Hoodia gordonii, a plant that grows wild in the area stretching from the Ceres-Karoo, through the Northern Cape, to the Kalahari, has been consumed by the bushmen for thousands of years to suppress appetite on hunting trips. Research into its appetite suppressing properties and the isolation of the active ingredient P57, (which has been patented and is under license to Unilever) has spawned immense interest in the plant in the West. As appetite management gains credence as an approach to weight management, demand has exceeded supply. But over the last three years South African company Afriplex has planted 12 million plants over 120 hectares, and its first harvest – expected to yield 80 dry tonnes of hoodia – will take place this April. When the plantations reach full capacity in 2009, production is expected to reach 200 tons per annum. Since 60 tons of wild harvested hoodia was exported from South Africa in 2006, the project – claimed to be "the largest independent commercial hoodia project worldwide" – will significantly increase the amount of material available, and help combat rising prices since 2002. Technical director Riaan Vanbreda told NutraIngredients.com that the current price for sale of wild harvested hoodia into Europe is between €130 and €300. Prices are expected to be curbed by the availability of cultivated hoodia – from Afriplex and other new growers whose first plants will be maturing over the next two years. What is more, the surge in demand has led to unsustainable harvesting practices. In order to seed and ensure long-term sustainability, hoodia plants should be harvested only every second or third year. But unsustainable annual harvesting and illegal poaching in an effort to cash in on the hoodia boom has placed the plant under threat in ecologically sensitive areas. The company says that the production of hoodia in a sustainable manner was the main driving force behind the initiation of its cultivation programme. But the inconsistent supply of hoodia has cause big problems for some manufacturers, when they have had to withdraw products from shelves after launch, since they could no longer make them. Afriplex is offering key customers a way to guarantee their future supply through a co-ownership programme for future harvests. "The capital outlay was huge," said Vanbreda. "As we start harvesting the plants we have to replace them. We would like clients to come to the table, to secure their supply of hoodia for the future." As with the other plant extracts it produces out of its plant in Paarl, including rooibus and African aloe, Afriplex is able to offer novel, client-specific extracts of hoodia. But Vanbreda stressed that there are limits to this, since patents such as that on P57 must be respected. The retail market for weight management products was estimated by Euromonitor International to be worth US$0.93bn (€0.73) in Europe in 2005 and $3.93bn in the US, indicating that call to slim down or face the health consequences is being heeded by a slice of the overweight population at least.