The cactus-like plant Hoodia gordonii is indigenous to areas of southern Africa. Known as Xhoba by the San community, who have harvested it for over a century, it is famed for its appetite-suppressant qualities, hence its potential to cure obesity.
The plant is particularly sought after in Europe and America, where people are increasingly attracted to healthier lifestyles and weight-loss aids, and rural communities and subsistence farmers in southern Africa are now looking to gain income by selling it to international pharmaceutical companies.
In order to prevent its exploitation, the bitter-tasting Hoodia is classified as a protected species in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).
Namibia currently bans the export of Hoodia and its by-products, but seeds and plant shoots are constantly being smuggled out of the country for the purpose of cultivation and production.
These illegal procedures could jeopardize the Namibian Hoodia industry insofar as improper harvesting of the plant could lead to its extinction.
The Hoodia Growers Association of Namibia (HOGRAN) has now been set up to fight illegal commerce, to protect the plant and to talk with pharmaceutical companies and the Namibian Government to establish sales prices and regulate exports.
Under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), indigenous groups are entitled to a share of the profits from the commercial use of local resources and traditional knowledge.
Though the benefits have yet to be seen, the export of Hoodia should one day help to eradicate unemployment and poverty in Namibia, especially among its native San community.