Watu Afrika

Watu Afrika raise Africa to dignity and to prosperity

Sunday, February 6, 2011

How can Africa benefit from its ancestral knowledge?

African Herbal Medicine has the potential to affect real benefits for rural communities across the continent – both as an alternative to Western medicine and also as a way of generating income for tribal people in the less-developed parts of Africa. Herbal plants are a unique natural resource of vast potential value, and should be wisely exploited for the benefit of everyone.

Many species of medicinal trees and plants are already threatened with extinction due to over-exploitation linked to population growth, the spread of diseases (HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, etc.), and unscientific and unmanaged (and hence unsustainable) harvesting techniques such as ring-barking.

© by Giacomo Pirozzi
The problem is that we are not really sure what is actually out there. Research has already identified numerous plants that have preventative and/or curative properties. But how many more are there that we know little or nothing about? How much indigenous knowledge of potentially inestimable value will go to the grave with its custodian, the last tribal elder still in possession of that information?

Several species are already being commercially exploited by foreign interests (exploited unfortunately in the worst sense of the word) – rooibos tea, aloe vera and pelargonium are cases in point. Regretfully little or no benefit has trickled down to the people on the ground, which has understandably bred resentment.

And because these are natural products there is very little in the way of intellectual property protection. Urbanisation, coupled with a critical Western culture which has always pooh-poohed this type of thing as barbaric, has resulted in much of the indigenous knowledge already being lost. What remains is held by the elders and sangomas (medicine men), and is progressively disappearing as the purveyors of the old customs pass on.

I have examined the rapid growth of Chinese Herbal Medicine and believe that, given the opportunity, something similar could happen with its African counterpart. But it needs to happen in a sustainable way – where the natural environment is properly protected and people in deep rural communities can simultaneously reap the benefits.

The first task is to collect the knowledge. With high level of suspicion and cynicism about the motives of those doing the collecting, it will clearly not be easy, but it can definitely be done. If the collection can be done as a continent-wide programme involving the youth, it could have the additional benefit of rebuilding a respect for tradition and bridging the gap between two generations with vastly different perspectives on this issue.

If this could then be commercialised at community level, the spin-offs could be great. The most obvious of these would be (a) new natural cures for many illnesses and ailments, and (b) income generation activities in the rural areas leading to a reduction in the flood of rural people to the urban slums and the accompanying moral degeneration that this brings with it.

But the most valuable just might be the survival of the culture, traditions and way of life that is simply being ‘enveloped’ by the perpetual forward march of ‘civilisation’

By Ian Bentley


  1. Here's how India organizes to protect its ancestral knowledge http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_knowledge#Government_of_India_efforts

  2. See "African Medicinal Plants" http://bit.ly/dKMPsD
    See "Exploration of Kani Tribal Botanical Knowledge in Agasthiayamalai
    Biosphere Reserve - South India" http://bit.ly/gMamXm