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  Cape Town Roundtable Summary  

The USAID-sponsored program, Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (A-SNAPP), conducted its first Rountable in Cape Town, South Africa, 4-6 April 2000. Over 142 delegates from 16 countries participated in the event’s seminars, discussions and networking opportunities. The Rountable considered a wide range of relevant issues and produced some recommendations for immediate and future action.

The opening session emphasized the need, general purpose, and importance of natural products as an Agribusiness. Speakers were Dr Colin Johnson, CEO of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC, South Africa), Mr. Rob McCaleb, President of the Herb Research Foundation (USA) and Ms Bongiwe Njobe, Director-General of the National Department of Agriculture (South Africa) who delivered the keynote address. Ms Njobe emphasized that the areas of action should be research projects, technical exchange visits, trade opportunities, training programs, public awareness and public policy.

The second session dealt with "A status report on natural products in Africa." Dr Nigel Gericke, a medical practitioner, and author of several books on plants and natural plant products in South Africa addressed the delegates on the Southern African perspective on this issue. He stressed: (i) the high value of indigenous knowledge and the wealth of information it may offer, (ii) the importance of this field in providing substantial employment for skilled as well as unskilled labor, and (iii) the critical need to cultivate the plants used in botanical products in different geographical areas to avoid extinction by natural disasters such as the floods in Mozambique.

Ms Diane Robertson Winn then gave an overview of the history and Dr Oku Ampofo’s contribution to the use and commercialization of traditional medicines in West Africa. Phyto-Riker, a Ghanaian pharmaceutical company, has chosen to develop and commercialize plant medicinals for the West African market, to create agribusiness and employment in Africa. They will focus on the production of finished products rather than the export of raw materials.

Ms Patience Koloko, President of the National Traditional Healers Association of South Africa, gave the delegates her perspective on the use of medicinal plants. She raised the following points: (i) there is a wealth of information known by the indigenous people, (ii) due to lack of trust this information is mostly withheld from outsiders, (iii) traditional medicinal practitioners (TMP) are frustrated because they do not get any recognition from the academic medicinal world and (iv) the little knowledge that they do make available is subsequently used by the academic medical practitioners. This makes TMPs secretive and insecure as to where they fit in the world of healing people.

Mr. Rob McCaleb and Dr Elke Langner presented "An overview of the respective American and European markets in plant medicinals" in session three. The United States showed a rapid growth in the natural product industry, and with the change in legislation in 1994 (Dietary Supplement Health and Education), competition became increasingly intense. In the US, botanicals are generally regulated as dietary supplements, allowing fast and easy access to the market without complicated regulations, but leading to products of varying quality. In Europe (who holds one third of the world market retail trade in herbal products) a complete registration dossier is needed, with detailed quality data. In Germany physicians prescribe herbal medicines and they are dispensed by pharmacists, but most are available without a prescription as well. In most other countries they are generally available in pharmacies or health shops without either prescription or professional guidance. No value judgment need be attached to different regulatory schemes, remembering that these botanicals have been in the public domain, used by anyone in the population for many generations without government requirements for professional guidance. The use of essential oils, herbal teas, food flavorings and colorants, and cosmetics, derived from natural plant products, also increased. It is difficult to establish new products and therefore easier to enter into the existing product market. This leads to the under exploiting of the potential market.

These presentations served to highlight the growth of the botanical industries, the subsectors within the natural products industry (dietary supplements, herbal teas, functional foods, phytomedicines, nutraceuticals, food ingredients, fragrance and flavor products, cosmetic and toiletries ingredients and industrial products such as castor oil and vernonia oil. Individual segments of the business are in constant flux, but the overall marketplace is robust and growing.

In the fourth session: "International approach to natural plant products," Dr Howard Shapiro gave hints and ideas on how to develop strong, successful business linkages between small farmers/growers associations and commercial buyers. He shared his experiences from South America. The following are important issues to keep in mind when these linkages are formed: (i) Means of identifying the grower? (ii) The importance of communication, (iii) A description of the working relationship, (iv) Product quality control and (v) The size of the prize and the size of any potetial disaster. In other words, greater risks should only be taken where opportunity is also great.

Mr. Rob McCaleb, Dr Jim Simon, and Mr. Elton Jefthas discussed the A-SNAPP approach to natural plant product commercialization and the potential role of Africa as supplier. The issues pointed out were that Africa may get much of the aid that is needed, but the options offered must turn into long term successes and sustainable business. Through the establishment of SMME’s rural agribusiness will become empowered and linkages between producers and markets can be established. Niche markets need to be identified for exploitation by rural farmers and strategies developed to meet the market demands. Above all, the farmers need backup and support for technical and agricultural expertise. The ARC, a partner in the A-SNAPP team, offers this support to the emerging farmer and communities. The key to the A-SNAPP approach is a market-driven orientation, seeking markets and market development, and business linkages to connect reputable buyers with quality suppliers, then help both to improve relationships, increase trade and maximize income to African businesses. This must be achieved with win-win solutions that help to improve quality, stabilize prices and assure sustainable supply.

