Indigenous plant benefits San

28 March 2003

The San community and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have signed a benefit-sharing agreement in the Northern Cape, in terms of which the community will receive between R8-million and R12-million over the next four years for the use of an indigenous plant as a slimming ingredient.

The hoodia – a bitter, spiny botanical plant – has been used for generations by the Kalahari San people to cure ailments such as stomach pains, fatigue and hangovers. San hunters also chewed slices of the knee-high succulent to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips.

The CSIR had isolated the hoodia’s active appetite-suppressing properties into a slimming ingredient, dubbed P57. The hoodia-derived drug has been effectively tested on humans for centuries, and has few of the side-effects typical of slimming products, given that it is derived from a natural source.

The CSIR later sold the development rights to P57 to British firm Phytopharm. Pfizer, the giant pharmaceutical company that developed the impotence drug Viagra, then paid Phytopharm $21-million for the development rights.

San communities across southern Africa will receive 6% of the royalties paid to the CSIR by Phytopharm, as well as milestone payments over the next four years of between R8-million and R12-million. The first milestone payment of R259 000 will be backdated to March 2002.

Pfizer aims to develop the drug into a $1-billion market product. Should the company decide to make the drug from its naturally derived source, the hoodia will be cultivated in South Africa. The slow-growing plant requires a specific micro-climate, and experimental cultivation is already under way in the Northern Cape.

Science and Technology Minister Ben Ngubane hailed the agreement between the San and the CSIR this week as “the right thing”.

“The agreement signed today is simply about doing the right thing. The right thing in terms of benefit sharing with the holders of traditional knowledge, of delivering on the promise that bio-prospecting can create social and economic benefits for a nation, including its poorest communities.”

Ngubane added that his department will release a draft policy on indigenous knowledge in June which will be incorporated into a Bill that will stipulate practical measures to protect indigenous knowledge. reporter