ICIPE to the rescue of locals and forests
For years, farmers in western Kenya have toiled on their sugarcane farms with little to show for it.
“We were told sugarcane is a cash crop, but it has brought nothing but misery,” says James Ligale, a resident of Kakamega. To make ends meet, many residents turned to Kakamega Forest for illegal logging and harvesting of medicinal plants, the Kenya Wildlife Service has classified as endangered. One of those plants was the famous mkombela, scientifically referred to as Mondia whytei, that has always been used locally as an aphrodisiac. This quality made mkombela one of the most sought after herbs.
Kakamega Forest is the only remaining rainforest in Kenya. It has many plant species whose extracts are of medicinal value. As illegal extractors worked to satisfy their customers’ needs for the aphrodisiac, trees and vegetation in the forest were disappearing fast.
Regretably, their status did not improve and they were desperate for a solution.
Their answer came through a project by the International Center For Insect Physiology and Education (ICIPE) which spearheaded the conservation of Kakamega Forest and also made it possible for locals to gain economically through commercial planting of mkombela. According to ICIPE’s Frederick Nduguli, a consultant in bio-enterprise, those living adjacent to Kakamega Forest have benefited through commercial planting of mkombela and another plant used to make an ointment and balm for pain and muscular relief.
ICIPE, partnered with KWS and the University of Nairobi in the research to determine the medicinal value of mkombela.
“True to traditional knowledge, the herb had more than one use,” he says.
They found mkombela powder had nutritional and medicinal values. It could be used as an anti-depressant, anti-oxidant, a revitaliser and appetiser. For the beer lovers, it is a hangover clearer.
“We could play a role in conservation and at the same time help the community fight poverty through planting mkombela,” says Nduguli.
ICIPE helped the youth group (known as Kakamega Environmental Education Program-KEEP) plant the seedlings.
KEEP harvested the first crop in 2004. Through training offered by ICIPE, the group processed the mkombela plant into a finished product that is sold in tins. The product is known as Mondia Tonic and is available in leading supermarkets. Scientists at ICIPE have branded Mondia Tonic as a one stop chemist.
“It is one dose for many illnesses with no side effects,” says Nduguli.
He says a city doctor recommends it to his patients as an anti-depressant and a body cleanser. With more research, Mondia Tonic is expected to treat many ailments. Scientists say it is likely to change the face of traditional medicine locally and internationally. In fact, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board has registered Mondia Tonic. The Kenya Bureau of Standards has given it a clean bill of health. The product is currently an object of international interest. Its varied uses have attracted the international media. Nduguli who joined ICIPE in 2004 says more locals are involved in the project.
Ligale who is being trained at ICIPE says those involved in the cultivation can afford to build better houses, educate their children and invest in other areas.
An acre of mkombela produces 1200-1500 kilograms. One tree produces 3kgs that go for Sh150.
He says this is more than they can ever get from sugarcane farming. In addition, they can also grow trees and sell. “Most of them have been enslaved by sugarcane farming. They have done it for years, but they are still very poor. They live from hand to mouth, but commercial cultivation of mkombela has improved their economic status,” he says.
A 500gms of Mundia Tonic is sold for Sh500.
Farmers harvest the plants three times a year and earn three times more from mondia and ocicum kilimandscharicum, both medicinal plants, than they did cultivating crops like maize and tea. On average a farmer earns Ksh35 000-40 000 a year from one acre
Ocicum kilimandscharicum is used to make NatuRub ointment from the natural shrub. Farmers mix the compounds with lemon grass oil to make the ointment that relieves muscular aches and pains. NatuRub is packaged in several packs that sell for prices ranging from Sh10 to Sh150. The project is run by Muliro Farmers, a group of 30 farmers who semi-process NatuRub using state of the art equipment it acquired from donors. ICIPE does the final formulation and the process is completed in Nairobi because packaging material is outsourced.
NatuRub is the first herbal medicine to be registered in Kenya. The ointment treats several diseases and the tree’s plant can be eaten as vegetable. So says Ligale ****:“The shrub has another advantage to the farmer. They attract bees and a farmer can also do bee keeping on the side.”
The community has benefited from technology transfer and it is hoped in the near future they will manage the processing and manufacturing of the products. That however depends on monetary and technical support to set up a factory in Kakamega.
According to ICIPE, these projects offer better economic prospects.
Marketing the products has been a big problem. According to Nduguli, since ICIPE is a research organisation, it does not have a marketing budget for Mondia Tonic and NatuRub. The only marketing channels at the moment are the supermarkets.
In the absence of sustained marketing, few Kenyans know about these natural medicines and their potential to heal many ailments.
Pricing is another problem.
“Since these are first approved herbal products, it is hard to come up with an appropriate price, but we hope to do that soon enough,” says Nduguli.
ICIPE hopes the Traditional Medicine Bill will be passed soon to help Kenyans exploit their rich biodiversity.
Nduguli says ICIPE has projects a similar to these in the pipeline.