East African farmers reap profits with new herb used in drugs to fight malaria

A medicinal herb being used by pharmaceutical companies globally as an active ingredient to fight malaria has gained ground in Kenya and Tanzania where a multi-billion processing plant has been set up to turn the raw herb into the Artemisinin-based Combination Therapies (ACTs), the new malaria drug that is now on the WHO's Essential Medicines list.

The herb known as Artemisia is native to Asia with wild populations occurring in China and Vietnam but it became naturalised in many countries in the 1990’s. In Africa, Artemisia has been introduced for
cultivation to Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia - all in high-altitude regions and regions with a pronounced cool period.

Artemisia can grow almost anywhere in the world, in every kitchen garden, in every field, appearing as an inconspicuous mugwort plant.
Yet its inner substance, artemisinin, is highly potent and effective, according to the international aid organization, "Doctors Without Borders", which found that the first dose destroyed 90 per cent of the agents that cause malaria.

The simplest way to take advantage of its curing properties is through herbal tea made from the plant, which is 80 per cent effective in treating malaria, according to the research by Doctors Without
Borders, but its efficacy rises to 90 per cent when combined with other anti malaria drugs.

Yet with only a few international pharmaceutical companies producing Artemisinin-based malaria medicines, access to these highly effective medicines for malaria patients is not adequately secured in most African countries. A problem during production is the availability of the agent Artesunate, which has to be bought at high prices, mostly from Asia, with Kenya previously producing the plant without the
technology to extract the ingredients.
But various international companies have now set up shop to connect farmers with multinational contracts that have seen local farmers abandoning crops they lived with for decades in favour of cultivating
the herb.
Action Medeor one of the largest medical aid organisations in Europe is involved in a project that supports the local cultivation of the plant in East Africa. Once the farmers harvest the leaves they dry them, and the dried leaves are weighed by the company, which ferries them to the factory for extraction. Farmers are paid per kilo of dried leaves. The extraction, which is the isolation of the substance
Artemisinin from the Artimisia-leaves, takes place in a facility of the cooperation partner Advanced Bioextracts (ABE Ltd.) situated in Athi River. The multi-million dollar processing plant produces Artemisinin for the global market, including quantities which are sold under contract to the international pharmaceutical company Novartis, a global leader in pharmaceuticals.

The ultimate goal of ABE and Action Medeor has been to optimise the extraction process and develop a more effective and cost-efficient method for the conversion of Artemisinin to the active ingredients in the anti malarial drugs. The extraction also allows local drug-producers to get the precursors for their medicines.
Botanical Extracts EPZ Limited (BEEPZ), another company primarily involved in the production of low cost, pharmaceutical grade artemisinin has been in the country for 12 years. From the initial three to four farmers contracted by BEEPZ to plant about 40ha in 2002 the number has shot up to 4,000 smallholder farmers growing some 4,000ha of the cash crop.
BEEPZ pays between Sh50,000 and Sh60,000 per tonne of dry leaf to smallholder farmers. One hectare can bring in up to 2T of dry leaves and is usually cultivated without the use of much fertiliser or pest problems. In 2010, BEEPZ paid out Sh153m to farmers.

“The greatest concern when we first started was how we would maintain the supply. However, we have successfully managed to keep an all year round supply and the pay by BEEPZ has equally been impressive we cannot complain. And with the demand now ballooning due to the knowledge of the importance of the herb by even more international organisations, we expect more demand, which means clearing more land,” said Lilian Ndere, one of the suppliers of the leaves who in October 2011 managed to deliver 13 tonnes of dried leaves.

The news of the herb’s take-off as a crop in Kenya and Tanzania comes beside a recently released report by the World Health Organisation showing that 90 per cent of all malaria-related deaths occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the report, co-authored by the United Nations Children’s Fund, the knock-on effects on a country's economy are huge. The report estimated that malaria costs $12bn a year in lost GDP and eats up 25 per cent of household incomes. “In effect, malaria tightens the shackles of poverty on families and nations,” read part of the report.

The Kenyan government introduced the WHO-recommended artemisinin based combination therapy (ACT) of artemether-lumefantrine (AL) for uncomplicated malaria treatment in 2006, after the malaria parasite
was found to have developed resistance to the commonly used sulphur-based drugs. The government banned the sale of the sulphur based drugs and has now gone further to give the ACT free of charge in government hospitals and reduce the prices in chemists from the initial Sh250 to only Sh40 to encourage uptake.

Written By Bob Koigi for African Laughter