South African Hoodia Gordonii the miracle obesity cure?
Hoodia was discovered and used by the San tribe (one of South Africa's
oldest tribes) since prehistoric times. They chewed the bitter Hoodia
Gordonii twice a day to suppress hunger and thirst during long hunting
trips. This plant has recently been translated into a miracle obesity
cure, P57, with a market potential of US$6 billion.
The market for a natural appetite suppressant or weight loss product
is huge. In the United States alone there are between +/- 50 million
clinically obese people and in some developed countries obesity
spiraled out of control.
Hoodia looks like an ordinary cactus with thin, thorny fingers
and it grows about 20 inches tall in the reddish sands of southern
Africa’s Kalahari Desert.
In 2002 Hoodia Gordonii reversed a worldwide history of exploitation
of indigenous peoples. The San tribe could easily have been victims
of biopiracy. The particularly disconcerting aspect of this case
is that it was a governmental organisation, the Council for Scientific
and Industrial Research. The CSIR is an institution that was shaped
by the apartheid regime it had served well for 40 years. In 1996
scientists from the CSIR isolated the hunger-suppressing chemical
component in Hoodia, now known as P57, and patented it. In 1997,
CSIR licensed the UK-based firm Phytopharm to further develop and
It has been established that P57 works by mimicking the
effect that glucose has on nerve cells in the brain in effect fooling
the body into thinking it is full, even when it is not, thus curbing
The following year, Phytopharm licensed drug giant Pfizer (of Viagra
fame) to develop and market P57, with none of the projected royalties
being earmarked for the San. A British spokesperson for Pfizer that
described P57, said that the San people was "extinct".
The San people felt that their heritage had been plundered and
a few years later a claim was launched against the CSIR stating
that it had failed to comply with the rules of the Convention on
Biological Diversity 1992 (CBD), requiring prior informed consent.
Consequently, a "memorandum of understanding" was reached between
the parties in March 2002.
At a moving ceremony in Andriesvale, a remote area of the Kalahari,
the South African San Council and the Council for Scientific and
Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa signed an agreement that
recognizes and rewards the San as holders of traditional knowledge.
The San would receive a mutually agreed percentage of the profit
from the CSIR along with offers of education programmes, computer
training and employment cultivating the Hoodia cactus plant in the
The above example is a great victory for holders of traditional
knowledge, however it represents a rare case where a bilateral agreement
on access and benefit sharing has obviated the need for expensive
and time-consuming litigation.
The CSIR and the San had to produce an agreement able to withstand
international scrutiny. For three years, the South Africa San Council
negotiated with the CSIR on behalf of the San in Angola, Botswana,
Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. In a unique arrangement, the San
will share profits across borders.
The South African government is considering a draft bill that requires
proof of prior informed consent of communities before granting patents
for products or elements derived from their traditional knowledge.
At the moment Hoodia Gordonii is extremely difficult to find. The
San people believe that in the very near future Hoodia cafes will
open all over the world serving Hoodia diet salads and dishes. With
the potential money spin-off they will hopefully rid themselves
from hundreds of years of oppression, and finally claim their rightful
place in the world.