Indigenous Medicine (Muthi) Trade.
The information contained in this page has been extracted from :
" Marketing of Indigenous Medicinal Plants in South Africa : A case Study in KwaZulu-Natal : Summary of Findings", Mander, M (1999). A publication of the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, Forest Products Division.
More than 700 plant species are actively traded throughout South Africa for indigenous medicinal use. This market drives intensive harvesting of wild plant stocks which is a serious threat to the Durban Metropolitan Area's Biodiversity as well as biodiversity throughout the rest of the country. The Durban Metropolitan Area (DMA) forms the hub of an active regional trade in muthi plant harvesting, trade and consumption. The current demand for the numerous plant species used in indigenous medicines exceeds supply. As a result, several plant species, for example wild ginger [Siphonochilus aethiopicus] and the pepper-bark tree [Warburgia salutaris], have become extinct outside of protected areas in KwaZulu Natal. Little cultivation of indigenous medicinal plants is carried out due to a lack of knowledge regarding the indigenous plant production and the economics of associated markets.
Demand for Indigenous Medicines (Muthi) :
The demand for indigenous medicines and services is considerable relative to the demand for western health care services. The black population in Durban have indicated that they rely on both health care systems, giving a 60:40 percentage split in favour of western health care systems.
There are an estimated 6 million indigenous medicine consumers in KwaZulu-Natal and 27 million in South Africa. Households are spending between 4% and 6% of their annual incomes on indigenous medicine and services. A massive demand is thus generated in terms of the numbers and mass of plants consumed. In KwaZulu-Natal more than 4000 tonnes of plant material is traded annually at a value of R60 million (a third of the value of the annual maize harvest for the province). Nationally 20 000 tonnes may be traded annually, valued at R270 million.
The demand for medicinal plants is likely to remain high in the future. Urban consumers anticipate that their consumption of indigenous medicine will either remain at current levels or increase. This is despite the fact that indigenous medicine is more expensive than subsidised Western health care provided by the Government. There are a wide range of ailments and needs that cannot adequately be treated by Western medicine. This implies that indigenous medicine is a basic consumer good, often essential for the welfare of black households.
The Supply of Indigenous Medicines (Muthi) :
The indigenous medicine market is based on indigenous plants which are generally harvested from wild plant stocks in KwaZulu-Natal, neighbouring provinces and other countries. The plant stocks and their harvesting are not managed and little cultivation takes place. The combination of high demand and the lack of any significant resource management and plant production, has resulted in a decline in the supply of numerous indigenous medicinal plants.
A wide range of plant species is showing indications of unsustainable use, with the size of the products decreasing, distances to stocks increasing [for example, in the last 8 years there has been a 45% increase in travel time between popular plant sources and the market], supply becoming increasingly irregular, and/or some plants becoming unavailable in certain markets. Some popular plants have become extinct outside of protected areas in KwaZulu-Natal. The supply of indigenous medicinal plants is clearly not sustainable using the current harvesting strategies.
The scarcity of popular plants has led to their under-supply, with considerable increases in product prices [for example, Siphonochilus aethiopicus is regularly traded for R450/kg], imports into the province, and the use substitute plants. In addition, there has been an increase in the use of destructive harvesting techniques, which aim to maximise the harvest from declining plant stocks in order to maintain income levels in the short term.
Marketing the Product :
The mixing and prescription of plant products is sophisticated, but the processing and development of products is extremely limited.There is little processing and value-added to products, most are sold in raw form. There is little standardisation of product quality and recycled waste is used for packaging. The entire industry is dominated by simple technology. Most of the value is added to the product when the medicine is prescribed by an indigenous healer.
The plant products are marketed to consumers as self-medication or by healers' prescriptions. These products are traded in residential areas dominated by black consumers, or at transport nodes in urban areas. Conditions in markets are generally poor. Most consumers indicate that they would prefer more modernised and hygienic trading sites. The lack of storage facilities and trading infrastructure frequently results in spoiling of the raw materials. As a result there is much wastage and a decrease in product quality.
There is currently no certification of the indigenous medicines traded. There is, however, legislation which requires the registration of products traded as medicines. This legislation is currently not applied to the indigenous medicine industry due to the informal nature of the trade.
In KwaZulu-Natal between 20 000 and 30 000 people derive an income trading in indigenous plants in some form. Most of the people involved are black rural women. This sector is one of the most marginalised in the South African society. The medicinal plant industry therefore plays a critical role in empowering large numbers of rural women in the country.
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