Namibia’s arid ecosystems host a variety of unique plant species that have been used traditionally for medicinal or cultural purposes for centuries. Some of these products have attracted the attention of commercial pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, which provide a lucrative market for these plant products. Plant harvesters are often women from poorer households, so generating cash income through plant harvesting provides a substantial boost to their livelihoods. Conservancies and community forests play a facilitative role to help harvesters reach the market and receive a fair price for their labours.
The Devil’s Claw plant is native to the Kalahari (covering eastern Namibia, Botswana and parts of South Africa) and has been harvested and used as a traditional remedy for centuries. These qualities have since attracted the attention of international alternative medicine producers, which have used Devil’s Claw to create natural remedies for pain and inflammation. In Namibia, many rural women living in the Kalahari know where the plant may be found and therefore harvest it for sale. The cash from these sales is an important supplement to their livelihoods.
Xoa//an /Ai!ae of Nyae Nyae Conservancy spoke about what this product means to conservancy members: "Devil’s Claw is a good example of where the harvesters of the conservancy benefit directly and can decide for themselves on how to use that money. Our members and especially women do not have many opportunities to earn cash income, and this (Devil’s Claw) provides them with an opportunity to do this."
Devil’s Claw harvesters can sell their product to any willing buyers, although these ‘middlemen’ will not give them the same price as they would get if selling directly to the product exporters. Paying for transport from the field where the harvest is done to the nearest major town further reduces the harvesters’ profit margins. Several conservancies are therefore starting to play facilitative roles to link harvesters more closely with the end market.
Besides the economic benefits, training days are held to improve the quality of the harvest and ensure that it is done in a way that does not harm the long-term growth of the plant. Two Devil’s Claw harvesters (N/haokxa Kaqece and Xoan Kxam/oo) emphasise this point: "It is important to harvest properly so that the plant does not die, this allows us to harvest the same plant again in a few years. The training is vital, it shows us how to process Devil’s Claw because it is a medicine, and we want to produce a good quality."
Community members from Nyae Nyae and N#a Jaqna Conservancies have harvested Devil’s Claw in this sustainable and organised fashion for 14 years with support from the Nyae Nyae Development Foundation Namibia (NNDFN). Other conservancies in the Kavango Omaheke Regions have started to organise Devil’s Claw sales since 2018 with support from Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF). One of the Omaheke conservancies, Omuramba ua Mbinda, facilitated the sale of close to 3,000 kg that generated about N$ 156,000 for the harvesters and N$ 6,000 for the conservancy as a commission during their first organised sale in 2020.
Several conservancies have entered into multi-year contracts with EcoSo Dynamics, which is a Namibian Devil’s Claw trader that is concerned about the social and environmental impacts of their trade. This trader offers a better price to harvesters for their product, in exchange for reliable information showing that the harvest is sustainable. Under these arrangements, the conservancy organises buying and selling days, and provides a storage place for the harvest in exchange for a small sales commission (e.g. 15%) – the balance goes directly to harvesters.
Receiving a better price for the product is a major benefit for harvesters, as Anna Mathias from N#a Jaqna Conservancy explains: "It is a medicine that goes out to help others and we are happy about this, but we also want to ensure that we benefit fairly. Harvesting Devil’s Claw is difficult, it is far, you need water and food and we take great care to harvest sustainably and produce a good quality product. The income from Devil’s Claw is for many of our members the only source of income."
Besides Devil’s Claw, several other plant products either have an established market or could be promoted for their medicinal or cosmetic properties. IRDNC has been working closely with conservancies in the north-west to identify plants that could be harvested for these purposes and create suitable management and benefit-sharing arrangements around these resources. Resin from the commiphora plant, which is used traditionally by Himba women for its fragrance, is now being harvested and sold to cosmetic companies.
Mopane seeds and the leaves of the 'resurrection plant' (Myrothamnus flabelifolius) are also harvested and sold for cosmetic uses (the latter in anti-aging creams). IRDNC assisted multiple conservancies to establish a jointly owned processing facility in Opuwo. This facility pays harvesters for their raw materials, which are further processed to extract the essential oils that are sold to international buyers. In 2020, the Opuwo facility paid harvesters from eight conservancies in the Kunene Region for the commiphora resin, mopane seeds and Myrothamnus leaves they harvested.