Africa's Bushmen May Get Rich From Diet-Drug Secret
Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic
April 16, 2003
The wheel of
fortune could be turning for southern Africa's San, or Bushmen.
Sidelined over decades because of their dwindling numbers and ancient way of
life, the San have been reduced to a few struggling communities living on the
fringes of society. But now their traditional knowledge may be their salvation
they stand to make a lot of money—and gain much respect—from the international
marketing of an appetite-suppressant they have been using for thousands of
The drug named P57 is based on a substance scientists found in the desert
plant Hoodia gordinii. The San call the cactus !khoba and have
been chewing on it for thousands of years to stave off hunger and thirst during
long hunting trips in their parched Kalahari desert home.
A deal has been signed between the South African San Council and the
country's Scientific and Industrial Research Council (CSIR), which identified
the appetite-suppressing ingredient in Hoodia during research into
indigenous plants in 1996. At a small ceremony recently held in the Kalahari
desert near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which South Africa shares with
Botswana, the San and the CSIR made a deal to share royalties earned by
commercial sale of the San's ancient knowledge of the plant.
The overly nourished millions of people in the developed world spend billions
of dollars a year on preparations and remedies to combat obesity. Effective new
products that help shed weight are always in high demand.
Children danced and sang as members of the San community watched their
leaders sign the deal. The chairman of the San Council, Petrus Vaalbooi, said,
We are thankful that the traditional knowledge of our forefathers is
acknowledged by this important agreement, and that we are making it known to the
world. As San leaders we are determined to protect all aspects of our heritage."
The landmark deal signed by the San could blaze the trail for indigenous
communities elsewhere in the world. Many traditional cultures have ancient
knowledge of the healing powers of plants—intellectual property that is often
not recognized, let alone protected for commercial gain.
Defining Moment for the San
For the San the agreement could be a defining moment as it could mark a turn
for the better in ways other than a financial windfall.
In terms of the deal, the CSIR will pay the San 8 percent of milestone
payments made by its licensee, UK-based Phytopharm, during the drug's clinical
development over the next few years. This could come to more than a million
The biggest revenue stream could come from 6 percent royalties the San would
receive if and when the drug is marketed by the international drug giant Pfizer,
which has in turn been licensed by Phytopharm. Given the international demand
for obesity drugs, the market for P57 could run to billions of dollars.
The South African San Council was stung into action by a reported remark by a
Pfizer representative to the effect that the San had used the Hoodia but
that they were extinct. This was in answer to questions by journalists whether
the San could expect compensation for their contribution to the prospective
South African human rights lawyer Roger Chennels, who took up the San's case,
said they immediately challenged the CSIR. " The negotiations were tough, but the
San had the moral high ground. Once their moral ownership of the intellectual
property rights was recognized, and once they wisely agreed to enter into a
partnership, the dealings became reasonable," Chennels said.
Though the South African San Council was set up in 2001 to represent the
country's Khomani, !Xun, and Khwe tribes, a trust has been set up (please see
side bar) that will share the money with other San groups in neighboring
Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Angola. This is in recognition of the fact that
indigenous knowledge, as with the Hoodia plant, is mostly shared by
tribes across national boundaries.
The San are southern Africa's oldest human inhabitants, having lived in the
sub-continent for at least the past 20,000 years and possibly going back 40,000
years. But from the many, possibly even millions, who once roamed the plains and
mountains, only about 100,000 remain.
Brink of Extinction
The South African San Institute (SASI), a non-governmental organization that
mobilizes resources for the benefit of the San, explains they have been driven
to the brink of extinction first by African agro-pastoralists who started
arriving from central Africa from about 1,800 years ago, and then by European
settlers who arrived from the mid-17th century.
SASI says few San are able to live by hunting and gathering today. Most work
as farm laborers. A few groups run nature conservancies, but others live
unemployed in marginal settlements, with no income other than small pensions
from the state.
Nigel Crawhall, a San linguist who heads up SASI's culture and heritage
management program, believes the Hoodia-drug deal could help rescue what
remains of San culture.
The SASI program is essentially about trying to mend San society and
reconstruct San culture, and so set its remaining communities on a more
The San have largely lost their sense of community and identity by being
dispossessed of their territories and becoming physically dispersed. They have
suffered language loss and some of their important social institutions have
Reconstructing San society and culture is an intricate process which is aimed
at getting dialogue going between the elders who still have knowledge of some of
the old ways and the younger generation who have lost it. The purpose is to get
them talking about what had gone lost and what not, and about safeguarding that
which is important. It is a process of self-discovery, says SASI.
Apart from the prospective financial benefits from the Hoodia deal,
Crawhall says, there is much it could do to assist this difficult process, also
by way of creating a more helpful relationship between the San and the world
they live in.
He explains: " The San thought nobody was interested in them. Now
Hoodia has come along. They are excited and have even become a bit
secretive about their use of plants, even though most of this has already been
written up in books. But their young people do not know about these uses, and
that could change now that there is this mass market of the developed world
wanting to use their discovery for body cosmetics.
" What struck them was that anybody would want to use such medicines to lose
weight. So there is also this interesting interface with the outside world."
To Crawhall, the Hoodia deal forms part of a fortuitous confluence of
factors which could spell a better future for the San. It fits well with the
consciousness of human rights that has come with South Africa's new democratic
constitution and which has already resulted in important land-restitution
breakthroughs for the San. It also fits well with the growing international
awareness of indigenous minorities and their rights.
Chennels, who has also been fighting the San's legal battle for restitution
of their traditional land, says he believes the deal represents notable
recognition and acknowledgement of the importance of the traditional knowledge
and heritage of the San peoples.
" This groundbreaking, benefit-sharing agreement between a local research
council and the San represents enormous potential for future bioprospecting
successes based on the San's extensive knowledge of the traditional uses of
indigenous plants of the area.
" We are optimistic that this case will serve as a sound foundation for future
collaboration, not only for the San but also for other holders of traditional