Sifiso Skenjana: SA could be cashing in on traditional medicine

Sifiso Skenjana
Sifiso Skenjana

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) have long played an important role in the sustainable utilisation of natural resources, promoting food security, health and medicine, education and training as well in food preparation.

We have seen how "organic products" in recent years became commercially fashionable, when they were the very bedrock of how native communities lived and continue to live.

No one can claim to have brought civilisation to Africa's indigenous people, when through IKS we created sustainable economies in food and agricultural science, traditional medicine, natural resource management, engineering and technology, sustainable development ecology, and natural disaster management. The question has long been answered, despite many who closed their ears to it.

Traditional medicine

Traditional medicine has long been used for health restoration here, as well as prevention of sickness and disease. These techniques and recipes have been passed through generations and still carry a lot of value in their healing and preventative prowess.

We have also come to know that a lot of the plant species that have traditionally been used for healing are increasingly in danger of extinction. Shackleton and Campbell (2000) found that more than 100 key species of plants and 29 species of animals have become scarce or difficult to obtain in East and Southern Africa.

Global statistics have pointed to how medicinal plants and plant-based pharmaceuticals can have positive benefits for cost effective domestic healthcare delivery as well as broader economic growth.

Global exports

In 2014, global exports of traditional medicines were worth $1.9trn, and South Africa was found to be the third most bio-diverse economy in the world, being home to some 10% of the world’s plants, yet South Africa ranked only 53rd in terms of exports and 43rd in terms of imports of traditional medicine.

There are about 10 major plants that have realised material commercial value in export markets (some of which are facing major extinction) including Agathosma betulina, Aloe ferox, Aspalathus linearis, Harpagophytum procumbens, Hypoxis hemerocallidea, Merwilla natalensis, Pelargonium sidoides, Sclerocarya birrea, Siphonochilus aethiopicus and Sutherlandia frutescens.

SA should cash in

In KZN there is a popular plant called ishaqa (aka Pelargonium Sidoides) that is harvested regularly and gets exported to Germany, and processed as a natural remedy for sinus, nasal and bronchial functions.

And as developing countries move from dealing primarily with acute diseases to more complex and chronic disease, the demand and supply of pharmaceutical supply will be impacted, and government budget for health expenditure will rise considerably.

One plant, for example, that is understood to have strong healing effects for tuberculosis is found in the Eastern Cape.

The plant scientists now call Umckaloabo (probably really spelt Umkhalowabo) which in the UK was commonly referred to as the "Stevens Cure" after Charles Stevens had in 1897 been sent to South Africa to find a cure for his consumption tuberculosis and returned home healed after the plant had been medically administered.

Apparently 30ml of the medicine cost $13 online. According to a study published in the Journal of Botany, total exports to Germany alone exceeded €80m annually.

Northwest University, in 2017, had their first cohort of students graduating with a degree in Indigenous Knowledge Systems.

What is really encouraging is the fact that some of the Universities in the country are starting to respond to the urgent need to reinvest in indigenous knowledge systems, if not to take advantage of new markets and economic development, then purely for our sustainable development as a people and our survival.
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