Professor Lawton Lanier Nalley of the University of Arkansas says venturing into the cannabis industry is a half moral and half economic problem, but if left untapped, the country could be losing substantially in tax revenue.

The professor paid a visit to the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC) offices on Wednesday (January 23) en-route to Pretoria where he will be presenting a paper to the Agricultural Research Council on the performance of genetically modified maize varieties.

Last year, the Professor of Agricultural Economics and Agri-business at the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food & Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas in the United States gave a public lecture on ‘Assessing the Economic Impact of Global GMO Adoption’ at the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) Luyengo campus, courtesy of ESEPARC and UNESWA Research Centre.

ESEPARC and the University of Arkansas have a working relationship that allows the institutions to collaborate in various initiatives which include graduate student internships, public lecture series, and research.

Professor Nalley, who has vast experience in analysing big data, met with the ESEPARC research team, where the researchers had an opportunity to deliberate on their ongoing and planned research studies. The key points of interest discussed included:

Which countries can Eswatini learn from to improve economic performance?

The Prof gave an example of Mexico which is located right next to the world giant economy, the USA. “Mexico is small and so is Eswatini which is located next to Africa’s giant economy, South Africa,” the Prof said, further explaining that it is a matter of finding niche markets and producing goods and services that are advantageous to the small economy and not so cost effective for the big economy.

He gave an example of indigenous chickens, which he said were experiencing growing demand because of the fast-growing organic food movement there. “Farmers in the USA would much rather produce the conventional chickens whereas farmers in Mexico are able to take advantage of this niche market and supply huge quantities of indigenous chickens to the USA,” he pointed out.

The message relayed by the Prof is that being located next to an economic giant has both its disadvantages and advantages, it is up to the small economy to find the unique markets to tap into and supply products to the huge economy. If a small country like Eswatini is able to supply a small portion of South Africa’s giant markets, small pieces of the big pie will turn out to be a lot of money and opportunity for growth for the Eswatini economy.

Given your vast experience in plant breeding and the grains for food security (wheat, maize, rice, and soybeans), what are the key opportunities for Eswatini to improve its grain sector?

The Prof does not presume to know everything, hence he advised that Emaswati probably know better what is good for them and should always focus on what the country knows it is good for. On the issue of improving the grain sector in Eswatini, Prof Nalley emphasised the importance of engaging in research and development (R&D) to improve the stock of grain varieties that are uniquely suitable for Eswatini’s specific climate.

He cautioned that R&D is a slow and tedious process that needs serious commitment at the national level because most of the dividends that come with R&D accrue down the line many years later. He gave an example that plant breeders can work on a variety of a crop for many years with benefits materialising after 12 years following the inception of the breeding programme.

“Here, improving Eswatini’s grain sector is about convincing the nation – people – about the long-term investment decisions that need to be made,” he added.

Given your vast experience working in controversial sub-sectors of the agriculture/food industry, that is, genetically modified food; what lessons can be applied to explore the cannabis and industrial hemp industry in Eswatini?

The Prof coined the issue of venturing into cannabis as a half moral and half economic problem. He said in the United States, seven (7) out of the 50 States have legalised recreational and/or medicinal marijuana. He said the problem is that people are usually misinformed about a lot of the economic, social, and environmental issues, such as GMOs, the effects/impacts of marijuana, and the fact that people have their moral principles/religious ideologies add more complexity to the issue.

“For example, from a moral point of view, cannabis is much more milder compared to other hard drugs like cocaine, but of course we have no idea if cannabis is safe, just like we need 50 more years of research to figure out whether GMOs are safe or not,” he noted. “But from an economic point of view, cannabis is a huge economic opportunity, which if left untapped, may result in the government letting go of lots of tax money to develop the economy.”

Prof Nalley said Eswatini has to figure out what makes sense for itself and be clear about the moral and economic arguments for and against exploring what could be a completely new sector of the economy. He said rather than ignoring the issue, it is important to engage in robust deliberations on the cost and benefits of tapping into recreational and/or medicinal marijuana, and industrial hemp.

What is your take on technical and vocational education and training (TVET), and the negative perceptions surrounding TVET skills?

Prof Nalley noted that TVET is also stigmatised in the United States and yet it has huge benefits, as confirmed by a study conducted by ESEPARC. Prof made an example of a plumber who claims a huge amount of money after fixing water pipes for only few hours, and yet people still prefer to enrol in universities and thereafter spend a lot of time unemployed after graduating.

Probed further on how to change the negative perceptions on TVET, Prof Nalley shared that he has no clue but Emaswati clearly have a big role in changing the nation’s mind-sets on technical and vocational skills which can even be exported to the US to generate more income and create wealth for Emaswati.

Meanwhile, ESEPARC outgoing Executive Director, Dr Thula Sizwe Dlamini mentioned that it has always been the desire of the Board to make ESEPARC a home away from home for intellectuals from around the world. He mentioned that it excites management and the Board to have Prof Nalley pay a courtesy visit to the Centre to discuss on-going research and other research opportunities with the ESEPARC research team.

Dr Dlamini mentioned that in 2018, ESEPARC engaged two University of Arkansas graduate students to do research on climate change and the sugar industry and the socioeconomic impacts of public investment into pro-poor infrastructure. The Executive Director mentioned that Prof Nalley would visit Eswatini again in May this year to discuss the findings of these studies with Emaswati.

Adding, Dr Dlamini thanked the professor by informing him that ESEPARC will continue to host students from the University of Arkansas to do unpaid internships and participate in research in Eswatini, and noted that such an arrangement improves the international flair of the Centre.