The healing power of African plants

Unlocking the rich potential of African plants to produce new medicines to and create profitable agricultural businesses.  

Aloe ferox, which is indigenous to South Africa and has more therapeutic properties than the more widely known Aloe vera, is the base of a large pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry in South Africa. (Image: Wikipedia)

Brand South Africa reporter 

The rich potential of African plants to produce new medicines to combat illness – and create profitable agricultural businesses – was a key part of discussion at the fourth World Congress on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (Wocmap), held at the International Convention Centre in Cape Town from 9 to 14 November.

According to conference organiser Kobus Eloff, the most well-supported themes of the conference were biodiversity and conservation, indicating that people in the field were trying to approach their endeavours in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Another theme that attracted good attendance and stimulated much debate was the question of intellectual property. This was one of the conference’s main themes, one that directly affects African growers, harvesters and manufacturers, as many commercial pharmaceutical products are developed from folk remedies.

Wocmap is held every five years, under the auspices of the International Council of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. More than 400 delegates attended, and Eloff said he was delighted at the turnout – not only in quantity but also in quality, as 11 of the top 15 scientists in the field were present.

Many delegates were excited about coming to Africa, and to Cape Town particularly, as there is an untapped wealth of medicinal and aromatic plants in and around Cape Town, and on the continent generally.

The smallest plant kingdom

The sour fig Carpobrotus edulus has been used for folk medicine in South African for centuries, but it has not been
commercially exploited. (Image: Wikipedia)

The Cape Floral Kingdom is by far the smallest of the six floral kingdoms of the world, comprising less than 0.04% of the earth’s land surface. But it contains about 4% of the world’s plant species. There are nearly 9 000 plant species of plant found naturally in this contained area.

To put that into perspective, the entire British Isles has 1 500 plant species, about the same number as found within the city of Cape Town alone. What’s more important, and what gives the Cape its floral kingdom status, is that about 70% of these plants are endemic – they grow naturally nowhere else in the world.

There are some 1 000 species of plant in the city of Cape Town that grow naturally within an area of a few hundred kilometres at most from the city. It is this unparalleled biodiversity that led to the declaration of the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) as a World Heritage site.

If that’s not enough reason to get delegates hot under the collar merely at the thought of flying in to Cape Town, many plants, both within the CFR and the rest of Africa, have long been used for therapeutic purposes by traditional healers.

The business of African herbs

Calendula is not indigenous to South Africa, but it is widely used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
This plant is growing on a farm in Wellington near Cape Town. (Image: Wikipedia)

Many of these were to be seen in the Business Forum and African Herbal Market, a complementary event that showcased a number of African remedies, with over 40 exhibitors.

This part of the event, while not nearly as academically impressive, attracted the most attention.  According to organiser Ulrich Feiter, there is a growing interest in natural plant-based medicines.

“People are getting tired of antibiotics,” he says. “Conventional medicines are just not cutting it any more.

“But,” he adds, “the natural medicines market is becoming more sophisticated. It’s maturing.”

He explains that as the field becomes more regulated and standards rise, demand for the product increases. But so do production costs.

“For example,” he says. “In order to obtain a GMP [good manufacturing practice] stamp of approval, you need to spend millions in water purification and air conditioning and filtration. Pharmaceutical products must be manufactured in a totally sterile atmosphere.”

It is a bit of a chicken-egg situation, as a huge investment in manufacturing infrastructure is necessary before high-quality therapies can be produced, but potential manufacturers must to be assured of a market before they spend money.

It’s not only the manufacture of plant-based medicines that is increasing. Many delegates to the Business Forum were commercial farmers looking to expand their operations to include the cultivation of therapeutic plants.

“In some ways that’s a good thing,” Feiter says, “but it’s a lot harder than they realise.”

African medicinal plant standards


The roots of Pelargonium sidoides, which grows only in southern Africa, are the main ingredient of a popular
European-made cough remedy. (Image: Wikipedia)

This is where the Association for African Medicinal Plant Standards (Aamps) comes in. Now based in Mauritius, Aamps was founded by the Centurion Declaration in May 2005, at Centurion in Gauteng. The aim of the association is to promote and regulate trade in African medicinal plants. Seventeen countries are signatories to the declaration.

The use of plants for medicine is a complex field that brings together botany, horticulture, pharmacology, biochemistry and a range of medical and complementary medical disciplines. The practice dates back further than there is record, encompassing a range of cultural milieus.

Plants form the basis for a huge number of remedies manufactured by practitioners ranging from traditional healers, who use herbs close to their natural state, to sophisticated multinational pharmaceutical companies who isolate one or two plant compounds to manufacture drugs. It’s a multidisciplinary field bringing together a wide range of people.

Enormous body of traditional knowledge

“And that is the real challenge,” says Marthinus Horak, manager of the Essential Oils and Medicinal Plants Programme, which is part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Enterprise Creation for Development .

“The market is huge,’ he says, “but it is mostly in the northern hemisphere. And there is an enormous body of traditional knowledge in, for example, Africa. But there are huge gaps.

“The academics speak to the traditional healers to get some direction, to know which plants to study, and then they isolate and analyse the therapeutic compounds in the plants.

“But there is an innovation chasm between academia and industry. Before this knowledge can be put to good use, a whole structure needs to be set up. Someone needs to grow the plants, and then someone needs to make the remedies.

“At present, most raw materials are exported, and the value is added in the developed countries – and the money is made there.

The Essential Oils and Medicinal Plants Programme, which is funded by the [South African] Department of Science and Technology, seeks to put the cultivation and harvesting of medicinal plants, and the manufacture of remedies on a sound commercial footing – at the community level.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for broad-based black economic empowerment,” Horak says, “because many people have access to arable land, but they don’t know what to do with it. In many cases, it’s too small for extensive agriculture, but a farm of 30 or 40 hectares is ideal for the production of medicinal and aromatic plants.”

That’s just the beginning, though. The CSIR, through its various programmes, facilitates the transfer of technology. It enables small-scale farmers to access the results of academic endeavours – information about which crops to plant where, means of propagation, and how and when to harvest to retain the highest levels of the active ingredients.

But it doesn’t end there. The Essential Oils and Medicinal Plants Programme also helps aspiring entrepreneurs with the business side of the enterprise by offering training in financial management, marketing and other essential business skills.

The potential is enormous. Says renowned local ethno-botanist and author, Ben-Erik van Wyk: “There are about 2 000 plant species used for commercial medicine production all around the world, and only about 100 come from Africa.

“And Africa contains 25% of the world’s plant species.”

Clearly, there is much potential for the discovery of new and exciting remedies – and also much work to be done.

Source: International Council of Medicinal and Aromatic PlantsUniversity of Pretoria Phytomedicine ProgrammeDepartment of Science and Technology

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