In southwest Africa, there lives a tribe of people known as the San, who are believed to be  the direct ancestors of modern humans who roamed the territory about 60,000 years ago.



San hunter, Central Kalahari. (c) Nigel Gericke

Ancient San rock art .
© Nigel Gericke

In fact, according to Spencer Davies, in his book, The Journey of Man, about National Geographic’s Genographic Project, today’s San (also known as "Bushmen"), original hunters and gatherers, still possess some of the oldest genetic markers found in human beings. Based on this discovery, the San may be the most genetically pure direct descendants of our first ancestors.


About 2,000 years ago, people branched off from the San and became known as Khoikhoi; descendants of these people, known as the Nama, are related to the San.  


A typical appearance of a Namaqualand shepherd. © Nigel Gericke



Nama shepherd’s reed house or haru oms. © Nigel Gericke

The San are the archetypical hunters and gatherers who lived harsh and demanding lives. Their intimate knowledge of nature enabled them to secure all their food, medicine and material needs from the wild,  and to thrive for tens of thousands of years in the most challenging environments. 



One of the most important functional food plants of the San, and later of the Nama, was the stamina-building Sceletium tortuosum.

Sceletium tortuosum. © Nigel Gericke

The San and Nama traditionally gathered Sceletium in October, dried and stored it in their huts and widely traded. It was chewed as a masticatory and also used as a restorative tea for adults and children. 

There is outstanding research into the use of Sceletium by the San and Nama, first by South African ethnobotanist Fiona Archer (from 1984 through 1995), and then continued by Dr. Nigel Gericke, a renowned South African physician and ethnobotanist; they conducted their field research in the rural communities in the Namaqualand region of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa.

The results of this recent research, together with written historical accounts dating back to 1685, confirmed that Sceletium tortuosum has been widely used by the San, and their relatives, the Khoikhoi, and subsequently traded with European settlers. Most local people, who were interviewed in the study, knew about the usefulness of the plant in everyday life. In addition to its common use as a masticatory, and as a tea, the aerial parts of Sceletium tortuosum also are used for medicinal purposes, especially  for gastrointestinal ailments and respiratory conditions. Dried Sceletium tortuosum leaves are used by the San to treat colic in infants, to improve bowel regularity and to treat abdominal cramps. Interestingly, Sceletium tortuosum has been used by traditional healers to combat addictions and to wean alcoholics off alcohol.

The most common traditional use of Sceletium tortuosum is as a masticatory, called kougoed. It is chewed to impart endurance, clarity of thinking and enhance decision-making. While kougoed is not a thirst-suppressant or hunger-suppressant in its own right, it is considered invaluable for dealing with for the stress from being thirsty or hungry when walking long distances in the wilderness.  

Kougoed is used by indigenous people on a regular basis, often on a long-term daily basis. In interviews, some elderly Nama shepherds said they have used it daily for more than 40 years and related that kougoed has imparted a beneficial impact on their health and well being. Dr. Gericke’s research showed that despite everyday use, kougoed does not have addictive properties.  

Painting from 1685 of Sceletium from Simon van der Stel's Journal


Protecting indigenous people with benefit-profit sharing agreement

In 2006, the South African company HG&H Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd. initiated a Sceletium tortuosum research and development program to create a dietary supplement from a standardized extract of cultivated Sceletium, trademarked Zembrin®, for international markets. In view of the well-established historical and extant use of Sceletium, the company made the ethical decision to share benefits arising from the future commercial products with representatives of the South African San and of the Namaqualand communities of Paulshoek and Nourivier. The Sceletium tortuosum plant from which Zembrin® is derived is a protected species. HGH is totally opposed to wild harvesting of this plant, and pioneered the domestication and first intensive commercial farming of a particular naturally occurring chemotype of Sceletium tortuosum, which complies with the traditionally used plant, and also ensures a standardized product. The intensively managed conditions under which the selected plants are cultivated, harvested, dried and extracted play a vital role in ensuring Zembrin’s quality and efficacy.

During 2007, a number of meetings and negotiations were held with the South African San Council who were assisted by the well-known human rights attorney Roger Chennels. The South African San Council holds the position that the San, as the First People of South Africa, and as the original indigenous knowledge-holders of Sceletium, are the legitimate beneficiaries of any future benefits to accrue from the commercialization of Sceletium. A key concern of HG&H, however, was the need to recognize the role of two Namaqualand communities of Paulshoek and Nourivier, who had provided important local knowledge on the use of Sceletium, including identifying which local plants were particularly favored. The San Council readily acknowledged the important contributions made by these two communities, and agreed to share 50% of any benefits with the two communities, which would thus receive 25% each.

