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Kerwegi explores Uganda’s untapped herbal medicine

By Vision Reporter

Added 4th September 2005 03:00 AM

PEOPLE and plants take up Sophia Apio Kerwegi’s hectic days. Yet her eyes remain peaceful and perceptive. Like stars on a moonless night, they radiate with passion, lighting up her dark complexion.

PEOPLE and plants take up Sophia Apio Kerwegi’s hectic days. Yet her eyes remain peaceful and perceptive. Like stars on a moonless night, they radiate with passion, lighting up her dark complexion.

By Harriette Onyalla

PEOPLE and plants take up Sophia Apio Kerwegi’s hectic days. Yet her eyes remain peaceful and perceptive. Like stars on a moonless night, they radiate with passion, lighting up her dark complexion.

Two work coats hang on a peg in her spacious office at the health ministry’s Natural Chemotherapeutics Research Laboratory (NCRL) in Wandegeya, Kampala.
“The green coat is for fieldwork while the white one is for the laboratory,” Kerwegi explains, smiling..

Shelves stacked with numerous samples of powdered herbal remedies, roots and seeds stand by the off-white walls. Except for a computer on a wooden desk, this office does not immediately portray signs of advanced technology yet the information in its confines is worth billions of shillings.

“These are ‘Intellectual properties. Herbal knowledge falls under industrial intellectual property of inventions or patents,” Kerwegi says.
This building was the administrative block for the white man’s hospital in 1927. The irony is, it once helped enroot western medicine in Uganda but now houses scientists justifying the power of local herbal medicine.

The struggle of these scientists is evident by their quick steps that contrast with people patiently waiting on chairs outside their office. Many of them are seeking advise on herbs for their health care.

Kerwegi is a senior research officer. She has worked at the NCRL since 1980. Now a botanist, her love for plants begun when she was five-years-old.

She recalls how she used to trail her mother to school but could not be allowed in class because she was too young.
Her mother, who was a teacher at Lango Koran Primary School in Lira, devised ways to engage her till noon.

Her mother often gave her sketch drawings to colour. The challenge to accomplish her assignments led Kerwegi, to devise innovative colouring using fresh green leaves and yellow or red flowers.

“We never had coloured pencils. We used leaves and plant juices to paint. I enjoyed using pink hibiscus petals for colouring pictures of girls’ skirts. I loved yellow petals for painting the sun. Mud was for colouring huts,” She says, “There was a white plant sap that turned red. I thought it had blood. A certain flower relieved flu and headache if mixed with its leaf. It made you sneeze. Interestingly, you wouldn’t sneeze if you only sniffed the leaf or flower. Blackjack halted bleeding.”

“I identified plant sap that treated black ants' bite, particularly as I always sat on insects’ pathways. Nobody knew what made me consistent with school. In my heart, I had a task with the weedy plants in the school compound. They fascinated me,” Kerwegi says.

She says the remedy of almost every ailment sprouts on the expanse, steep hills and deep valleys of Uganda. From a mild headache to malignant swellings, Ugandans once relied on the power of herbs to heal.

There is sap that numbs pain, roots for cough with pus, barks that heal skin rash and petals that alter moods. There is a bark that prevents urinary tract blockage and prostrate cancer, a herbal concoction for asthma and leaf extracts for high blood pressure.

There are also weeds for bad body odour, leaves that help women have easier births and roots that increase men’s sexual prowess.

Other herbs promote muscle increase. Herbs like these are manipulated for herbal products used by Hollywood stars to increase breast and penis size. But if not well administered, such plants may induce cancerous or benign swellings,” Kerwegi warns, adding, “It’s amazing how Biblical generations of people like Abraham lived for up to 900 years. It was probably because of their close interaction with plants.”

But Ugandans abandoned herbs after the 1957-witchcraft Act. With the spread of Christianity and the white man’s medicine, herbal remedies became witchcraft.

Today, herbal remedies are for the privileged in Europe and America. They are taken as nutritional supplements to escape effects of conventional drugs.

In 1980, Kerwegi acquired a degree in Botany Zoology from Makerere University. She holds a Masters degree in Pure and Applied Plant taxonomy from Reading University, Britain.

Since inception in 1963, NCRL has documented local and scientific names of over 2,000 herbs. The laboratory verifies herbal chemical characteristics, safety and pharmacological properties. But publishing and intellectual property issues limit access of this information to product development, research and advisory services.

“The public is gaining confidence in herbal products. medical personnel are beginning to tolerate patients who use herbal medicine. Herbs remain the primary source of health care in rural areas,” Kerwegi says.

Unfortunately, the upsurge of interest among Uganda’s elite has instead led to importation of products, many of which have ingredients less than those in local herbs.
“Tamarindus imported from India and sold in Kampala’s markets is being wasted in Teso. Most herbs dubbed Chinese grow wildly in Uganda,” she says.


Herbal products are becoming a household name but consumers risk manipulation by crooks, who ‘brand’ plants that may contain no herbal ingredients.

“People are keen on products like soap or toothpaste with herbal ingredients. They have the right to know what the herbal label means. This should be a concern for policy makers, manufacturers and every body,” says Kerwegi.

For centuries, elders passed on the wisdom of herbs which cured diseases in their midst. This cultural system is being eroded and people who have this knowledge are mainly illiterates. This worries Kerwegi. “Children hardly interact with nature. They spend time in classrooms or watching television,” she says.

While Ugandans look to the west for drugs, multinational western drug companies are scoring the country’s villages and forests in search for knowledge on local herbs.

“Some foreigners organise workshops for herbalists and with a small per diem, extract information. Others come as tourists. Grassroots people innocently give away vital information. There’s danger that those companies will ‘steal’ Uganda’s herbal knowledge and patent them, which will prevent Ugandans from developing these products,” Kerwegi says.


For this reason, Kerwegi joined African Women Economic and Policy Network to study policy. She also attended policy and technology training in Nairobi, Arusha, Harare and Cape Town.

“I took a break from plant sciences to study policy issues related to research, development and protection of intellectual property. What is in a name is interesting. Not every herb meets all needs. So, cook and eat different food plants.

Kerwegi says Uganda has made headway on the traditional medicine policy but progress is slow. Strategies should become pro-active not reactive. Above all, there is need to nurture talents by encouraging young people to explore the medicine.

There is a high demand for herbal remedies, but the quality remains wanting.

“Entrepreneurs should specialise to provide better services than being ‘a jack of all trades’. There is market in East Africa,” Kerwegi says.

To exploit its herbal wealth, Uganda should support local entrepreneurs to process herbal products into syrups, tablets or capsules for regional and international markets.

She says, “We should fight the mindset that everything from the west is best.”

Kerwegi explores Uganda’s untapped herbal medicine

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