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We need to invest in our own herbal brands

African traditional health systems existed before the advent of the colonialists. Even though some of it was muddled with mystery and other unprofessional and unhygienic practices, it managed to keep the people alive until the introduction of modern medicine. There were balms for aches and pains, brews for fever, treatment for ulcers and other ailments.

Incidentally, it appears that our local medicines that we now treat with suspicion are being sold to us in exotic packages as modern alternative cures.

Our Traditional Medicine Practitioners, TMPs, are criticised for selling one-drug-for-all-ailments packages but then, the imported ones on the shelves these days also claim the same attributes. Instead of running down our own, we need to engage science to repackage them and give them contemporary appeal. The Chinese, the Indians and the South Africans are examples of nations that have made good effort to develop and promote their herbal medicines and it is rewarding them economically.

Recently, I came across some herbal brands that have just been introduced into the Nigerian market from the Americas. I found them very expensive and could not help wondering whether our own moringa, neem and other medicinal plants had not been compounded into that cure-all package that many middle-aged persons with chronic ailments are tripping over. I listened to a video advert of the product and it was clearly described as a supplement and not a drug. Perhaps, what our local entrepreneurs need to do next is to dub our own brands as supplements and not drugs.

The moringa tree, for example, is one of our tree resources that are brimming with potential. Proceeds from a 2010 forum on moringa development, convened by the Raw Materials Research and Development Council, unearthed that every part of the tree is an economic resource with diverse applications. We simply need to package them well and sell to the world just as they are selling theirs to us.

The acceptance and use of plants and roots for cure and control of ailments has suffered a chequered fate. From the ancient times when they were the only remedies known to man, to the time when they were treated with suspicion and considered as fetish, to contemporary times when man is revisiting herbal remedies because some germs have developed strains that are resistant to modern antibiotics.

Besides, the dangerous side effects of some orthodox drugs now cause doctors to question the benefits of prescribing them at all. This has created a window of opportunity for herbal medicinal packages to gain re-acceptance.

Today, traditional medicine is universally accepted as an alternative source of medicare. The World Health Organisation recognises traditional medicine as ‘including diverse health practices, approaches, knowledge and beliefs incorporating plants, animals and or mineral-based medicines, spiritual therapies, manual techniques and exercises applied singularly or in combination to maintain well-being, as well as to treat, diagnose or prevent illness’.

A good case for indigenous medicines is that, considering the prevalence of mosquitoes, if Africans did not have their own remedies for malaria before the advent of the Europeans, the first white people who came to Africa would not have met any living soul.

The Nigerian Natural Medicine Development Agency data has it that over 85 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa and about 80 per cent of Nigerians patronise traditional medicine. For most of these people, it is the only known source of healthcare delivery; IT IS AVAILABLE, ACCESSIBLE AND AFFORDABLE. In many parts of Africa, the number of traditional health practitioners far outnumbers that of allopathic doctors. To buttress the reach of TMPs, statistics show that we may have a ratio of one medical doctor per 20,000 persons as opposed to 1: 200 for TMPs. The National Demographic and Health Survey Report (NDS, 1999) indicates that 63 per cent of births in the country are handled by traditional practitioners.

A local birth attendant once told me she had herbal remedies for women with delayed labour problems. According to her, the plant can save some women from having to undergo caesarian sections.

A good percentage of modern drugs is plant derived and the World Health Organisation estimates that there are about 21,000 plant species with medicinal value and a good percentage of these are believed to be available in Nigeria with our vast biodiversity and bio-resources.

This is therefore an area of cache waiting to be unearthed by discerning entrepreneurs, especially because many Nigerians now spend huge sums on imported herbal brands from America, Europe and Asia. Interestingly, some of those formulations are prepared with herbs sourced from Nigeria!

Cultivation of medicinal crops as a deliberate and focused business venture is a viable foray. A specialised area of agriculture and forestry would yield good returns not only for supply to local herbal medicine manufacturers, but also for export. This is one more area where entrepreneurs can tap into to create new wealth and generate employment.

All the present-day herbal medicine manufacturer need do is to shed the old garb of mysticism, seek information, embrace contemporary best practice rules and adopt attractive packaging. These done and we too can sell our herbal preparations to the rest of the world.