A groundbreaking benefit-sharing agreement between HG&H Pharmaceuticals and the South African San Council was signed on February 21, 2008, thus signifying the first prior-informed consent benefit-sharing agreement to have been signed with an indigenous group in southern Africa. The agreement includes payment over three years of up-front amounts prior to commercialization, and a percentage royalty on all future income to be derived from the commercialization of Sceletium by HG&H. This agreement effectively includes the South African San Council as partners in Zembrin®. HG&H receives endorsement from the San Council through exclusive use of the San Council logo on the standardized extract of Sceletium, Zembrin®, and for use on other products derived from Sceletium.

The Zembrin project including the San community is part of larger efforts defined by South Africa's National Environment Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) which comprises activities to sustain diversity of life forms in an ecosystem.  NEMBA has been implemented to provide for the management and conservation of South Africa’s biodiversity. This includes the protection of species and ecosystems, the sustainable use of indigenous biological resources, the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from bioprospecting involving indigenous biological resources, and the establishment of a South African National Biodiversity Institute.

The Biodiversity Act requires any person or company involved in the research, supply, export or commercialization of any South African biological resource to obtain a permit from the Government. Prior informed consent is required from landowners and indigenous communities before a permit is issued, and benefit-sharing agreements must be entered into with indigenous communities who use the resource traditionally, or who have knowledge of its properties.

Buyelwa Sonjica, MP, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, South Africa, explains that "biodiversity is the term used to describe life on earth -- the variety of living things, the places they inhabit and the interactions between them. These interactions provide us with a number of essential natural services or ecosystem services such as food production, soil fertility, climate regulation, carbon storage - that are the foundation of human well-being."

According to Minister Sonjica, South Africa is rich in biodiversity and is ranked third after Brazil and Indonesia. The nation is origin of approximately 24,000 plants species. These natural and cultural resources underpin a large proportion of the economy and many urban and rural people are directly dependent on them for employment, food, shelter, medicine and spiritual well being.  Minister Sonjica emphasized that "fair and equitable sharing of benefits is a central pillar to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity."

The previous lack of bioprospecting policy framework and legislation had allowed unrestrained access to South African indigenous resources and knowledge, with biological and genetic resources being harvested, sometimes in destructively excessive quantities, and being exported for research and development at institutions abroad for innovative value addition, and off-shore financial benefit.

In placing this into context, it is worthwhile to realize that between 20% and 50% of the pharmaceutical sector's turnover -- which is estimated at $650 billion annually -- is derived from genetic resources. An astronomical variety of OTC, prescription and cosmetic products produced by pharmaceutical companies are derived from medicinal plants, a large number of which are indigenous to South Africa. This invites and attracts innovative concerns to South Africa to obtain novel resources on which to conduct research on for the development of new health and beauty products and drugs.

On December 8, 2009, HG&H Pharmaceuticals (Pty) Ltd became the first company in South Africa to be granted a bio-prospecting and export permit, (# 0001), signed by Minister Sonjica. This permit allows the company to legally continue to research and develop Sceletium and to export Sceletium raw material and the company’s proprietary standardized Sceletium extract Zembrin®. To date no other company has been awarded a bio-prospecting or export permit for Sceletium.

Dr. Nigel Gericke ceremonially receiving South Africa’s first Bioprospecting & Export Permit from Buyelwa Sonjica, MP, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs.


In view of the HG&H’s pioneering prior-informed consent benefit-sharing agreement, and successful cultivation of Sceletium as a new crop, the Minister of Environmental Affairs hosted a celebration wherein  the permit was ceremonially awarded to HG&H. Also present at this function were the South African San Council, and representatives of the  Namaqualand Communities from Paulshoek and Nourivier. HG&H’s partner for Zembrin® in the USA, PL Thomas, was represented by Paul Flowerman, CEO.

On October 1, 2010, the first bioprospecting permit was issued in terms of the National Environmental Management; Biodiversity Act, Act 10 of 2004 (NEMBA) and its associated Bioprospecting, Access and Benefit Sharing or BABS Regulations of 2008 to HGH Pharmaceuticals.  Under terms, as the permit holder, HGH Pharmaceuticals may only use the indigenous biological resource for the purpose of local and international research on cultivated plant material and extract from Sceletium tortuosum and to commercialize the product.  HGH Pharmaceuticals will pay the South African San Council an annual royalty of the net proceeds they receive. During the first three years the royalty will only be payable in respect of net proceeds received during each year in excess of R 5-million (US $700,000).

Minister Sonjica said, "The bioprospecting project will focus on local and international research on cultivated plant material and extracts from Sceletium with the aim to successfully produce and market a scientific validated South African medicinal plant. The indications are that the pharmaceutical application of the indigenous biological resource will be for central nervous system conditions. The beneficiaries of the bioprospecting project include the South African San Council (San), Paulshoek and Nourivier or Nama communities. "

Andries Steenkamp, representing the South African San Council, expressed the Council's gratitude for its partner, HGH Pharmaceuticals, as well as to the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, "for their commitment to make this agreement successful in the interests of South Africa, as well as of the individual role-players. We look forward to Zembrin® becoming an international success."



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