text size: smaller reset larger



Healthy, wealthy and wise - medicinal plants in DRC

Producing medicinal plants in DRC could help thousands escape poverty (BDA Foundation)
Producing medicinal plants in DRC could help thousands escape poverty
BDA Foundation

The size of Western Europe, almost entirely lacking in rural infrastructure, and with a bloody civil war in the east that keeps on erupting, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the final frontiers for development. But, against the odds, a public-private partnership is proving that there are some "green shoots" of hope.

"Africa has great sources of wealth - it has mines, oil, gas and timber," explains Réjean Frenette of the BDA Foundation, a Canadian charity which has teamed-up with pharmaceutical company PharmAfrican to establish a fledgling medicinal plants industry in DRC. "The trouble is that the local populations don't have the financial means or the technology to access them. When it comes to plants, it's different."

The facts speak for themselves: Africa has over a quarter of the world's 60,000 plant species, but the region accounts for less than eight per cent of those marketed worldwide. And, despite an abundance of medicinal plants in Africa, over 90 per cent of health food supplements available on the continent come from plants grown, processed and packaged elsewhere. This means the economic, social and technical benefits of value-addition, increased employment, research-and-development, and improved managerial capacity all remain outside Africa. "The local population is very aware of many medicinal plants," continues Frenette. "Now we're bringing science to them by trying to find out how to protect their qualities and market them."

Homegrown remedy

Creating a medicinal plants industry capable of meeting international standards is BDA and PharmAfrican's aim. Set up in 2006, BDA has designed a three-year training programme in the scientific theory behind the industrial production and harvesting of medicinal plants, at the Jesuit-run Agro-Veterinary Institute for Higher Learning in Kinshasa, the capital. The course trains 30 Congolese students each year and is based on 2003 World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) for medicinal plants.

Hands-on training helps students produce medicinal plants to international standards (BDA Foundation)
Hands-on training helps students produce medicinal plants to international standards
BDA Foundation

Then the students are given hands-on field training, supervised by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), in growing, harvesting and storing medicinal plants to the standards required by the pharmaceutical industry. In the final phase, students return to their villages and are helped to set up their own businesses producing medicinal plants on a commercial basis. Initially their produce is targeted at local markets, but eventually, it is hoped, they will be able to supply world markets.

With the production and supply of plants in safe hands, PharmAfrican undertakes the necessary scientific research into the properties of the plants and then helps develop a marketable product. One plant with great potential is Moringa (Moringa oleifera), the so-called "tree-of life", which came to Africa from India and is now well established on the continent. High in vitamins, antioxidants and amino acids, it is not only used extensively in the local community but has great potential to be fully commercialised and sold on the burgeoning international health food market, which is expected to be worth in the region of US$100 billion by 2010. BDA is also working to commercialise turmeric, Madagascar periwinkle and neem, among others.

"This is an African solution to an African problem," continues Frenette. "By ensuring that whatever is grown locally is grown well, harvested well and safely transported to markets, we're bringing a low-cost solution and, in the process, ensuring that hundreds, if not thousands of farmers benefit." And the benefits don't stop at the farmers themselves; Frenette hopes that establishing plant nurseries will create ripple effects that will be felt throughout the local economies.


The BDA/PharmAfrican business model is unusual not only because of the unusual alliance between a non-profit foundation on one side and a pharmaceutical company on the other, but also because the role of the Foundation precedes the handover to PharmAfrican, a reversal of standard partnership models. Eventually, manufacturing and marketing will be sub-contracted to specialist companies, which Frenette hopes will also be in Africa.

BDA's students in Kinshasa. After graduation they are encouraged to set up their own nurseries for medicinal plants (BDA Foundation)
BDA's students in Kinshasa. After graduation they are encouraged to set up their own nurseries for medicinal plants
BDA Foundation

So how does he protect against possible conflicts of interest between the charity and its private sector partner? "By ensuring that the 30 graduate-entrepreneurs every year don't have an exclusivity with PharmAfrican; they are free to grow whatever plants they wish and sell them to any international pharmaceutical company," he explains. "We're concerned that the Foundation does not just become the procurement arm of a pharmaceutical company; we think the two organisations working together will achieve something that they could not achieve separately."

Importantly, PharmAfrican has also attracted a "new breed" of investor, who not only seeks financial returns but social and environmental benefits as well. "You might find it amazing but there are many of them out there!" laughs Frenette, who expects the work of producing and commercialising indigenous medicinal plants to spread to Tanzania, Uganda and Madagascar in the near future.

Date published: March 2009


Have your say


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.
Read more