South Africa has tremendous plant diversity that is largely untapped in terms of its potential for medicinal and cosmeceutical purposes. With about 25 000 known species, this country is third only to Brazil and Indonesia as far as biodiversity is concerned. This constitutes about one tenth of all plant species in the world.
Prof Namrita Lall, professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Pretoria, says the vast traditional knowledge of South Africa's plants is still untapped. There is much work to be done to verify such knowledge and how traditional remedies and local plants actually work. 'Whether searching for ways to treat serious diseases like cancer and tuberculosis or formulating new acne creams and toothpastes that fight gum disease, I am convinced that solutions can be found in South Africa's indigenous plants.'
Prof Lall is internationally recognised for her contributions to bio-prospecting from traditional knowledge on medicinal plants. Her research focus has been on scientifically validating the uses of plants for developing cosmeceuticals. Cosmeceuticals are hybrids between drugs and cosmetic products and are able to enhance both health and beauty by external application.
The synergy of traditional usage of plants and rare plants found in this country prompted Prof Lall to evaluate the potential of unexplored plant species and develop products that could be applied topically. Various plants have been proven to be effective in treating skin problems, for example melasma, spots, pigmentation and acne.
'Seeing these products on a supermarket shelf is still a long way off, but it will be worthwhile,' she believes. 'We are now working on upscaling the processes for extracting valuable compounds from the plants, so that they can be used on a commercial scale.'
Working with one of her PhD students, Richa Sharma, she is exploring the use of the Leucosidea sericea shrub (also known as Oldwood). They have found that chemical compounds in its silky grey leaves reduce the inflammation caused by a particular acne-causing bacterium. Government has granted a bioprospecting permit for Oldwood. This indigenous plant is now close to commercialisation.
Separate clinical studies have indicated that one of the Helichrysum species has an SPF boosting effect.
Prof Lall is equally passionate about a future where products from indigenous plants will not only benefit companies and consumers, but also local communities. 'I dream of seeing small factories in local communities where they can process the plants and produce the products themselves,' she says. In this context, she has also demonstrated her commitment to various communities around the country by engaging them in a better understanding of indigenous knowledge and by advancing the production of cosmeceuticals from local flora.
A major national contribution of Prof Lall's effort is the benefits that may be realised in bridging the gap between farmers, researchers and customers. Prof Lall maintains that by adding value to local indigenous plants, pharmaceutical companies may become interested in helping the development of novel cosmetic products.
'South Africa does not beneficiate enough local resources, choosing rather to export. We therefore cannot derive the value benefits third parties add to the resources in turning them into products. The result is that some of the local cosmetic companies import final products and we lose local beneficiation, local industries and jobs. We hope our project may lead to the beneficiation of local endemic plant material, infrastructure and upliftment in the community, help create a local market for community farmers for raw materials, replace imports, create jobs in local production, future exports, student training and university technology transfer.'