows softer and more comfortable as it’s washed overtime. Hemp is also known to keep its original color for the longest time in spite of all the washing. Cotton on the other hand fades out over time.
And the winner is [drumrolls]…
It’s really just common sense at this point. The benefits of this plant are undeniable. It can be used beyond textile, in nutrition and construction. The fabric is more durable and more absorbent which makes it hold color longer. It is environment-friendly and takes fewer resources to grow. It grows everywhere in the world. It is hemp. It is the future. Why wait twenty years to embrace it when we could do it now?
“Hemp plants require less chemical spraying than cotton, soy, corn and wheat. It can help reduce soil degradation by faring better with less water and in drier climates. Paper made from hemp could help reduce deforestation, and requires fewer chemicals for processing than wood pulp. Hemp fabric has antibacterial qualities that can help it fight staph infections in hospitals.
That’s not all. Hemp seeds and oils offer more and better proteins than soy, along with the highest percentage of essential fatty acids and the lowest percentage of saturated fats compared with other oils.” (S. Miller, 2017)
Hemp in Rwanda
Growing cannabis is illegal in Rwanda. I think the same law applies to hemp as well(and here the question is begged: why?) because I’ve never seen a hemp plantation, I don’t even know if there is a word for hemp in Kinyarwanda. But countries with strict laws against marijuana like China have found a way to grow hemp and export derived products. There’s a clear opportunity here, one that could solve some of the biggest issues faced by the Rwandan textile industry and economy at large today.
I want to share a part of this article from the East African by Kabona Esiara, “Relying on imported raw materials such as polyester and cotton stands in Rwanda’s path to revamping its ailing textile and garment making industry.” (K. Esaria, 2016)
This reliance makes locally made garments expensive and uncompetitive on the regional market. Rwanda is looking to grow its textile industry and I strongly believe hemp could change our odds. We would cut down the imports and start making fabrics locally, creating more jobs and revenues from exports; satisfy our local textile market and have enough left for the regional and global markets. We are a country whose front wheels are turned by agriculture and right now we have a rare opportunity to become one of the global leaders in garment manufacturing, and what it takes happens to be agricultural. But the window is small, some countries are removing the ban against growing cannabis and soon enough we will be importing this same hemp we could be planting here.
“Rwanda’s effort to revive the textile industry has been complicated further after the project to commercially produce silk cocoons locally collapsed.
As such, the country imports all the cotton to make yarn to feed its only composite textile factory” (K. Esiara, 2016)
We’ve tried everything else, let’s give hemp a chance.
- Miller, S. (2017). Hemp: how one little plant could boost America’s economy. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/04/hemp-plant-that-could-boost-americas-economy
- What is Hemp Fabric: Benefits of Hemp Fabric | bambu®. (2020). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.bambuhome.com/blogs/bambuliving/what-is-hemp-fabric
- Hemp vs Cotton: Is One Really Better Than The Other?. (2019). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://premiumjane.com/blog/hemp-vs-cotton-why-dont-we-switch/
- Klein, L. (2018). Cotton: The World’s “Dirtiest” Crop. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.organicauthority.com/buzz-news/cotton-the-worlds-dirtiest-crop
- KABONA, E. (2016). Can Rwanda’s textile industry compete in East Africa?. Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/rwanda/Business/Can-Rwanda-textile-industry-compete-in-East-Africa/1433224-3275874-f6bp8uz/index.html
- What’s So Bad About Cotton?. (2010). Retrieved 8 May 2020, from https://business-ethics.com/2010/08/07/1438-the-bad-side-of-cotton/