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The unexploited herbal pharmacy

Thursday January 27 2011

Kenyan researchers have published a list of 22 trees and shrub species with high anti malarial potential. Photo/FILE

Kenyan researchers have published a list of 22 trees and shrub species with high anti malarial potential. Photo/FILE 

By GATONYE GATHURA [email protected]

Kenya and other African states are sitting on a fortune in the form of unexploited natural cures and pharmacies.

The country can not only cope with its malaria burden but just like the Chinese are currently doing, cure the rest of the world of many diseases and in the process earn billions of dollars.

In the first ever hard evidence of the extent of the country’s potential in herbal medicine, researchers have publicly given a scientific backing that Kenyan herbalists have not just been groping in the dark.

Researchers from the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the World Agroforestry Centre have published a list of 22 tree and shrub species with high potential for further development in treating malaria and possible cash crops for small holder farmers.

Launching the publication last week at the National Museums of Kenya, lead author Dr Najma Dharani said apart from interrogating information from practitioners and fellow scientists the plants’ chemical content had been thoroughly analysed and found effective.

“We hope that the information provided in this guide will be useful for scientists in determining on what species to direct their research activities,” says the researcher.


It is this kind of research that has turned the growing of a previously little known weed from China, the Sweet Annie, into a huge global success, turning around the fortunes of peasant farmers and making billions for the pharmaceutical industry while saving many lives.

The Chinese wormwood or Artemisia annua now provides the world with the main ingredient for making a most effective first line malaria medicine.

Several trees found in Kenya and other parts of East Africa were found to have the capacity to rival this moneymaker. The pepper-bark tree, for example has similar chemical compounds found in the Chinese plant.

Some Kenyan communities including the Luo, Maasai and the Kipsigis have always used the pepper-bark tree or Warburgia ugandensis, for the treatment of malaria, stomach and tooth aches and the common cold.

A compound in the plant, was found to be active against malaria parasites even those resistant to chloroquine.

The Kenya Forestry Research Institute has shown that the propagation of the tree is possible through modern tissue culture techniques.

While some farmers are already growing the tree, the researchers advise that before doing so it is important to get expert guidance because some traits of the plant produce different medicinal qualities at different sites.

Another tree species with chemical compounds found to act against multi drug resistant malaria is the long pod cassia or mbara in Kiswahili which has traditionally been used to treat malaria, pneumonia and other chest complications.

Unlike most other locally occurring trees, cassia is a fast growing shrub, requiring staying in the nursery for only a few months and can do with little water.

One of the most enduring treatments for complicated malaria across the world and in Kenya in particular is quinine which is classified in the chemical group of alkaloids.

Several shrubs and trees in the region such as the bitter albizia and widely distributed along many river beds were found to contain alkaloids.

A decoction made from this tree, bitter albizia, and taken three times a day is used in treating malaria traditionally.

“In the three East African countries the species is often incorporated in smallholder farming systems with cassava, maize, beans and fruit trees such as papaya, mango and orange,” says the study.

And of course not to forget the famous neem tree locally known as mwarubaini for its 40 magical cures. The researchers confirm that apart from other cures, the tree which is easy to grow and even easier to maintain, has very good antimalarial activity.

The publication, Common Antimalarial Trees and Shrubs of East Africa and funded by the World Bank and the EU is available on the Internet.