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South Africa - Umthathi Africulture Project, Grahamstown

Traditional medicine market
Traditional medicine market
Bark harvesting
Ex-situ propagation
Quality Control extracts
Traditional healers - plant identification
UTP & Kew extract team
South Africa - Umthathi Africulture Project

Located on the outskirts of Grahamstown, where one in five people are thought to be HIV positive, the Africulture Project consists of a one hectare training facility and nursery, specialising in the ex-situ conservation of medicinal plants to address over-exploitation and conserve these threatened species . This is as a result of our four year partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and local training partner Umthathi - with funding by the UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) through the Darwin Initiative. The project also has strong institutional support from within South Africa, including the South Africa National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and Rhodes University. 

The Challenge

Plant compounds play an important role in modern medicine, forming the building blocks of many allopathic (formal) medicines used today. Many species are effective immune and appetite stimulants, vital for malnourishment, whilst others contain active properties that can ward off secondary infections. In fact 32% of pharmaceuticals on the market today are primarily plant-based. The demand for, and illicit trade in, medicinal plants upon which the majority of South Africans depend has made the last remaining wild plant populations extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

With subsidised allopathic healthcare struggling to cope with overwhelming demand, 80% of the population rely on traditional medicines, resulting in health and many livelihoods being dependent on these important natural resources.

The hidden economy in medicinals is estimated at between $60-200 million each year, with more than 200,000 practising healers in the country. The market is largely informal and pricing does not reflect the demand for, and scarcity of, traded varieties. Harvested by informal traders with few incentives for conservation management, 93% of the species studied are currently being harvested unsustainably, with 34 species under immediate threat. Furthermore, the majority of people who self-medicate are at risk of being sold false or adulterated materials, placing them at risk.

Of the traditional healers interviewed, 54% stated a patient increase in the past five years as a result of HIV/AIDS; 81% expected a further upsurge in the next five years. With a stretched allopathic health sector and over 70% unemployment in the target area, indigenous plants will continue to form an important part of primary health care, but only if quality raw materials can be delivered in sustainable quantities. 

In such a fragile environment, the loss of this biological and cultural diversity presents a severe threat to community health in Southern Africa. Due to high mortality rates among local communities, knowledge about plant activities is being lost at an alarming rate. This project aims to restore this balance by establishing a valuable safety net in the heart of the Eastern Cape. 

Our Response

Africulture training incorporates cultivation and sustainable harvesting from the wild, and extends to traditional health practioners, vulnerable harvesters and agro-producers in order to establish a sustainable supply of cultivated alternatives. Methods promoted seek to advance conservation management through training with traditional healers and harvesters. The Africulture Project enables poor and marginalised people to meet their basic needs - promoting both the sustainable use of genetic resources, and livelihood benefits for themselves and future generations – and also advocates on behalf of traditional healthcare practitioners, harvesters and traders to ensure that their rights are duly considered. 

A key role of the project is to ensure that the latest information on any negative interactions between anti retro-virals and traditionally used plants is disseminated amongst traditional healthcare practitioners.

In partnership with Kew, quality control and an accessible guide to species ensure that more people can check the quality of materials being traded and used, and traditional healthcare practitioners can be provided with the latest information to improve practices. 

Umthathi's schools programme has integrated medicinal plants from the Africulture Project at over 40 schools to promote biocultural conservation training alongside nutritional food gardens.

The Result ... so far

As well as reaching forty schools to promote the important role that plants play in Xhosa cultural tradition, we are pleased to report that six traditional health practitioner (THP) associations are now engaged with the project, representing some two thousand THPs in the Eastern Cape. The success of the sensitively designed training and advocacy components has been demonstrated by the total acceptance of cultivated alternatives which, in turn, confirms the equivalent market value of cultivated materials. The Project, in consultation with THP associations, has developed a list of forty-nine plants which are increasingly difficult to source, and culturally appropriate to cultivate. Twenty-one of these are now under cultivation at the project nursery.

As the scientific partner, Kew has transferred extraction protocols to four members of the Umthathi team, so that equivalence between wild and cultivated plants can be firmly established, and quality assurances provided – with twenty-one plants tested at Kew’s Jodrell Laboratories in the UK.

Hand-over to Rhodes University is now complete, providing ongoing assistance to Umthathi through various faculties (Pharmacy, Environmental Education, and the institute of Social & Economic Research - ISER).

Kew will continue to disseminate plant data emerging from the project to contribute to Africa’s first pharmacopeia - which aims to fast track IK protection (under EU guidelines), and provide safety guidelines for the use of Africa’s biodiversity through the African Monographs Project (AAMPS).

Project Collaborators
  • Royal Botanic Garden, Kew
  • Umthathi Training Project
  • South Africa National Biodiversity Initiative
  • Rhodes University
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Other GardenAfrica projects in South Africa
Living Classrooms: Sustainable Schools Project (SEED)
The Ntandabantu Women's Project in KwaZulu Natal
Soweto Clinics, Soweto

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