GCBR Micro Fund Research Grant: Ethno-Botany and Resource Economy of the Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve

Apr 12, 2021 | Micro Fund

Locations of the documented studies: Still Bay, Graaff-Reinet and Calvinia.
Locations of the documented studies: Still Bay, Graaff-Reinet and Calvinia.

Unlocking the economy of indigenous phytochemicals

I understood the value of plants very early on in life. When 5 years old, I would walk the leafy suburban street where I grew up and picked flowers from the unfenced gardens of several neighbours. At home I arranged it in small bouquets with a colourful raffia string and sold it back to the very people I got it from, creating much laughter and joy. An early flower entrepreneur. 

Fast forward several decades and my quest now is to make local farmers within the area of the GCBR aware of the vast portal of medicinal plants in their undisturbed natural vegetation, in order to protect this precious fynbos pharmacy. By highlighting a local botanical product that achieved enormous international success, I also hope to inform entrepreneurs of a proven way towards self-reliance and alleviating poverty in an area where little commercial value has been gleaned from the indigenous plants.

Conservation agencies and planning bodies struggle to heed and apply the abundance of unintegrated research that links aspects of indigenous medicinal plant knowledge with the very custodians’ financial wellbeing. Ethnopharmacology and human ecological research, already provided some important aspects, but workable algorithms, community partaking and commercially viable products created by the knowledge keepers, remain scarce. A disconnect between conservation of nature, conservation of traditional knowledge and conservation of an area’s inhabitants, is a sad reality. By protecting some biodiversity and documenting much indigenous knowledge, humanity has come a long way. The crucial conservation of human inhabitants by helping them gain wealth and health, can be accomplished by integrating a chain of business processes within a biodiversity project with distinct benefits to all in a relevant area.

A local gin distillery and its creator are the pride and joy of Still Bay. The origin of the distillery’s name being the confluence of water and rock, resonates in the convergence of sustainable plant use and financial gain. By making use of local people’s plant knowledge (Tol Pienaar, Jan De Vynck and nearby Khoe-San inhabitants) to directly and indirectly benefit the local people, the country and the world at large, her product is a light bearer for other possible products. 

In analysing their business according to Michael Porter’s value chain analysis model, we found a chain of events from raw products via manufacturing and marketing to successful product on world markets, creating an interconnected economical ecosystem. What stood out from this chain of value adding, is their creator’s in-depth knowledge of all the processes, her hands-on involvement along the whole chain of events as well as her pure and passionate quest of creating an authentic product and staying true to benefitting the origin of the product. Even when selling shares to an international company, she insisted that the gin will be made in Still Bay forever. She also overcame the challenges of penetrating a male dominated field. She returned to university at the age of 56 years to gain more required knowledge. And she knows the true value of a true story.

Thus by integrating traditional knowledge with the use of indigenous plants within a spectacular location, she crafted an award winning product. The small town of Still Bay benefit from this, by the jobs created and the local availability of an outstanding product as well as substantial money influx. In so doing, the distillery became an icon and template for local gins and other possible plant based products. It also honours the legacy of Khoe-San ancestors, as well as the stellar knowledge and willingness to share this knowledge by Pienaar and De Vynck. 

GCBR and Dr Jan De Vynck are thanked again for their financial and intellectual support in the scientific documentation of local plant knowledge.

Michael Porter’s value chain analysis model

Michael Porter’s value chain analysis model

The pharmacological potential of indigenous phytochemicals

Three plant ladies learning from and teaching one another
Three plant ladies learning from and teaching one another

At the point in time when most of the world’s population was still deciding if Covid-19 was real, my 53-year old brother in America was admitted to the ICU of Yale Hospital. An otherwise very healthy man, he lived with his family an hour’s drive outside of New York on a smallholding along a river in a natural forest. He is a professor at a NY university. Just before lockdown started in South Africa, his 20-year old son, an exchange student to Spain, made a traumatic return to NY, as people were physically fighting to get a seat on an aeroplane. The young man, not knowing that he was a carrier of the EU variation of the Covid-19 virus, had a light fever and recovered within days. My brother unfortunately got very sick. As I was preparing for an ethnobotanical survey at the time, I remembered a phytochemical I came across that was tested effective against SARS in 2018. Although a different illness, some similarities might be worth noting. I decided to carry out a pilot study to look for worthwhile chemicals in plants, used by our ancestors in treating flu-like diseases.


Secondary metabolites, as part of a plant’s defence system, can assist humans against a multiple of unwanted organisms. The area covered by Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve (GCBR) houses a plant population more diverse than in most areas of the world. Plants with possible antiviral properties might be growing on our doorstep. During the 21st century, several Ethnobotanical Surveys of southern Africa have been carried out and three studies were identified as excellent models to guide me for my planned survey. The three wise scholars Jan De Vynck, Ben-Erik Van Wyk and Josef De Beer documented 67 medicinal plants being used ethnographically to treat flu-like ailments in the vicinities of Still Bay, Calvinia and Graaff-Reinet. Twelve species showed repetition over the three studies and could be viewed as plants with possible antiviral properties. As I was focusing on determining species from the three study areas with the highest chance of succeeding, the phytochemicals of the species which occurred in two or three areas were selected and the global popularity also determined in a search on Web of Science. Many of the phytochemicals which occurred in the species from the study area, occur in other species too. Therefore the global occurrence of phytochemicals is a good indication of the plants’ various potential.

Compiled by Tania Louw, Aspiring Botanist Photos courtesy of Tania Louw

Compiled by Tania Louw, Aspiring Botanist
Photos courtesy of Tania Louw

RepeatMedicinal speciesMain PhytochemicalWeb of   Science
3Artemisia afraCoumarin and Thujone27 677   771
2Ballota africanaBallotenol3
2Carpobrotus edulisCitric acid   Malic acid0
3Conyza scabrida0
2Dicoma capensisBrachylaenolide1
2Dodonaea angustifoliaDodonic acid   Santin5   198
2Elytropappus rhinocerotisRhinocerotinoic   acid7
2Hermannia cuneifolia0
2Leonotis ocymifoliaPremarrubiin0
3Mentha longifoliaCarvone2069
2Sutherlandia frutescensCanavanine889
2Viscum capenseViscumside A3

The main phytochemicals per popular species, as well as the number of Web of Science occurrences per phytochemical.

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