Table of Contents


See also the separate “Moringa” chapter.


1. Overview

    • In the past two decades, the links between bio-cultural diversity and the richness of plant species in South Africa have contributed to ongoing attempts to develop traditional medicines for use in the modern complementary and alternative medicines sector. Eventually this will aid in the discovery of new drug entities for pharmaceutical industries.
    • African traditional medicines are divided into two streams. The first involves the informal trading of herbal remedies and medicinal plants sold by traditional healers or sangomas and bushdoctors. But there is also a more formal market in which medicinal plants like buchu and African potato extract are sold as over-the-counter drugs.
Buchu flowers. Photo used courtesy of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries (DAFF)
  • It is estimated that 80% of the globe’s population relies on traditional medicines. In South Africa, studies show there is one traditional healer for every 700 to 1200 patients [however, find Essop, R. 2015 and Wilkinson, K. 2013 under heading 6 on these statistics]. The primary health care system is inaccessible to many and this drives people’s reliance on medical plants.
  • Geo-climatic regions produce plants that are popular as traditional medicines. In the Western Cape, where fynbos (fine bush) dominates, leaf material is used by traditional healers from the KhoiSan culture. Elsewhere, in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, barks, roots and bulbs are all harvested from the wild for medicinal use. KwaZulu-Natal is also home to one of the largest medicinal markets in Africa.
  • Many of the medicinal plants are harvested in the wild, some becoming very rare and facing extinction.
  • The trade in traditional medicines was estimated at around R2.9 billion annually (Mander, Ntuli, Diederichs & Mavundla, 2007).
  • Because cultivating medicinal plants ensures their availability, protects the ones in the wild and creates job opportunities, the intervention of cultivation technologies is supported by government and other role players.
Source: “How changes in African traditional medicine research can benefit South Africa” which can be found at 

The first African Herbal Pharmacopoeia, completed with collaborators from all over Africa and Europe, can be found at


2. International business environment

  • Find “Traditional and complementary medicine” under the “ Programmes” and “Essential medicines and health products” on the World Health Organisation(WHO) website, The WHO’s Traditional and Complementary Medicine unit can be contacted at trm [at]
  • Find the Medicinal Plants page on the International Trade Centre website at
  • The DAFF-NAMC TradeProbe No. 60 (November 2015) looked at the trade in medicinal plants. Find the document at
  • Visit, website of the Association of African Medicinal Plants Standards (AAMPS). This non-profit company has representatives from several African and European countries.


3. Farming medicinal plants

Increases in market prices for certain medicinal plants have been linked to localised species extinctions and declining supplies of these plants. The declining supplies are directly attributed to over-harvesting of certain popular target species for medicinal use. This has resulted in researchers calling for the cultivation of indigenous medicinal plants as an intervention to address biodiversity and market sustainability issues. There is, however, much debate around the pro’s and con’s of medicinal plant cultivation. Concerns are largely focused on: (i) The potential loss of cultural and indigenous values associated with wild harvesting of medicinal plants; (ii) Potentially reduced production of secondary metabolites (the active ingredients in most medicinal plants) in farmed plants compared to wild stocks; and (iii) Genetic contamination of local species populations through cultivation with plants from alternative genetic stocks.

Cultivation trials and pilot projects conducted to date have shown that medicinal plant cultivation has good economic potential for supplying commercial-scale volumes of medicinal plants. Fast-growing species can be supplied in sufficient quantities to meet market demand within a few years. However, slow-growing trees, particularly forest trees, are unlikely to supply the quantities of medicinal bark demanded in the short-term; nor does the production of bark from these trees present an economically viable production system. The production of alternative tree-based products (such as tree leaves) has thus been investigated.