- Ghana is now constructing a processing plant of the natural sweetener thaumatin, derived from the indigenous shrub katemfe. Thaumatin may soon become a billion dollar industry, but patents on genes that contain the sweetening agent of the katemfe plant are filed in the United States, threatening the Ghanaian industrial prospect.
Thaumatin is a protein extracted from a West African shrub called katemfe and is locally used as a natural sweetener and flavour enhancer. The low-calorie extract, which is about 2,500 times sweeter than sugar, has been cultivated and modified in the region for generations. The protein itself was discovered by researchers at the Nigerian University of Ife.
Since the 1970s, thaumatin has been a commercial product on Western markets, marketed under the name Talin by a British company. Relatively small quantities, produced in West Africa, have been shipped to Britain, where it has been processed and sold. Due to a bitter after-taste and an expensive extracting process, sales have so far been small. New technologies have however overcome these problems.
Thus, there have been investments in Ghana to enable the local industry to control a larger part of the thaumatin industry's potentially booming revenues. With German technical and financial assistance, a new thaumatin proceeding plant is now constructed in the Oda-Kotoamso Community of Ghana.
The project found its origin in a local agro-forestry project, where large tracts of land were reforested and useful plants such as katemfe shrub. The local wood processing company Samartex, land owners, land renters and the Ghanaian government agreed to cooperate in the reforestation and commercial use of the katemfe resource.
The German cooperation partners celebrate the establishment of the thaumatin processing plant as an opportunity for the region that has fostered the plant resource to gain its part of the revenues. The Stuttgart-based Fraunhofer-Institut had participated in finding technological solutions adapted to local conditions.
- We consciously have kept the entire processing from the fruit to the finalised powder on a simple basis; today said Wolfgang Krischke from the German scientific institute. Further, Ghanaian experts had been educated at the institute to be able to maintain the production and the plant.
The local company, Samartex, currently is conducting market analyses in Germany and is making contacts with potential thaumatin buyers. In the European Union, the natural sweeter is already approved for human consume and is used in chewing gums, soups and other low calorie products.
As the qualities of the katemfe-based sweetener are being improved, thaumatin is widely believed to become an important product. Currently, the most sold low-calorie alternative to sugar is Nutra Sweet, a big seller based chemical compounds. As the healthiness of purely chemical products often is questioned on Western markets, a purely natural product such as thaumatin is seen as a clear market winner. Alone the US market for low-calorie sweeteners is set at US$ 900 million annually.
While Ghana now is positioning itself in the probably booming production of thaumatin, Western multinationals however soon may strike back. Although the katemfe shrub is indigenous to the forests of Western Africa and the thaumatin protein was discovered by Nigerian scientists, intellectual property rights to the natural product lie in the US.
In the US, researchers from the University of California and the Lucky Biotech Corporation have received a patent for all transgenic fruits, seeds, and vegetables containing the gene responsible for producing thaumatin. The multinational food company Unilever has already made successful attempts to insert these genes into bacteria.
Thaumatin production based on genetic manipulation of bacteria would put an end to all Ghanaian revenues from the katemfe shrub. According to Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), "the genetically engineered route for the production of thaumatin is far cheaper than harvesting it."
This genetic manipulation production would produce large royalty revenues for the patent holders of the genes and place production revenues with companies such as Unilever. Local developers of the katemfe plant will lose all rights to these revenues. "The plant is now little more than a source of thaumatin sweetness genes," GRAIN deplores.
The Ghanaian business establishers and their German cooperation partners nevertheless hope that the indigenous thaumatin will have a future. With low production costs and a non-genetically modified production, they hold that their "natural" production should find substantial markets. This might keep the many thousand katemfe cultivators in Ghana busy for years to come.
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