Responsible and inclusive innovation reaches the San of South Africa

Thursday, 6 August, 2015
Sidelined for decades because of their traditional way of life, South Africa’s San, also known as Bushmen, are now attracting admiration and respect for their traditional knowledge on the medicinal properties of plants. An EU-funded project is helping the San to share this knowledge and claim their rightful benefits.
Buchu flowers in South Africa, ©Amy Azra Dean

“Responsible innovation is not just about governing emerging technologies for the safety of the rich, but also about innovating for and with the poor,” says Doris Schroeder, coordinator of the PROGRESS project and director of the Centre for Professional Ethics at the UK’s University of Central Lancashire.

The project goal is to make the concept of responsible research and innovation – RRI – better known outside of Europe, says Schroeder. But she also has a personal ambition: to ensure the project is useful for vulnerable populations that have too often been overlooked.

The San fit this description perfectly. They are the Earth’s ‘oldest people’ and very vulnerable to modern development. There are only 9 000 left in South Africa, with a further 80 000 across Namibia and Botswana. The San are traditionally hunters and gatherers, and today “at the bottom of the pecking order”, says Roger Chennells, a lawyer working for the South African San Institute (SASI) – a partner in the PROGRESS project.

Through its involvement in PROGRESS, SASI – an NGO serving the San people – has been able to secure a significant three-year government contract for recording traditional knowledge together with the San Council.

The benefits of buchu

The funding was partly used to organise meetings bringing together all stakeholders. Representatives from the South African Department of Science and Technology attended when a government initiative to record important indigenous knowledge began.

One topic discussed at the meetings was the buchu plant, which has been used by the San as a powerful healing plant for centuries, and is now a key ingredient in commercialised well-being and medicinal products. This comes hot on the heels of the use of knowledge on another plant – sceletium – a natural mood-enhancer, to develop a product now on the shelves in South Africa and the US.

The “unexpected” government contract gives security to the idea of reaching similar agreements for other plants and will change the landscape for traditional knowledge-based innovation for ever, says Chennells. Moreover, the same process could be followed by indigenous groups in other countries.

Sharing the knowledge…and the benefits

Key to the concept of RRI in this case is benefit-sharing. This has been compulsory since 1992, when the Convention on Biological Diversity was agreed. However, as very few compliance mechanisms are effective, the requirement is often ignored, says Schroeder. PROGRESS is increasing visibility of the concept and showing how it can work in reality as part of responsible innovation.

For sceletium, the income, which is starting to become significant, goes to the San Council, which then shares it fairly while investing in education and training.

Europe has much to learn from other regions in terms of RRI, says Schroeder. “Many of Europe’s poor would benefit from inclusive innovation. Brazil, China, India and South Africa are spearheading the idea, while it is sidelined in Europe,” she says.

“We don’t often talk about innovation and the poor in the same sentence, but there are lots of innovations that can help the poor,” she adds.

One of the PROGRESS project’s successes has been to raise awareness of the need for a broader definition of RRI that encompasses inclusive innovation, says Schroeder. Another has been to ensure the concept of RRI is known within policy circles in China and India.

Before the project finishes in January 2016, the team plans to continue promoting RRI, including through documentaries on the San and their knowledge, a major meeting co-hosted by the World Health Organization, and a number of academic papers already in the pipeline.

As for the San Institute, it is hoping to reach agreements for two other indigenous plants: the rooibos and the aloe.

Check also our publication Investing in European success - EU-Africa cooperation in science, technology and innovation

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