As the world nursed their hangovers and slowly returned to work on January 2, 2017, the international cannabis community was dealt a devastating blow: Franco Loja, one of its most passionate and visible advocates, had died.
Only 42 years old, Loja was likened at times to Indiana Jones for his globe-trotting adventures in pursuit of rare cannabis landrace strains found in far-flung locales. For more than two decades, Franco was the long-time business partner and right-hand-man of cannabis king Arjan Roskam, founder of legendary, multi-award winning Green House Seeds out of Amsterdam.
It seemed there was little the dynamic duo couldn’t accomplish: they straddled an international cannabis empire that encompassed not only seeds but coffee shops, dispensaries, clothing, a medical research company, a nutrients company, and an international media outlet.
The latest instalment of their popular Strain Hunters video series was filmed in Colombia as part of their new partnership with VICE Media, and its broadcast on HBO only further catapulted their team into the public eye. Building on this success, the next Strain Hunters film was shot in The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and had just wrapped.
Everything seemed to be flowing just as it should—except now it wasn’t.
At first, Franco’s sudden death was something of a mystery.
When their plane touched down at the airport in the capital city of Kinshasa, DRC, the team had been met by military and government officials and escorted to the presidential lounge.
Buoyed by the enthusiastic participation of the Congolese government in facilitating their film—a first for the team—the Strain Hunters were then introduced to their guides and fixers Christo, Kabo, and Kaza, an ambassador from the local Federation of Congolese Rastafarians (FERACO), which represented the huge Rastafarian community in the Congo, whose members helped organize the expedition.
“It’s hard to describe Congo. Everything is extreme there,” Franco wrote in a blog post after the trip. “Nature is on steroids, the jungle is lush and impenetrable, the sun is hotter and more intense than anywhere else because it’s at the equator, the rain falls so hard that no protection can keep you dry, [and] the people can be the kindest and most hospitable or the most aggressive and hard to deal with, according to the circumstances. And the cannabis… the cannabis of Congo is truly amazing. It’s one of the oldest and purest African landraces.”
The team had swiftly zeroed in on plans to visit three areas of the country: Bacongo, Mbuji Mayi, and the outskirts of Kisangani, with a focus on hunting out the Congolese Black and Congolese Red cannabis strains.
“The expedition took three weeks, and it was the most difficult expedition we had ever made. There were guns involved, knives, machetes, diseases, trips on boats on rivers with crocodiles and hippos. All kinds of stuff,” says Heiko, Green House Seeds’ business and creative director.
While out in the field, their mission had hit a snag when one of their local guides, Kabo, contracted cerebral malaria.
“We were on a river, two days from civilization, and we only had cannabis oil with us,” says Heiko. “We finally got the guy to a little shack, a doctor’s shack or hut. In Congo, malaria is really common. So many people have malaria, so the doctors, when you go to a little doctor’s post in the middle of nowhere, they know exactly what you have and they know exactly what to give you. So, they gave him a couple of pills and we gave him a bunch of cannabis oil and after four days he was back on track and back in the movie.”
Upon their return to Amsterdam, with more than enough samples and seeds from the three areas they visited, the trip was hailed as a success.
But there was more to the story.
After they got back, representatives from the Congolese government contacted the team to discuss the possibility of further partnerships centered on medicinal cannabis projects. Franco, in particular, was excited about the prospect, as he had fallen in love with the region, its culture, and the people who live there.
“Franco, he loves Africa and he really liked Congo, especially with all the Rastafarians. He liked the Congo culture because everyone smokes marijuana. The police smoke marijuana, the army smokes marijuana, and there are almost no hard drugs, so it’s quite peaceful considering all the violence that goes on there,” says Heiko, who has been friends with Franco for 17 years and credits Franco with introducing him to the cannabis industry.
On invitation from the government, Franco decided to return to the DRC in November 2016 with the director of science at Green House Medical to conduct research on the potential therapeutic application of cannabinoids in treating and preventing local diseases.
“We found a lot of information that led us to believe that cannabis can be used as a very good, low-cost, low-tech medicine in the Congo to treat diseases like HIV, malaria, and diarrhea,” says Heiko. Franco made a presentation to the government, in French, about their findings, after which the preliminary sketch of a licensed medical cannabis project in the country began to emerge.
When Franco returned to the DRC again in December 2016 to begin work on a medical facility, the country was in a state of political upheaval. Amidst pressure from opposition politicians and the US government to step down as the end of his second term drew near, President Joseph Kabila continued to cling to power as opposition forces vowed to take to the streets.
Amidst a massive security presence, the internet was suspended, and the country teetered on the brink of “chaos and bloodshed,” wrote Guardian reporter Jason Burke from his post in Kinshasa.
“The president was not in a position to resign, and there was a bunch of tension caused by the opposition and corporations that have all kinds of different interests in the country. So, Franco got caught in the middle of the field where we were setting up the project. Although we had protection from the government, one of the minders wanted to take Franco back to the city and bring him to the hotel, but Franco refused because he was afraid that if he went back to the city—there was a curfew going on in the city, nobody was allowed on the street—he wouldn’t be able to get back to the plantation to finish his work,” says Heiko. “So, Franco slept outside there, and that’s probably where the mosquito bit him.”
It is believed that it was at this point, unbeknownst to anyone, Franco contracted cerebral malaria.
On his journey home, Franco phoned his friends and coworkers from Spain to tell them he had become ill.
One thing that is important to understand about Franco, says Heiko, is that he is “never sick.” Energetic and fit, with endless enthusiasm, he rarely complained and typically performed the work of six men, he added.
Concerned, Arjan insisted that Franco go to the hospital, thinking he may have picked up a parasite, but by then it was Friday, the day before New Year’s Eve, and most specialists were off duty. Not realizing it was an emergency, Franco made an appointment for Monday and texted Arjan to reassure him it was “all good.”
“On Saturday, he went into a coma. He died a couple of days later,” says Heiko.
The diagnosis of cerebral malaria was later confirmed at the hospital in Barcelona.
If Arjan Roskam was known as the King of Cannabis, Franco Loja was informally thought of as its Jesus. Passionate and soulful, with a reverent respect for the plant that infused all aspects of his work, Franco was adored by those he worked with.
In the Congo, it was no different. Insisting they pay the local workers roughly 10 times the average wage, plus perks, his status there had quickly become iconic. At the news of Franco’s death, Rasta musicians dedicated songs to him and the local Rastafarian community made plans to paint a mural of him next to the township’s memorial of Haile Selassie.
Though a man like Franco is simply “irreplaceable,” says Heiko, he has no doubt that the medicinal marijuana project in the Congo will continue, as will the Strain Hunters.
“There is no way that we are going to stop Strain Hunters. Franco died with the Strain Hunters tattoo on his shoulder. That was his life. Franco was a strain hunter for life and he would have kicked my fucking ass if we stopped making Strain Hunters movies,” says Heiko.
“After Franco died, I became a Strain Hunter. Before that, I was just a guy organizing stuff; I was their backbone. But when Franco died, I decided I’m also a strain hunter, actually. It was one of the last things Franco said to me. He wrote me a message, I think three or four days before; I was sick in bed, and he actually had malaria at that time. I told him, ‘I’m so fucking sick, I’ve been in bed for two weeks,’ and he said, ‘Man, you need to toughen up. You need to go on more trips with us. You’re going to become a real strain hunter.’”
A foundation has been set up in Franco’s name to support his children. More information can be found at: