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The No.1 lady seed detective

Graphic of a seed at high resolution

Mma Khola Mogotsi is a plant physiologist from the Botswana College of Agriculture in the capital, Gaborone. But today she is acting as a seed detective and translator for an investigation on the eastern edge of the Kalahari Desert. One of the local village chiefs is sharing his knowledge of native plants with a number of Kew staff, including Dr Moctar Sacandé, the regional coordinator of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership – originally from Burkina Faso.

This morning, the local chief has identified wild specimens that reputedly cure ills as various as backache, earache, diarrhoea and impotence. The scientists are sceptical of some of his more magical-sounding claims, but they are also keen to test the properties of these plants in the laboratory.

Moctar is quick to point out that, if the chemical properties really do turn out to be miraculous, the villagers will keep the intellectual property – and a share of any resulting profits. Although some seeds are bound for Kew, the main goal is to cultivate wild specimens just outside the village in a garden, created as part of the Millennium Seed Bank’s Useful Plants Project. Already, the villagers have grown many vital species that have become harder to find in the wild. They include:

  • marula, a plum-like fruit
  • devil’s claw to treat arthritis
  • Artemisia with its anti-malarial properties
  • the Kalahari cucumber, traditionally foraged but never previously cultivated


Although Mma Mogotsi is the scientific force behind the garden, the Useful Plants Project only exists thanks to a donation from a Spanish donor. Philanthropy can have effects almost as magical as those of plants. But the economics are simple. To create further gardens of rare and useful plants for the people of the Kalahari and other remote parts of the world, more funds are needed. Elementary, Doctor Moctar, you might say.

The Breathing Planet Campaign will seek support for expansion of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.

Call us on 020 8332 3248 to offer your support, or donate online.

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Based on a story by Tim Adams that first appeared in The Observer, 5 July 2009.

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