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Succulent Cultivation Project (SCP)

Background to the SCP

In 2002, a succulent project was initiated at the National Botanic Garden of Namibia under the auspices of the National Botanical Research Institute with financial support from the Southern African Botanical Gardens Network's (SABONET) Threatened Plants Programme, as a response to the rapidly increasing interest in Hoodia, especially Hoodia gordonii, but also to a much lesser extent H. currorii and H. officinalis ssp. officinalis, to meet the growing international demand for plant material. The aim of this project was to conduct a trial into the propagation and growing requirements of Hoodia to ascertain its appropriateness as a potential non-traditional crop species. This approach is very much in line with Namibia's sustainable utilisation philosophy and was seen as a potential measure to relieve pressure on the wild populations while enabling farmers (both commercial and communal) to benefit from the opportunity by diversifying their on-farm activities. After the successful completion of the propagation trials and with support from the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry's (MAWF) Namibian Agricultural Support Services Programme (NASSP), the SCP was formulated as a project in late 2003, with the mandate to promote and facilitate the production of Hoodia (and other succulent species) country-wide, with particular emphasis on conservancies and community groups, as a way of potentially contributing to the Government's Vision 2030 poverty alleviation targets.

The purpose of the SCP is/was to contribute to the successful expansion of cultivation of Hoodia and other succulent species, to realise their commercial value and as a long-term conservation measure.

Aims

  1. To contribute to the strengthening of in situ and ex situ conservation of succulent flora by propagating and cultivating selected species,
  2. To promote the commercialisation of non-traditional, indigenous plant resources within Natural Resource Management (NRM) programmes, thus contributing to the diversification of agricultural activities and the sustainable utilisation of botanical resources,
  3. To contribute to the enhancement of the livelihoods of smallholder households by increasing income generating options through the marketing of the plants,
  4. To contribute to the promotion and control of bioprospecting and biotrade activities to generate sustainable benefits to Namibia.

Objectives

  1. To propagate plants from seeds to establish effective propagation methods,
  2. To establish requirements for optimal growth under cultivation,
  3. To maintain seedling populations at the National Botanic Garden,
  4. To make available propagation material and seedlings to identified parties (conservancies and community groups) for further cultivation purposes,
  5. To assist with the development of propagation and cultivation facilities in target areas, with the target groups,
  6. To facilitate skills-transfer and expertise to cultivators where required,
  7. To facilitate research into the sustainability of harvesting from mature Hoodia plants,
  8. To facilitate the marketing of plants,
  9. To provide plant material of targeted species as part of a systematic screening process to identify any compounds for applications in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, under approved contractual agreements.

Collaborators with the SCP

  1. The Project was housed at the NBRI, which provides institutional support, botanical expertise and links to the NBRI's Economic Botany Section,
  2. The Hoodia Working Group (HWG), a sub-group of the multi-stakeholder, government-mandated Indigenous Plants Task Team (IPTT), with which the SCP co-ordinator was intimately involved and guided, as the Project fell within its ambit,
  3. NASSP (EU funding), which provided the financial support,
  4. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism
  5. The Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development (now MAWF),
  6. The Polytechnic and UNAM providing options for in-service training and research,
  7. NGOs, viz. the Namibian Development Trust and the Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) providing conservancy liaison, capacity-building and logistics,
  8. Conservancies and community organisations, especially in southern Namibia, but also in the northwest, who are the target groups and beneficiaries of the Project.

Summary of progress

All the conservancies (registered or emerging) in southern Namibia were approached to participate in the Project. Meetings were held with the conservancy management committees and traditional authorities to disseminate information, to clarify the purpose and potential of the Project, to explain what is required and to elicit support for and participation in the Project. The conservancies included !Khob !Naub, Berseba (still an emerging conservancy), !Gamaseb, Oskop, !Navachab in southern Namibia. Oskop and Berseba demonstrated a lack of interest and/or organisational capacity at an early stage and minimal progress was made with them, while !Navachab was a late candidate for the Project, with progress restricted to limited discussions due to the ending of the funding period of the SCP.

!Khob !Naub and !Gamaseb Conservancies showed sufficient interest and only !Khob !Naub proved to have the organisational and leadership capacity to make progress with the Project. In the northwest, the Ozondundu Conservancy was identified as a candidate for the Project and for a while some progress was made there, with logistical support from the IRDNC.

Two community organisations were also identified and received support from the SCP. These were the Karasburg Community Centre (a self-help HIV organisation) and the Omaheke San Trust. Despite initial progress, both these initiatives struggled to progress due to weak leadership and commitment to the growing and maintaining of the plants, as well as the ending of the SCP funding and technical support. By the end of the September 2006, despite significant strides by the national industry, especially some commercial farmers, only !Knob !Naub Conservancy was in a position to take advantage of the emerging industry as a significant producer of seedlings.

Due to a lack of continuity in funding the SCP ceased operating in September 2006, although the "co-ordinator" continued to provide inputs into the !Khob !Naub Conservancy. Regrettably, due to staffing problems the Conservancy neglected to maintain or expand its cultivation activities through the main growing period of 2006/2007 and missed an opportunity to sell a large number of seedlings in the local market at a time when demand was high and supply was short. Ozondundu Conservancy also failed to meet propagation targets or to expand its seedling numbers or to maintain mature live plants rescued from road works and donated to it, resulting in the missing of an opportunity to sell the plants to a lodge in the northwest for a not insignificant price. Nor did the conservancy successfully expand into other succulent species, through the rooting of cuttings, as was its plan.

