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Indigenous Medicinal Plants: Uganda’s neglected economy, what next?

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Added 15th October 2019 09:05 AM

A case study is China, where parallel treatments of both orthodox and traditional remedies go hand in hand

By Prof. Dominic Byarugaba & Vivian Anyali 

For centuries, we have used plants to fulfill our daily needs ranging from food, medicine, building materials, clothing, crafts to ornaments and many other uses.

These attributes continue to emerge as research and development initiatives spin out new ideas. It is easy to see what kind of development that this neglected economy would bring to a country if only the liberalized economies can accept parallel treatment in most of Uganda’s orthodox treatment health units, centres and hospitals but also if our modern religious attributes and perceptions do not continue to demonize traditional and indigenous practices.

This is the time to sweat more and breed less as we research more on indigenous medicinal plants for yield of innovations and inventions before the knowledge holders disappear to the ancestors as the new wave of known and unknown diseases particularly the so called cancers have waged havoc in a manner not even explainable by the very experts who oppose traditional therapy. 

A case study is China, where parallel treatments of both orthodox and traditional remedies go hand in hand and also where in India the practice as old as human kind has of recent become Uganda’s and generally Africa’s health tourism destination. Readers I once was on a flight to Malaysia via Dubai, guess what on the same flight Indian scientists were from Uganda on fact finding mission on the most potent herb which is even restricted for use in Uganda. In the recent analyses, some traditional remedies have overtaken the well-researched orthodox medicine and recently, WHO cleared and sanctioned all the tested and accredited traditional remedies that treat human ailments.

For example Kenya Medical Research Council recently surprised WHO and had its anti- Herpes simplex concoction cleared all through the rigorous standardization processes you can imagine that are appended to drug clearance. Imagine the herpes simples scourge in the world, Kenya is about to be wealthy and stable on just a simple one concoction- if you are not in agreement and you are in Africa just observe the rate at which most men scratch themselves around the engine area all the time, over 75% is due to poor hygiene and herpes simples related problems.

I recall former Mbarara Municipality MP’s general comment when he once said that should you visit him on a ward as a man he must first screen intestinal worm egg load! I actually salute him all the time for this intrinsic treatment gesture to Africa men who shun away from treatment most times. It is imperative to reckon that mankind has over the years researched on the use of plants and animal parts as concoction ingredients in indigenous and traditional therapy particularly the leaves, flowers, fruits, seeds, bark and roots of plants and animal body parts like the gut and other internal organs like the liver, hooves, skin and hair to manage disease.

These explorations have created an urgent awareness to critical solutions to the disease burden of the human and livestock world wide. Alas African indigenous and traditional research has no patents- hence a loss to the developed world with patents.

China boasts of having one of the healthiest populations in the world. This can be attributed to practicing Traditional Medicine Practice (TMP), which involves the use of medicinal plants coupled to the predominantly vegetarian diet they practice. These people developed their methods and theories of Chinese medicine for over two thousand years. Even up to now, their traditional and western treatment methods have been combined and integrated in their major hospitals and traditional medicine has gained and received greater emphasis.

In Africa, Kenya and South Africa boast of checked intestinal worm infestation in all age brackets. Unlike Uganda, where it is considered to be a tropical neglected disease and infection, we stand to spend heavily. These problems could have been solved by our own initiatives and community hygiene. Additionally, as a country we heavily rely on the western countries to do the research needed to curb these neglected diseases permanently and yet our great grand fathers have solutions in their silent domain.

At times it is laughable that we invest heavily in “comfort” eating rather than healthy lifestyle, thus becoming a population that is reminded of exercise and related practices as if we are children. In most common practice there are professions where size matters and should exceed a certain body size you are relived of your duties! Can we enforce this good practice? In the end we start investing a lot of money and time in a lifestyle exercising and practice and very heavy cost, which should not have been the case! Talk about it in Uganda with our new elite perception towards traditional and indigenous herbal medicine you will get a shock of your life!

What surprises many is that the elite visit and consult traditional medicine men and women at night or on Sundays when most people are in church or busy having retired and taken a break off the week’s busy schedule or even after extended Saturday evening that see most of us sleep until 2.00pm only to resume by 5.00pm and in the end claim all sorts of negative attributes to structures and systems of governance.

We should remember that it was from China, Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia that the world appreciated the use of Artemisia annua to treat malaria, hence later deriving Artemicinin, which is used as the most effective anti-malarial drug on market today. Can we imagine, African countries were colonized for fewer years than India and other Asian nations; colonized for over 400 years and stand smarter in having retained their culture, religion and way of practicing several traditional remedies giving them kudos and becoming experts, yet most Africans visit their backyard hospitals in health tourism to Bombay, Hyderabad name the many towns which better known to us that we can recite one town in the remotest part of Uganda?

We need to change and get back to our roots where almost every ailment has its own African remedy, which is better and faster than the invasive foreign medicine! Imagine there are bone settings and fracture control mechanisms by telepathic therapy means in which Uganda has lost substantial knowledge because the original expert died without sharing his knowledge.

Therefore, this knowledge has not only brought about superior health statuses in Asia, but also increased confidence in their healthcare programs and a considerable growth in their economy. China is considered the growing hub for health care research and development in the world.

As we read this article, we must not forget that one of the widely published academic, Prof. Alan Charles Hamilton is in and out of China because of his vast knowledge in all plants of the world having participated in the research, drafting and final writing of the great book “Eco-Regions of the World”, that was published by UNESCO in 1997. If all researchers in Uganda were to be closed in one room to harness the knowledge in their articles and publications, there would be a great improvement in the economic systems in relation to their different disciplines.

