Innovation in Resource-Based Technology Clusters: Investigating the Lateral Migration Thesis – Muti from coal: science and politics of humic substance research in South Africa

by LORENTZEN, J. , 2006
Research Report, Employment Growth & Development Initiative, Human Sciences Research Council

Lorentzen offers a case study of lateral migration of technology from resource sectors in South Africa. He focuses on the extraction of humic substances from coal. SA is the third biggest producer of coal in the world, mining about 35 million tons a year. Coal accounts for more than 90 percent of the country’s energy supply. The processes associated with generating this technology started with wet oxidisation of bituminous coal and later changed to using a plant source to synthesize humic substances from carbohydrates. Humic substances are naturally occurring acids that have beneficial medicinal properties. In short, they are anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and ante viral. In parts of the world they have been part of folk medicine for a long time. Some applications have been thoroughly researched, tested, and approved for sale. For example, skin infections of dogs and cats can be treated with ointments based on humic substances. Due to their anti-viral effects, humic substances were used in clinical trials of HIV-positive patients. For a number of reasons, these trials were extremely controversial. The negative publicity they attracted led to the sale of the state-owned company, including its intellectual property rights, which had been at the forefront of humic substance research in South Africa, to an overseas firm. The politics and the science of the technology behind humic substances are intensely related, albeit not in ways that in retrospect would appear to have benefited there turn to public R&D in South Africa or, for that matter, human progress more generally. Due to the political imbroglio, it was never established what, if any, effects humic substances might have in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Conversely, it was never established that they had no effects, either. Given the severity of the epidemic, this lack of knowledge comes at a high price. If humic substances might have any merit in combating HIV/AIDS, they should be further researched. If they do not, they should be added once and for all to the long list of failed attempts to find a cure for the epidemic. It appears that the politics of the case make this verification difficult. This is not optimal.