Kenyans thrive on local plants

Chewed or dissolved in a warm drink,
Mondia tonic is a natural root powder
used as an anti-depressant and
anti-oxidant; it helps clear hangovers and
is also an appetite stimulant.
(Image: Irin Photo)

A project developing medicinal products from plants found in Kakamega forest in western Kenya has transformed the livelihoods of nearby communities over the past few years, according to the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE).

A unique tonic that stimulates the appetite and clears hangovers, as well as working as an antidepressant and antioxidant, is developed from one of the plants. A group of farmers who have domesticated the “highly threatened” medicinal plant, known locally as mkombela (scientific name Mondia whytei), used to collect and sell the roots locally.

Another group of farmers are involved in the domestication of the medicinal plant Ocimum kilimandscharicum. A leaf extract from the plant is used in the manufacture of a balm and an ointment used to treat flu, cold, chest congestion, aches, pain and insect bites.

“We believe the project has a major role to play as a model for conservation or biodiversity and in the improvement of the livelihoods of communities living near the forest,” said Wilber Lwande, ICIPE leader of the applied bioprospecting programme.

“It is also one of the ways of enabling indigenous traditional knowledge to be useful to humankind before it is entirely lost.”

Communities living near the forest relied on it for firewood, building materials and various herbs. But since commercial cultivation and processing of the medicinal products began about eight years ago, reliance on the forest has decreased, allowing better forest conservation.

Community enterprise

James Ligare, assistant administrator of the Mondia community enterprise, said a group of 30 farmers, known as the Muliro Farmers, were involved in the initial domestication of the plant, which takes six months to mature. These farmers have since encouraged “outgrowers” to cultivate the plant, which is processed into powder form in a factory built with financial assistance from international donors.

“The farmers harvest the plant three times a year and most say they earn more from Mondia than they did cultivating crops like maize and tea,” Ligare said. “On average, a farmer makes 35 000 to 40 000 Kenya shillings [US$437 to $500, or R3 900 to R4 460] when they cultivate the plant on a small plot, ranging from an eighth of an acre to half an acre.”

Ligare said the bioprospecting programme had raised the status of the communities involved. Those who previously lived in grass-thatched houses now have better homes. More than that, awareness about environmental conservation has improved and many of local people are seeking computer and business management skills in efforts to improve production.

Frederick Nduguli, a consultant in ICIPE’s bioprospecting and conservation programme, said the products from Mondia and Ocimum kilimandscharicum – with approvals from the Pharmacy and Poisons Board of Kenya, the Kenya Industrial Property Institute and the Kenya Bureau of Standards – are available in most supermarkets across the country.

Bioprospecting

ICIPE – a non-profit organisation – has a dozen programmes aimed at helping to alleviate poverty and ensure food security and improved health.

Lwande said biosprospecting was increasingly being recognised for its potential to uplift economies. Effective bioprospecting, he said, would allow African nations to have a stake in the global industry of naturally derived products.

ICIPE projects in Coast Province are helping communities living near coastal forests to undertake the commercial collection and processing of seeds from the neem tree and aloe plant.

Neem (Zadirachta indica) thrives in the semi-arid region of Kwale, while aloe is cultivated by communities near the Shimba Hills forest.

Neem oil and other neem plant-based products are used in the manufacture of medicines, cosmetics, pesticides and agricultural products. Aloe is used in making soap.

Lwande estimated that up to 30 000 Kenyans benefit from the bioprospecting and conservation projects undertaken with ICIPE’s help in Kenya’s western and coastal provinces.

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