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Devil's Claw

by James Leith(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 36 - January 1999

As concerns grow about the increasing and often unsustainable exploitation of medicinal plants worldwide, a project in Namibia is successfully demonstrating how environmentally sustainable practice can be combined with fair trade, community control and extremely high quality and competitively priced produce.

Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a plant which grows in the Kalahari sands of Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Angola and, to a lesser extent, in Zambia and Zimbabwe. Its tap root has growing off it a number of “secondary” storage tubers, not unlike elongated sweet potatoes. These contain compounds which have medicinal applications as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory and are used traditionally in southern Africa for a variety of ailments.

Slices of Devil’s Claw laid out to dry. The worker on the left of the picture is probably of the San people.
Slices of Devil’s Claw laid out to dry. The worker on the left of the picture is probably of the San people.

The Threat to Devil’s Claw

There is an established and growing international market for Devil’s Claw and herein lies both threat and opportunity. As with many wild-harvested medicinal plants, as demand for the resource grows so, without the implementation of sustainable resource management, the resource is depleted. In the case of Devil’s Claw the threats to the resource and to the livelihoods of the people who are its principal harvesters are clearly linked to the nature of a trade which is dominated by Devil’s Claw which has been harvested unsustainably, thus endangering the resource itself, and exploitatively in that those people who do most of the harvesting receive almost none of the value of the product in return.

The tubers are dug up in remote rural areas, often under arduous conditions. They are then sliced into thin discs which are dried in the sun before being bagged and sold to exporters via an informal and often very long chain of middle-wo/men. Most of the harvesters of Devil’s Claw are from poor, marginalised communities with few if any other opportunities for cash income. Many are San people who, socio-economically, culturally and politically, are the most deprived ethnic group in southern Africa. Harvesters are paid extremely low prices or in consumer goods or alcohol or sometimes not at all.

Unsustainable Growing Practices

The low prices and the unpredictability of the market encourage unsustainable practice on the part of harvesters because by including the taproot and so, of course, killing the plant, more weight is added. Furthermore, because harvesters rarely have much, if any prior knowledge of the arrival of a buyer or of when or whether s/he will come again, they are desperate to take each opportunity for sale as it comes and so harvest as quickly as possible and include the taproot rather than take the time to refill the hole around it so that the plant can regenerate. As a result the plant is most under pressure in areas where people are most dependent on its survival.

Yet the same factors which encourage unsustainable harvesting techniques and the continued impoverishment of harvesters also lead to many buyers in Europe and elsewhere being disappointed with the quality of the Devil’s Claw available on the market. This is partly because the active ingredients (primarily harpagosides) are concentrated in the secondary tubers, making the inclusion of the tap root undesirable and partly because harvesting and selling at short notice means the sliced Devil’s Claw is often packed before it has had the necessary time (at least three days) to dry.

Establishment of Sustainable and Fair Trading of Devil’s Claw

In January 1998, in an attempt to demonstrate the viability of a sustainable and fair trade in Devil’s Claw which would significantly improve the income of harvesting communities and at the same time satisfy the needs of buyers looking for good quality Devil’s Claw, CRIAA SA-DC, a non-profit making organisation registered in Namibia, began implementing a pilot project in Vergenoeg, a remote community in the western Kalahari. Most of the people in Vergenoeg (which means ‘far enough’ in Afrikaans) are suffering extreme hardship. The sale of Devil’s Claw is often their sole source of income and until this project started, they often had little choice but to sell their cut and dried Devil’s Claw for as little as 10 pence/kg.

Through a series of community meetings as Vergenoeg, the project provided training in sustainable harvesting techniques, cutting and drying, weighing and storage. Harvesters were registered and allocated quotas according to the findings of an ecological survey.

For the project as Vergenoeg to succeed the community had to take as much as responsibility as possible for its local implementation. To this end, two local co-ordinators were selected by the community to monitor harvesting practice, carry out quality control checks and, with the initial help of CRIAA SA – DC and a local Oxfam development worker, manage the books and the payments to the harvesters.

Cutting Devil’s Claw tubers for drying

Cutting Devil’s Claw tubers for drying

Direct Links between Harvesters and Buyers

An agent of the Soil Association, an internationally recognised certifier of organic products, examined the conditions and methods of the project and found them to be satisfactory with regard to all requirements of international certification.

Hambleden Herbs of the UK which is committed to the principle of fair trade, has co-operated with the project from the start, bought all the project’s Devil’s Claw from a major Namibian trader who had himself bought directly from the community for Sterling £1.20/kg. Of this, 80 pence/kg was paid to individual harvesters and 40 pence paid into a community controlled fund. By way of comparison, harvesters at a nearby community have had to sell their Devil’s Claw for 10 pence/kg minus transport costs charged by the buyer. Yet the higher price earned by the project participants is purely market led. No charity is involved. By creating as direct a link as possible between the harvesters and the international buyers who want good quality, fair trade produce which is certified as organic, much higher prices can be secured by the harvesters from buyers attracted by the higher returns of such products. This in turn contributes to the protection of the resource because with higher prices and a predictable market it is in the harvesters’ interests to harvest sustainably so that they can be sure of an income in subsequent years.

Devil's Claw root
Devil's Claw root

Benefits to the Community

The people of Vergenoeg, despite astonishing poverty, have shown remarkable restraint with regard to the community fund. With some of the money they decided to buy corn meal for distribution to their infants and school children. Despite the fact that adults often go hungry themselves they have decided to save the bulk of the money in the hope of being able to increase the fund next year so they can spend the money on something of long-term common benefit.

Several other communities have shown interest in the project. This, along with the success of the project at Vergenoeg and the demand for sustainably harvested and fair trade Devil’s Claw, has encouraged CRIAA SA – DC to expand the project. Recently, support has been secured from the EU to include another seven neighbouring and similarly marginalised communities.

Apart from the obvious attraction of involving more communities in the project, the economies of scale resulting from an enlarged project, especially with regard to transport, should increase the benefit to each community and harvester.

Crucial to the long-term sustainability of the project is the establishment of an institutionalised structure controlled by and therefore representative of the interests of the harvesters themselves. In the longer term the functions now being performed by CRIAA SA – DC must become the responsibility of the harvesting communities. Eventually, the communities should have direct contact with traders in Europe and be able to organise the collection, export of and income accruing from trade in Devil’s Claw. For this to happen participating communities must organise themselves into some form of legal entity in order to be able to trade in their own name. The project is therefore seeking to establish a permanent institution, possibly in the form of a marketing co-operative, to represent the interests of the various harvesting communities. A potential site with good transport and communications access has already been identified. The establishment of such a body linking participating communities and the wider market place would also enable those communities to use the same structure to facilitate the marketing of other potentially viable veld or craft products.


  1. Robert Lagat said..

    can anyone link me directly with the European market or Pharmaceutical companies interested with Devils claw.Currently i have a registered company which can meet their demand.Pls i dont want to deal with middlemen.

  2. Robert Lagat said..

    More has to be done to sustain the supply demand and check uncontrolled harvesting which will diminish the plant.i am happy to realise that you are concerned about unscrupulous middlemen who exploit the harvesters.thanks,we are educating the people on safe harvesting techniques to sustain and maintain the plants.

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About James Leith

James Leith is a project co-ordinator of the CRIAA SA – DC. Hambleden Herbs of the UK specialises in organic herbs and spices, medicinal plants and other botanical resources. For more information of this and other projects regarding sustainable herbs, please telephone 01823 401 205.

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