Notwithstanding the limited progress with cultivation in the conservancies and rural communal areas, a number of positive impacts have been made:

  1. A number of the succulent species in the target areas already have well established traditional knowledge and use associations, giving them value locally. What the SCP has done is to raise awareness through community meetings and information dissemination, of succulents as a potential income-generating resource that could be sustainably managed. This awareness has led to the better protection of the in situ succulent populations in the conservancies by them being included in the resource protection network, for example as part of the game guards' activities.
  2. Resource mapping has been implemented in some conservancies, mainly focusing on Hoodia distribution and densities to allow for and assist with on-going resource monitoring for sustainable utilisation. By doing this, the conservancies were introduced to their indigenous plant resources (as having commercial potential) and began to develop and undertake monitoring of this resource, as is the case with their wildlife.
  3. The SCP undertook research into off-take impacts on wild populations (i.e. wild harvesting), the lessons of which proved useful in the later design of wild harvesting procedures for permits issued for wild harvesting by the HWG and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). Further research is being carried out on the viability of enrichment plantings, to enhance the existing wild populations within areas, especially where Hoodia populations are under pressure from prolonged dry periods or over-utilisation for traditional use purposes or from recent illegal wild harvesting activities, which has had a negative impact on population numbers in many areas of especially southern Namibia where H. gordonii, the preferred species, is prevalent. Determining the "best practice" approach to enrichment plantings is important for increasing the success of such a programme and can be expanded to incorporate other succulent species in the areas coming under pressure.
  4. The monitoring of Hoodia populations in an area allows for the collection of seeds from the plants for cultivation purposes. Having an in situ population from which seeds can be harvested is an economic advantage over those producers who must purchase seeds on the local market at a high cost. Enrichment plantings and "influencing" by the watering of selected mature in situ plants is also contributing to a more reliable availability of seeds from these plants.
  5. Although the main focus of the SCP has been Hoodia, the cultivation of other succulent species has been encouraged. Conservancies collected seeds and/or took cuttings of selected species for cultivation. The species selected were at that stage those found with the target area(s). The common species being cultivated are Aloe hereroensis and A. dichotoma by the !Knob !Naub Conservancy. Despite the limited diversification of cultivation into other species, awareness of their "ease of cultivation" economic potential for income-generation has been raised and recognised by the conservancies.
  6. Capacity development and training by the SCP has been a spin-off for all the conservancies involved at some stage. Training in resource management and basic horticultural practices and methods has increased the ability of the members to pursue the growing of succulents with more confidence and to take some initiative to address the challenges. Understanding of the potential of the resource has instilled a sense of "ownership" over the resource and the desire to protect it from destruction. Capacity was also built by the SCP outside of its immediate scope, e.g. with conservancy management issues and procedures which were an unavoidable necessity for the SCP co-ordinator, as most the conservancies targeted are relatively new and still managerially/institutionally weak and inexperienced.
  7. The SCP extended activities into a number of other avenues, as part of its involvement in the promotion of succulents. These activities included regular involvement and inputs into the HWG and support for the development and operating of the Hoodia Growers' Association of Namibia (HOGRAN).

The way forward

With the ending of the NASSP funding, the SCP's activities have to a large extent ceased. Further funding for the !Khob !Naub Conservancy until the end of 2008 is being provided by the Integrated Community-based Ecosystem Management (ICEMA) Programme's FFEM component, with technical inputs and support from the NBRI's PPD (now Economic Botany) incumbent. This has allowed the conservancy to continue with its cultivation of Hoodia activities and to expand the number of satellite nurseries within the conservancy. Currently the conservancy is facing two constraints that will need to be overcome if it is to successfully continue with Hoodia. These are the need for significantly more seeds than can be collected from the in situ populations within the conservancy and the accessing of funds to develop the infrastructure needed to step up the volumes of plants under cultivation for eventual harvesting.

The Ozondundu Conservancy nursery has been relocated to a site near Sesfontein in the Kunene Region, where different nursery staff will be appointed to continue with and expand the operation. The potential in this region to diversify succulent production into a number of species and to focus on cuttings to produce large specimens in a shorter time period presents the conservancy with the option of being able to sell successfully rooted plants into an already existing regional and international market in a few years from now.

The SABONET's Threatened Plants Programme propagation trial and the SCP have demonstrated that the sustainable utilisation of selected succulents through cultivation and resource management is possible in much of Namibia's more arid and marginal farming areas, with the potential to realise income from the resource. The growing awareness of the resource in conservancies means that there is an opportunity to expand this initiative and to incorporate a larger number of growers within the conservancy network, thereby contributing to the in situ conservation of succulents in a large area of the country. A major challenge facing any project promoting the cultivation of succulents is the time period during cultivation before any financial returns are accrued. Usually this can be for at least 3 - 4 years and even longer, as many plants attract an increasing monetary value with size and age. The use of cuttings as cultivation material can speed this process, but the long period without any income does create a challenge in terms of the continuity of staffing and plant (seedling) maintenance.

At this stage the PPD section of the NBRI, as part of its function, is continuing to support the development of the opportunity around succulents through direct involvement with the conservancies, participation in the HWG and the HOGRAN. Although these activities dovetail comfortably with the PPD, it is envisaged that with external funding, the SCP could continue as a self-standing project, in a modified format.