Business in Africa (Johannesburg)

8 August 2006

Ethiopia: 'Weed' Has a Green Future

Addis Ababa — British firm Vernique Biotech would soon commercially exploit a plant grown only in Ethiopia.

Vernonia, a tall plant disliked up to now by Ethiopian farmers who considered it a weed, is grown in the valleys of eastern Ethiopia. The plant has shiny black seeds that, when pressed, give up an oil that offers a source of epoxy compounds that, to date, have only been produced from petrochemicals.

In 2003 Paul McClory and Michael Dobell linked up with Ethiopian colleagues with a good local knowledge of vernonia to see if the plant could be grown to produce commercial yields. During the last three years they have grown plots of vernonia throughout Ethiopia and were now ready to develop vernonia as a commercial oilseed crop.

The Ethiopian government signed an agreement in July with Vernique Biotech who would commercialise vernonia oil as a "green" chemical. The oil would offer a green base for the manufacture of paints, plastics and adhesives. In addition, the plant has pharmaceutical potentials.

Paul McClory said: "Vernonia has the potential to become the industrial soya bean of the 21st century."

McClory, an environmental businessman, believes that vernonia oil does not give off the volatile organic compounds that cause pollution when extracted petrochemically. "Once grown on a commercial scale vernonia will compete economically."

The deal took place under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity's Access and Benefit Sharing Agreement, one of the few existing deals of its kind. Vernique would pay licence fees and royalties and a would give a share of profits to the Ethiopian government over the next 10 years in exchange for access to the plant.

The deal would also benefit hundreds of local farmers who would be paid to grow vernonia on land that was too poor to produce good food crops. It would, therefore, not diminish Ethiopia's ability to feed itself which has increased considerably over the past few years in particular.

World-renowned environmentalist Dr Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, director-general of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, commented: "With petrochemical products becoming more and more expensive and environmentally less and less acceptable, I think benefits will indeed accrue to Ethiopia. For better or for worse, we are in this together - and I am confident it will be for the better."

Tewolde, the Ethiopian representative to the Convention on Biological Diversity, says the vernonia access agreement was the second negotiated by his country. A first agreement, signed in 2004, offered Dutch company Health and Performance Food International the right to exploit an Ethiopian cereal called "teff" . "In the past, others have taken Ethiopia's genetic resources and used them without consideration," Tewolde said.

The Americans were planning to exploit vernonia, but discovered that it would not grow in their climate - "it favours a pattern of day and night found only within 20° of the equator", said Michael Dobell, co-founder of Vernique with Paul McClory, and a specialist in African agriculture..

He added that vernonia test cultivation started in 2004, and produced a small crop of seeds in 2005. Vernique would grow about 200ha of vernonia this season and would get between one and two tonnes of vernonia oil per hectare. "Within a few years we expect to be growing thousands of hectares of vernonia in Ethiopia", said Mr Dobell.

Vernique was working to find the most promising applications of vernonia oil with British scientist and professor of chemistry Jim Howell, of Keele University.

"Adhesive resins can be made from rapeseed oil, but the epoxidising process is very polluting," said Professor Howell. "Vernonia oil is already naturally epoxidised." The professor was collaborating with the US-based chemical company Eastman, to develop vernonia oil as a base for paints.

UK biotechnology entrepreneur, Tony Atkinson, was working on "an exciting range of pharmaceutical applications for vernonia oil". The oil speeds up wound healing and alleviates psoriasis. The oil seals broken skin, in a process similar to the action of epoxy glue.

In the future, Vernique plans to develop a drug delivery system based on vernonia oil which can act as a "slow release" agent for drugs in the body, or form nano-scale "vesicles" to carry drugs across the blood-brain barrier, for example in chemotherapy for brain tumours. No one knows why a biological mechanism to make large quantities of epoxide evolved in vernonia, but not in other plants. It may be there to protect against disease or desiccation.

Mohammed Abdella, a biologist at Alemaya University in Ethiopia, sought wild vernonia recently in the Erer valley, where it was commonly found, but could not find it. Farmers had pulled up the "weeds" to plant cereals. "It was a shocking experience to find that such a valuable plant has been wiped out," said Professor Mohammed. "To think that the species may have been lost."

Vernonia joins roses and other flowers that were now produced commercially in Ethiopia and which have boosted the Ethiopian economy that has been growing at a rate of over 8 percent a year for almost four years accorindg to government statistics.

Vernonia, if managed properly, could play a key role in further boosting Ethiopia's economy.

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