A cactus used for centuries by bushmen of the Kalahari desert to fend off hunger could soon be earning tribesmen thousands of pounds in royalties, after Unilever, the global giant behind the Slim-Fast brand, licensed the plant for use in diet foods.
Unilever said yesterday that it has signed a £21m licensing deal with Phytopharm, the UK biotech company that had previously tried to turn the cactus, the hoodia, into an anti-obesity drug. The plant could be used as an ingredient for new Slim-Fast products, as Unilever struggles to revive the brand after collapsing sales.
Under the deal, Phytopharm will receive royalties on any products developed from the hoodia, and in turn pay a royalty to the South African government's research agency, which proved the cactus's appetite-suppressant properties in the Eighties.
The South African government agreed last year to share part of the income with the San people of the Kalahari, with the money to be spent on community facilities, education and the protection of their heritage. Despite being one of Africa's oldest peoples, about only 110,000 San remain, living in extreme poverty.
Richard Dixey, the chief executive of Phytopharm, said: "The San people's traditional use for the hoodia was what triggered the scientific work, so it is equitable that they should share in the benefits of this discovery."
Phytopharm shares jumped 11 per cent to 239p on the news. The company has been in discussions with Unilever for more than a year, and has been hunting for a partner after Pfizer, the world's largest drug company, gave up working on the product 18 months ago. Mr Dixey said he hoped the deal would dispel some of the scepticism that has surrounded the product's prospects since Pfizer's withdrawal.
A Unilever spokesman said: "We don't like to excite consumers with ideas before we're ready to bring them to market. We are buying the rights to develop the science further."
The Anglo-Dutch food group is handing over £6.5m upfront, with further payments of up to £14.5m depending on progress in the next three years of development work.
It is Unilever's first third-party licensing deal. Normally, the company develops products - such as its "pro.activ" cholesterol-lowering ingredient, used in Flora margarine - at its in-house research centre in Rotterdam.
It hopes the deal will revitalise the Slim-Fast brand, where sales were falling at a rate of 30 per cent at one point last year.