By Wanjiku Karanja**
The Hoodia Gordonii is a species of cactus originating from the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa. The indigenous San people of Southern Africa have used this plant for generations to stave of hunger and thirst in their harsh arid environments. It is in this respect one of the most famous bio-piracy cases due to the questions that it raises on the efficacy of access and benefit sharing agreements (ABS) in the protection of traditional knowledge.
The San’s traditional knowledge of Hoodia’s appetite suppressive qualities was published by apartheid era botanists and used by South Africa’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in isolating an appetite suppressing molecule which they christened P 57. CSIR patented the extraction process and licensed it to UK pharmaceutical firm Phytopharm. Phytopharm then developed a new “cure” for obesity on the basis of P 57 and obtained a patent for its application, which they licensed to Pfizer for US$ 21 million. Its application into a food supplement and/or prescription medicine had considerable financial potential due to the large market potential for the dietary control of obesity; an estimated $3 billion per annum in the United States alone.