This is an era of selling knowledge and data; the new world “gold” if not “oil” of the 21st century and academicians, resource persons and opinion persons must cooperate to revive the new economy that has been long neglected. Open up a discussion with many policy formulators of the day and see and gauge the perception you will be shocked by the comments uttered- one day I had to swallow my discussion and debate topic because honourables must be respected.  Should we conclude that we must continue this way or an open for a must ensue?

To start with, in Uganda, medicinal plants have not been considered an area of economic growth and yet have astonishing potential. Secondly the knowledge and data held by the medicine women and men is “oil” itself that can harvest more money than the constant falling oil prices. As the population increases, there is need to utilize these natural products in all forms. Uganda is a well-endowed country, with resources left under-utilized by its people.

We shouldn’t be like a beggar who sat on a diamond stone for ages begging for peanuts and later when well-wishers underscored the worth of his seat bought him out for a week and on return his precious seat was all gone. Folk stories have been told where plants played a crucial role in the well-being and safety, as people have used plants for home based medicine, and plants have been used for cosmetics, food, hunting weapons poison and so much more.

The best perfumes come from the Indian Ocean islands and they are obtained from Clove, Lilly and Olive plants probably the next best perfume will come from our good odor plants’ leaves, flowers, fruits and oils e.g. Osmum species. This can only be confirmed through research and development initiatives rather than constant lamentation over poverty levels, lack of jobs and intruders who come and take away God-given riches as we carry our hands on our heads day in day out, complaining about Government and her officials sail in wealth. We forget that we the populations make up the Governments we complain about. We forget that knowledge is in and out of practice.

With plant medicine alone it is estimated that it will generate $60billion globally in one year alone. Unfortunately as a country, we have not capitalized on the use of these plants. Can academicians develop more programmes to conserve and sustainably harvest this resource and neglected economic power be developed? 

In the northern Uganda, the shear-butter tree is being burnt down for charcoal, not knowing that if one decided to sell the crude oil from the fruit, they would earn $34 per kilogram. The plant is also being driven to extinction and all of us are busy buying charcoal from a critical resource. In the dry Africa belt of Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and Kenya, Aloe succulent plants and Baobab trees are dying of old age and yet the best lotions and skin creams come from these plant extracts.

Worse still, due to restricted exploitation and extraction rights as the Access and benefit Sharing Guidelines developed under the Convention of Biological Diversity under National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), these plants continue being ignored and the population misses out on critical business ventures. Can the non-traditional cash crops under the Export Promotion Board sensitize everyone to grow Uganda’s economic power in natural products?

A lot of prominence is put on commercial growing of non-indigenous crops such as coffee, cotton and tea; well this is colonial but we need to do more research on our own plants for example, the excellent work the Presidential Initiative Project supported on Phytollacca dodecandra at Mbarara University of Science and Technology did a lot in eliminating liver flukes in the cattle corridor beginning in Sanga area and the greater cattle corridor areas in the Katonga river areas of course with spin offs which carry disease-free breeds across the many grazing zones when cattle keeping community areas are hit by dry spell and must move in search of pasture and water even against the Presidents hid that we must settle down and manage herds economically viable in the space and means around us.

This credible research further engulfed the simulium (Black Flies-that cause river blindness) and the research team headed by Prof. William Isharaza (RIP) combed the whole of the greater Albertine Rift Valley geographical area to ascertain the incidences particularly in highly populated Bwindi forest environs where Mbarara University of Science and Technology has a reputable research Institute- Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC), West Nile and in Bugoye areas in the Rwenzori mountains where Mbarara University of Science and Technology improved peoples’ livelihoods by placing community medical students for many years a go and results in this Kasese district area are wonderful and speak volumes. What are we waiting for? 

As we explored more on this in Ethiopia and South Africa myself and late Prof. William Isharaza (RIP) and Prof. Charles Muchungunzi people thought we were not very serious having seen that the Medical Research Council of South Africa and the Addis Abbaba University had invested over a hundred times the seed money His Excellence, the President of Uganda had allocated this novel project we returned with the zeal to do more!

Fellow academicians, we should think outside the box and harness the neglected economy now that Mbarara University of Science and Technology has rolled Clinical Pharmacy and Pharmacognosy and Natural Medicine Science courses at Masters and PhD levels. This will bring enough capital to the country, although as of now it is a neglected and yet re-emerging field, which has however been unable to grow the countries’ economy to where it needs to be in this time of the globe.

The people of Uganda need an attitude and perception change, which requires us to be patient. We should teach ourselves that our indigenous resources should not be fawned upon but can be resources to be used to benefit our communities, growing into richer and healthier communities. This should be done as soon as possible because the knowledge of some of these plants is dying at an exponential rate.

Communities should appreciate and interest the younger generation with this knowledge of these plants and the science that makes them what they are. National Curriculum Development Centre and Ministry of Education and Sports and Ministry of Culture have a lot to do and support all these initiatives.

The Government should also start a Research fund, which puts indigenous knowledge and systems at the forefront of the countries development agenda. In this way, Uganda will start to realize one of our greatest potential as the Pearl of Africa-once described by the great Sir Churchill who if he resurrected might not believe today’s academicians but my kind and simple diplomatic words would be underdeveloped us unlike the Asia-Africa cooperation that has developed Africa in a shorter span.

That is the title for the next title of discussion readers. 

Prof. Dominic Byarugaba is the Executive Director, African Institute for Capacity Development, Nairobi.

Vivian Anyali, Postgraduate Student, MSC in Pharmacognosy & NMS Mbarara University of Science and Technology

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