Africa's Bushmen May Get Rich From Diet-Drug Secret

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
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 generations.

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 dollars.

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 blockbuster drug.

Continued on Next Page >>


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