Many Nigerians now spend huge sums on imported herbal brands from America, Europe and Asia, but interestingly, some of those formulations are prepared with herbs sourced from, or at least available, in Nigeria!
A good percentage of modern drugs are derived from plants. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there are about 21,000 plant species with medicinal value, and most of them are available in Nigeria. The area of herbal plants and developing medicinal brands is therefore an area of opportunity waiting to be harnessed by enlightened entrepreneurs.
To further buttress the viability of herbal products, statistics from the Nigerian Natural Medicine Development Agency data shows 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 as it is available, accessible and affordable. In many parts of Africa, the number of traditional health practitioners far outnumber that of modern scientific doctors.
Estimates show that we may have a ratio of one medical doctor per 20,000 persons, as opposed to 1: 200 for Traditional Medical Practitioners (TDP). Further proof of TDPs popularity is highlighted in the report of the National Demographic and Health Survey Report (NDS, 1999) which indicates that 63 per cent of births in the country are handled by traditional practitioners.
There are various ways one can tap into the herbal medicine market and make extra income. 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.
Already, the African Regional Standard Organisation (ARSO), an intergovernmental body formed by the African Union (AU) has adopted ten medicinal plants from Nigeria as part of efforts to improve, harmonise and standardise traditional medicine practice in Africa. Standardization is the process of implementing and developing technical standards based on the consensus of different parties that include firms, users, interest groups, standards organisations and governments. Standardization can help to maximize compatibility or quality.
The ten plants under consideration by ARSO include Moringa oleifera, bitter kola (Garcinia kola), bitter leaf (Vernonia amygdalina), cashew (Anarcadium occidentale), scent leaf (Ocimum gratissimum), African bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis), yellow yam (Dioscorea bulbifera), Prunus africana for prostate cancer, baobab (Adansonia digitata), and Hibiscus sabdariffa (zobo).
While highlighting the usefulness of the ten identified plants, ARSO noted that moringa oleifera (known as ewe ile or ewe igbale or idagbo monoye in Yoruba; gawara in Hausa; Rini maka in Fulani and ikwe beke in Ibo) has been confirmed to boost energy, strengthen the immune system and contain antibiotic properties. In fact, every part of the plant has medicinal benefits. The kola enhances sexual activity and contains significant analgesic/anti-inflammatory effects and even prevents blindness for people who have glaucoma.
The bitter leaf (atidot in Ibibio; ewuro in Yoruba; onugbu in Ibo) could be a panacea for diabetes, cancer, liver damage, microbial infections and other ailments. Cashew is also noted as the key to beating high blood pressure, thrush, tooth and gum decay, tuberculosis and leprosy.
Scent leaf improves depression, headache, kidney infections and other ailments. The wild mango (uyo in Efik; ogwi in Benin; biri in Hausa; pekpeara in Nupe) is commonly eaten in Nigeria and helps overweight persons shed some kilos, reduce abdominal fat, lower cholesterol and so on.
Discorea bulbifera commonly known as yellow yam is used to remedy conjunctivitis, diarrhea and dysentery. Prunus Africana also called stinkwood because of its unpleasant odour is used to treat a number of health conditions including enlargement of prostrate, erectile dysfunction, urinary track disorders, chest pain and other ailments.
The baobab (bakko in Hausa; luru in Yoruba; usi in Edo) have very high vitamin C, calcium, lipid content and it is a good seasoning. It can also be useful for respiratory problems like asthma. Hibiscus (zobo) can be used to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and inhibits human prostate cancer cell invasion. Ingredients contained in these plants to remedy the listed ailments have been verified by various experts including the Raw Materials and Research Council and WHO.
African traditional health systems existed before the advent of the colonialists. Though some of the practice was confused with mystics and other quack and unhygienic exercises, 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. A local birth attendant affirmed recently that she had herbal remedies for women with delayed labour problems. According to her, the plant can save some women from having to undergo caesarian section operation.
However, 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 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 watched a video advertisement of the product and it was clearly described as a supplement and not a drug. 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.
Perhaps, what our local entrepreneurs need to do next is to dub our own brands as supplements and not drugs. Secondly, our present-day herbal medicine manufacturers need to play down on mysticism, improve their knowledge, embrace contemporary best practices and adopt attractive packaging. If this is done, we too can sell our herbal preparations to the rest of the world.
So you can tap into the value chain by cultivating any of the identified herbs, distributing, marketing, exporting, packaging or providing other value added services to harness Nigeria’s vast biodiversity and bio-resources.