Finances are always a major constraint when discussing sustainable agriculture. The fifth session handled "Strategies and options to overcome financial difficulties." Mr. Mohammed Karaan, an agricultural economist stressed that the agribusinesses must be sustainable, economically viable and a good return must be possible, before financing will be considered by any financial institution. Several financiers discussed the terms on which their institutions will give financial help, be it a loan, a grant, or a combination of both.

Session six on Thursday, April 6, addressed "Benefit sharing and intellectual property rights," both issues that came up several times during previous discussions. Mr. Preston Scott from the World Foundation for Environment and Development (USA) spoke about germplasm, biodiversity, and conservation. Conservation includes more than the traditional term used for threat against endangered species. The conservation of germplasm, resources, and genetic material offers new incentives to stakeholders in the new bioactive compounds found in botanicals. Intellectual property rights (IPR) can be claimed on patents, through trade secrets, copyrights, trademarks, and plant breeder’s rights. Different laws apply in different countries. A more informal way of protecting IPR is to negotiate a know-how license, which can be much more cost effective. It does not give worldwide rights or copyright, but acknowledges the partnership, and funds raised can go into a trust fund or a community. Dr Cobus Coetzee (ARC, South Africa) showed examples of genetic material taken from Africa and South Africa and commercialized somewhere else in the world, without any benefit sharing. He discussed different models of benefit sharing existing in South Africa, pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of each model. During the discussions it was stressed that the public has power and they must enforce it. If they become aware of indigenous knowledge or genetic property taken illegally from them, they could launch a publicity campaign; the voice of the masses is not modest.

ARC team members discussed cultivation trends in sustainable agribusiness during session seven. The ARC researchers responsible for selected products are Ms Jacky Goliath (buchu), Mr. Petrus Langenhoven (hibiscus), Mr. Michael Brinkhuis (rooibos tea) and Mr. Michiel Meets (honeybush tea) They presented information on the commodities they cultivate, and their contribution to sustainable agribusiness and community empowerment. Dr Jim Simon shared the experiences of cinnamon and other essential oil production in Madagascar. The problem experienced here is quality of the product, not in growing it, but negligent or irresponsible storing of the distilled oil in dirty containers. Additionally, in many cases starting materials are picked from the wild without regard to the different chemotypes involved, all of which can produce different fragrance profiles in the herbs. Prof. Gundidza from Zimbabwe gave an overview of the development and research on natural medicinal plant products used in Zimbabwe. He stressed the need for sustainable use of traditional medicinal plants as that is the only source of medication for 70 to 80% of all Africans. Prof. Earle Graven (Grassroots Natural Products) discussed the history and potential of devil’s claw cultivation in Southern Africa.

During the "International trade and regulation of plant based products" session Mr. Rob McCaleb and Dr Elke Langer once again stressed the importance of the quality of product needed. Market research is needed to determine the type of product required, while growers must familiarize themselves with the specifications of the required product. These presentation considered also regulations involved in export, trade barriers including tarriffs and environmental restrictions enacted in response to disappearing resources.

The last afternoon was spent on a videoconference with representatives from US buyers of natural products where delegates had the opportunity to find out about the businesses they are running and to ask questions on issues of concern or interest. The participants from the US included the world’s largest specialty tea company, Celestial Seasonings; Tom’s of Maine, a body care company branching out into herbal extracts; KHL Flavors, a spice and herb broker; Frontier Herbs, the major buyer of organic herbs; Whole Herb, a full service botanical trader with a wide range of herbs; and Botanicals International, one of the major processors of bulk botanicals for supplement manufacturers. Participants had a chance in this session to hear the perspective of major overseas buyers and to ask questions about entering the marketplace and how to distinguish one’s company among the thousands worldwide who seek to sell botanicals to the same buyers.

"The Way Forward," the last session, was addressed by Mr. Jerry Brown from USAID, Washington DC. Participants on the natural plant product program need certain hard and soft skills to succeed, and the only way forward is together!

Recommendations on how to proceed were the following:

  • Development of specific processes in which research and marketing come together and share responsibility
  • Transparency, which is needed in technology transfer
  • Strategic market planning, which is needed across the region
  • Continuous interactive market and technical information exchange
  • Development of products linked to market research
  • Establishment of trust between traditional medicinal practitioners and the ARC
  • Development and passage of legislation on organic certification, sanitary and domestic issues, benefit sharing, and intellectual property rights
  • A national workshop to regulate co-operative building


The Rountable was heralded as a success by those attending who have provided feedback. The diversity of topics, of interest and in stakeholders points to a clear interest in and need for more fora to continue building a dialog for the advancement of the natural products sector throughout the continent of Africa.

  M. Smith, R. McCaleb, April 2000  
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