Although it’s currently legal to possess and cultivate cannabis for personal use, the cannabis industry is still wrestling with something of an image problem. People are often unsure which businesses are legally compliant, and also afraid of what they don’t know, so it’s proving difficult to assess the size of the market in South Africa. It’s also difficult to know what women’s needs are in this space – but this challenge is currently being addressed by Joanne Hope, founder of KushKush, a lifestyle cannabis store for women that showcases premium cannabis-related products alongside women’s interest articles. It is the first of its kind in Africa and was conceptualised when Hope realised that there was a gaping hole in the market.
“My first experience purchasing cannabis-related products was somewhat alienating: my boyfriend was looking for a particular vaporiser in a local head shop (a shop that sells pothead paraphernalia) and as I stood waiting for him, I felt really uncomfortable. I didn’t see myself reflected in that environment at all.” It was at that moment that Joanne conceived of a platform that would, over time, help normalise this often stigmatised industry, offering a retail experience and judgement-free space for the higher-end female cannabis consumer – whether a regular recreational smoker, medical user or even just canna-curious to learn, enjoy and be part of a like-minded community.
Hope set out to get funding for her business idea and KushKush was launched in September 2019. “One of the first things we did was run a pre-launch marketing survey to guide our content and product-selection strategy,” says Hope. KushKush surveyed 120 respondents from across South Africa, 90% of whom were female.
“Our survey shows that while women still believe that cannabis carries a negative stigma, they consume it anyway. But they want to do this without fear of judgement – and they also want to be inspired and educated on their journey. Although women largely use cannabis for relaxation, stress management and better sleep, they also want to find out more about how the plant can be used for skin care, mental health and wellness, and enhanced creativity. They want a holistic platform that can help them to navigate this eclectic sub-culture.”
In line with the insights gained through this research, KushKush promotes a wide variety of products, from recipe books, artisinal smokeware and odour-proof bags to intimacy oils, CBD skincare and medical patient journals. It also showcases top brands like Laundry Day and KisKanu, which are stocked at upmarket US department stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. All purchases are housed in discreet packaging – and Hope says they are committed to finding more sustainable packaging solutions.
A fashion and lifestyle entrepreneur who works in publishing but has also launched and managed high-end retail concept stores, Hope has been absolutely scrupulous about developing a “one hundred percent legal” business based upon ethical and sustainable principles (something so dear to her heart that she acquired a postgraduate diploma in sustainable business through the University of Cambridge). “Cannabis has such a rich history of being a sustainable product,” she says. “However, a lot of people think the legal cannabis industry is just about CBD, which isn’t the case. We want to normalise the use of the entire plant.”
Hope is adamant that it’s legal businesses that will transform perceptions around cannabis use. “We sell only legal accessories and hemp-based products on our website; I don’t believe in exploiting grey areas of the law,” she asserts. “As a mom, I don’t want my children to be ashamed of what I do. The legalisation of cannabis was the first (very important) step but now we’re working towards normalisation so that people can access information, join the community and have a premium-retail experience, without the fear of being stigmatised for it.”
The economic benefits of the industry have been widely touted, with the African Cannabis Report speculating that the market for cannabis and related products will be worth around R27bn by 2023 – but whether government will legalise widespread growing (beyond the limited licences currently granted) is anyone’s guess. “Given the high unemployment rate in this country, and demand for quality cannabis, we can’t really afford to let this opportunity pass us by,” says Hope, “particularly for women growers from disadvantaged communities. As someone passionate about social justice, I’m learning more about how this translates in the cannabis industry and I’d like to incorporate this into our business plan going forward. It’s my dream to set up a foundation to empower these women.”
For now, Hope is happy to get people talking about cannabis. “I don’t mind whether they have a positive or negative perception at this point – as long as they have an opinion and are prepared to debate constructively,” she says. “It’s a rich, deep topic and we need to have conversations about it.”
She says that we should have a clearer idea of the legal position vis-à-vis commercialisation by September 2020. “As government builds the framework to legislate the industry, I hope they do so in a considered fashion,” she says. “There is so much to gain and people have been campaigning for this for years. We have the benefit of observing both the success (and challenges) of countries like Canada and Argentina where governments have built a commercial framework for both medical and recreational use. It’s important to get it right so we can all enjoy the benefits of nature’s most versatile flowering plant.”