Hoodia gordonii, or bitter ghaap, is one of many South African indigenous plants that has been used traditionally and is now the basis of a growing commercial industry.
Bitter ghaap is a leafless, thorny succulent with fleshy stems that grows naturally in sandy plains and rocky outcrops in the semi-deserts of the Northern Cape, Namibia and southern Angola.
Its flesh-coloured flowers smell strongly of decaying meat, which attracts the flies that pollinate them.
Hoodia is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). This Appendix includes species that are not endangered but are at risk if their trade is not controlled.
Hoodia plants are therefore strictly protected in the wild and only registered farmers are allowed to grow them and export their products.
The San people of the Northern Cape have eaten the succulent stems of bitter ghaap for thousands of years to stave off hunger and thirst, and to increase energy levels, during long hunting trips. They also carry cut-off stems as an emergency food supply in the harsh desert.
Recent research has shown that hoodia is one of the most effective appetite suppressants in the world. This research has revealed that hoodia contains a molecule that is similar to glucose. Scientists reckon that this molecule fools the body into believing that it has eaten glucose-rich food.
Research has also revealed that none of the side effects induced by other appetite suppressants, such as increased heart rate or insomnia, are produced by hoodia.
It is normally sold as capsules and is classified as a foodstuff rather than a medicine. Each capsule contains 400mg of pure hoodia extract with no additives, such as artificial colours or preservatives.
Thanks to the ingenuity of the San people, bitter ghaap provides thousands of people worldwide with an opportunity to lose weight with no side effects.
The San community in the Northern Cape and the CSIR have signed a benefit-sharing agreement in terms of which the San community will receive about R12 million over the next four years for the commercial use of their traditional knowledge of hoodia.
Today there is a deep appreciation of the value of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) in South Africa and many programmes have been established to promote interest in this field.
In 2004, after an initiative from the Department of Science and Technology, the cabinet adopted a National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy, which received international recognition at a recent World Intellectual Property Organisation conference.
The Medical Research Council has established a Lead Programme (IKS Health) to promote, develop and protect indigenous knowledge and its innovative systems of health through education, research and development.
This programme assists with the protection of the intellectual property rights of the traditional people who first developed the medical remedies.
Well-organised databases on traditional medicines, such as Tramed III, have also been created to record knowledge and make it available to everyone.
This programme is also actively engaged in developing new products from traditional medicines that can be sold worldwide.
In addition, the Department of Science and Technology has established a National Indigenous Knowledge Systems Office (Nikso) to develop, protect and promote indigenous knowledge systems.
The vision of Nikso is to be a leader in the field of integrating indigenous knowledge with other knowledge systems.
The department is establishing centres of excellence, laboratories, funding programmes and entrepreneurial programmes to promote the development of food and medical inventions and other products derived from indigenous knowledge.
North-West University, the University of Limpopo and the University of Venda now offer Bachelor, Master’s and doctoral degrees in indigenous knowledge.
These are interdisciplinary qualifications, registered with the SA Qualifications Authority, that prepare students for careers in the health sciences, tourism, agriculture, environmental conservation, heritage education and law. - Cape Argus
l Mike Bruton was the founding director of the Cape Town Science Centre and is director of imagineering at MTE Studios. He wrote Great South African Inventions (Cambridge University Press).