For centuries the plant ‘Kougoed’ is used by the South African San people to control their nerves. It can be compared to the antidepressant Prozac. Now, a pharmaceutical company wants to commercialise the plant.
Herbal doctor Hendrick Jap Jap Klaase takes a bunch of dried twigs and leaves out of a jute bag. The small room is full of pots filled with mixed herbs, plants and roots. “This one is for cancer. That one for astma and that one for hemorrhoids”, he points. This is no ‘abracadabra’. The traditional healer knows how these plants can cure ailments.
The 63-year-old South African rubs the dried plants between his hands. Like chewing tobacco, you chew on the twigs and leaves. The plant tastes bitter. A woman dozes off on the couch while she is chewing. “Do you feel the room floating?”, the herbal doctor asks me. The walls and the ceiling move slowly up and down. “It feels just like you’ve been drinking too much”, he laughs.
‘Kougoed’ is commonly known as ‘kanna’. Academics call it sceletium tortuosum. The herbal doctor prescribes it to clients who suffer from insomnia, pains and depression. The plant acts on your nervous system. An important ingredient of the plant is mesembrine which helps to reduce depression.
Although South Africa consists only two per cent of the World surface, almost ten per cent of the 24.000 plant species worldwide are found there. Hendrick Klaase can list at least 30 curative plants which grow in the region.
‘Kougoed’ is being used for centuries, especially by the ethnic group called San or Bushmen. They are hunter-gatherers who chewed the plant during hunting. In 1685, the Dutch governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel drew a picture of the plant in his diary when he was travelling to Namaqualand. He wrote at the time that the San seemed to be intoxicated.
Local population will benefit
Because of the amount of people who suffer from stress increased in the past years, HGH Pharmaceuticals think there is a market for the plant-based antidepressant. “We have the permission of South African authorities to research and cultivate the plant”, says its director Nigel Gericke. HGH wants to bring an extract of ‘kougoed’, called Zembrin, on the American market next year. In the port of Cape Town huge amounts of ‘kougoed’ are already being stored.
If sales are successful not only the company will profit but so will the locals.
There has been international effort to reward people for their local knowledge of nature to prevent bio-piracy. The concept of bio-piracy is that companies transport raw materials from third world countries to commercialise it. They ask for a patent and make a lot of money while the community with the knowledge doesn’t receive anything in return. Certain jeans, for example, are bleached with chemicals from Kenya. But all the money goes to its American producers.
Sitting on a pot of gold
However, South Africa tries to legally protect the knowlegde about the plants. A permit is needed to research and cultivate plants there. And now HGH has received that right to produce the ‘kougoed’-based Zembrin.
The company is being helped with their research by the San who live in the province Noordkaap and who hold the local knowledge. “They will receive royalties for their knowledge of the plant”, lawyer and representative of the San, Roger Chennels, says.
“How rich they will become depends on the success of the product.” This means the San may be sitting on a pot of gold.