CEC member Yvonne Otieno interviews a young herbalist in Eastern Kenya about communicating traditional knowledge, and his work with the World Agroforestry Centre on the medicinal tree species Warbugia Urgandesis.
“Many young people hold the notion that traditional herbal medicine is meant for old people. A few may be interested in acquiring this knowledge but unfortunately, some herbalists may be not be ready to share this knowledge with them ,” says Paul Kithinji a young man of 28 who uses herbal medicine to help treat his neighbors in Kiangima village in Eastern Kenya.
According to Paul, indigenous knowledge on medicinal trees traditional passed from one generation to the next may soon be lost. He blames this on misconceptions on the use of herbal medicine by society, the lack of appreciation of the value of medicinal trees among the youth, lack of conservation efforts and exploitation of local communities’ knowledge.
“My community is very religious, and as far as they are concerned, herbal medicine is part of witchcraft, ‘ he says. “As farmers and herbalists, we lack the sophisticated equipment to process these medicine and face the threat of exploitation by pharmaceutical firms which come and to get our knowledge then leave us with empty promises,” explains Paul.
“Rarely do the youth learn about herbal medicine because many of my generation don’t want to be associated with their traditions. There are a lot of rare plant species with medicinal value which have already disappeared from our farms and forests due to ignorance and a lack of proper skills on how to harvest medicine without killing the plant. For example many de-bark the Warburgia urgandesis, valued for its medicinal value, and this kills the tree.”
Paul who grows over thirty medicinal herbs and trees in his farm, says that he got this knowledge from his father who was a practicing herbalist. “Dad encouraged me to join a herbalist association. In the association, I was the youngest and the only one exposed to formal education and was thus appointed secretary. This exposed me to more herbalists who taught me more about the trade. I served in this capacity for five years.”
Paul admits that as herbalists, one of the greatest challenges they face is “the lack of a proper mechanism to measure the accurate dosage to be dispensed to patients especially from plants like Warbugia Ugandensis and Arthrina abbysinica which have high medicinal value.”
So how do they address these challenges?
“Researchers and herbal farmers can collaborate in finding out the correct dosage to dispense. The research firms have the facilities while we bring in the indigenous knowledge. The government can then help regulate the process.”
"Locally we have worked with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) which has helped in the domestication of medicinal tree species particularly the Warbugia Urgandesis*. Many farmers in my area now grow the tree. We also have a tree nursery that’s with Warbugia Urgandesis and farmers are exploring other ways of processing the plant. The centre helped us (herbalists), to identify the species and encourages us to grow it on our farms to avoid harvesting it from the forest,” he says.
Paul also suggests that herbalists can help in preserving this knowledge and conservating medicinal species by keeping records of the plants used use to treat various ailments. “I personally keep records of every plant I use.”
Paul adds that the government can help by sensitizing herbalists on how to patent their products and offer legal advice in case of intellectual property violation .“It would be useful to introduce herbal medicine programmes for the youth interested in this knowledge.”
Besides scaling up conservation efforts by afforestation, other solutions he proposes include domestication of herbal medicines, and training farmers on better methods of harvesting the medicines from trees .
“I encourage other herbalist to have their medicine tested by authorized government institutions to ensure efficacy of the compounds in the plants to avoid giving dangerous prescriptions. For example, because my medicines are tested, I have a certified letter of analysis from the government. This gives me credibility and acceptance by the community,” says Paul.
Warburgia ugandensis is a medicinal tree with antibacterial and antifungal properties. Within East Africa, the tree’s bark and roots are heavily exploited by traditional healers and medicine men to cure several ailments and in treating livestock diseases. The demand for its bark means the tree has been domesticated for on-farm production. The World Agroforestry Centre is investigating the variation between on-farm stands and natural forests to guide the collection of a variety of genes for future conservation and domestication strategies.
For more information on ICRAF’s work on domestication of trees >>
Read a media article on Warburgia ugandensis >>
Listen to an interview on the uses of Warbugia ugandensis with the World Agroforestry Centre's Alice Muchugi >>
World Agroforestry Centre Global research project >>
To contact the author, write to: Y.Otieno@cgiar.org