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August 07, 2008

Commercialization of hoodia cultivation takes off in Namibia

Since the inception of the Hoodia Growers’ Association of Namibia (HOGRAN) on March 28, 2006, the commercial growing and harvesting of the hoodia gordinii plant is taking off at a blistering speed.

“We acted quickly to establish the organisation and get people involved because we have heard rumours that Unilever is trying to monopolise the whole thing,” said Charlie Hartung, founding member of HOGRAN and private grower of hoodia in Mariental.

Unilever, the multinational pharmaceutical company, is now operating on the fringes of the Orange River where it is growing hoodia on a 100 hectare-sized piece of land.

Rumours abound, said Hartung, that Unilever wants to take out a patent to dry the hoodia plant. “My reasoning is that you cannot take out a patent on something that everybody does; we can all dry the hoodia plant; there is nothing special about it. It would be like cutting open a cucumber and laying it out to dry,” argued Hartung.

Although this rumour could not be verified, Victoria Haraseb, Education Assistant of WIMSA [Working Group of Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa] intricately involved in intellectual property issues at WIMSA, said they had instructed their lawyer based in South Africa, to get into contact with Unilever, after more rumours went around that Unilever intends to register a patent on properties in the hoodia plant that can purportedly be used for the treatment of diabetics.

“Before patenting, I think discussions should be held with the primary owners of the hoodia; there is no consideration for other people’s rights,” said Haraseb.

The principal conservation scientist with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), Magdalena ya Kasita, said the ministry has not been informed of Unilever’s intention to patent any more aspects of the processing of the hoodia plant.

Unilever earlier bought the patent rights from PhytoPharm to extract P57 –the active ingredient in the hoodia gordonii plant known for its appetite depressing element, and hence its slimming effect much sought after in the world today – from the hoodia plant for US$200 million, and has since manufactured various hoodia products.

Hartung said HOGRAN would move to make an urgent appeal to Government not to give anyone patented rights on indigenous plants, as it would kill small-scale local initiatives. And it would certainly make a serious dent in the work HOGRAN has set itself out to do, he said.

HOGRAN was formed in the Karas and Hardap regions to promote the commercialisation of the hoodia gordinii plant, to address poverty and at the same time create opportunities for people to become entrepreneurs. “And when the time is ripe, we should start thinking of value addition, like drying of the hoodia plant, pulverisation, encapsulation and so on,” said Hartung.

Outside the kitchen window rows and rows of hoodia plants at varying stages of development stand erect under shading nets. “These plants are now in hibernation, hence their grayish look. They do not get any water now, but when it gets warmer by the middle or end of next month, I will start watering them,” said Hartung.

The hoodia plant – hoodia gordonii in southern Namibia, South Africa and south western parts of Botswana, and hoodia currori in northern Namibia – is an indigenous plant to southern Africa and has been used by the San since “time immemorial” and later by the Nama people for its myriad of medicinal properties.

“It seems this plant has great medicinal value: it can bring down blood pressure, it clears your veins, it fights bad cholesterol, prevents cardio-diseases, increases blood circulation, and can be used by diabetics to bring down the sugar content of their blood,” said Hartung.

Although the medicinal value of the hoodia plant was known to the San and later the Nama, its popularity only took off in the 1990s when research found P57 – the appetite depressant – in the plant. With an estimated 700 million to 800 million cases of obesity in mostly the developed world, there was an instant interest in the plant.

According to Hartung, planting of hoodia took off in drier areas of America, but it was found that the P57 was either absent or not of the standard expected in these plants. By the 2000s, Unilever returned to southern Africa where it encouraged commercial planting of hoodia primarily in South Africa.

“Namibia was in the lucky position that its wild stock were more or less still intact, while South Africa’s stocks were practically depleted,” commented Hartung. He added, however, that up to 80 percent of Namibia’s wild stock in communal areas has been pillaged and sold off due to the dire need for money in poverty-stricken areas. “But now there is no threat of extinction, and we should consider putting back hoodia plants into the veldt because it is also medicine for all plant eating animals,” he said.

In 2005, Unilever placed an advertisement in local newspapers where it asked for local partners in the commercial production of hoodia in Namibia.

Anticipating adverse inroads such international interest could make on indigenous plants and involvement of local players, the establishment of HOGRAN was conceived to ensure local players’ involvement and control over the production and income generation capacity of the plant.

Since then, HOGRAN, in conjunction with the Namibia National Farmers Union (NNFU), the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU), the National Planning Commission, the Namibia Development Trust, RISE Namibia, the Shack Dwellers Association and the Southern Namibian Farmers’ Union, received N$9.4 million (US$1.3 million) to promote the commercialisation of the hoodia plant.

HOGRAN so far has 160 members consisting of commercial farmers, private growers, and affiliate members. Once a commercial arm of HOGRAN has been established, said Hartung, it was decided that 25 percent of its income should go towards communal farmers to develop their capacities to grow, harvest and sell hoodia products. Commercial farmers, he said, would benefit through training and marketing of their products.

A secretariat – with a project coordinator, two field workers for Hardap and Karas respectively, a project administrator and financial administrator – has been established, and works as the Hoodia Commercialisation and Poverty Reduction Project. The aim of this project is to stimulate economic growth through the commercialisation of hoodia, by establishing hoodia-based small and medium enterprises, create new employment opportunities and provide alternative income for rural communities.

This it envisages to do through the development of institutional capacity; to support a farmers’ programme providing training and skills development in best agricultural practices for hoodia production, and compile growers’ starter packs consisting of seeds, plants, and so on; and research in areas such as the legal framework including legislation, regulations, protocols and patent rights, permits and licensing. Further research is also to be done on local, regional and international market supply and demand trends.

The secretariat has so far identified 300 marginalised beneficiaries [unemployed, youth and elderly people] that are being provided with two-year-old plants bought from commercial farmers, fencing and other tools required, said Tessa Klukowska of the project’s secretariat.

Tenders have also gone out for the establishment of two nurseries to generate hoodia seeds.
The project funding is for the period ending October 2009, after which HOGRAN will take over the project.
The financial potential of growing hoodia is immense, said Hartung. “People often want to know where the markets are. The markets are there; what we do not have enough of is supply to these markets.”

According to him, a conservative estimated income from 300 000 seeds can be N$120 000 for A-class seeds if sold at 50 cents per seed; and N$96 000 for B-class seed if sold at 40 cents per seed, after a yield of 100 mother plants over a period of three years.

But how do the San benefit from these sales?

WIMSA has signed a benefit-sharing agreement with South African-based Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) claiming N$24 per kilogramme of hoodia sold through the Southern African Hoodia Growers’ Association, despite resistance from growers, particularly in South Africa.

Haraseb said it becomes necessary for the body to be legislated to make royalties and other benefit-sharing payouts to be monitored. So far, she said N$280 000 has been paid out to the Hoodia Trust, through which three San councils in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana have received N$35 000 each. Last year, the Namibian San council, through WIMSA, received N$60 000.

She added that the San should, however, not only benefit through benefit sharing, but also through training to become active members in the commercialisation process of the hoodia plant, and hence direct beneficiaries of the hoodia plant.

Hartung was also of the opinion that the San should become directly involved in the commercialisation process. “The project, I believe, is one way of getting people on their feet within a period of three years; to become self-sufficient where they can support themselves,” he said.

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