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Promoting the cultivation of indigenous plants for markets: experiences from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

Myles Mander, Jenny Mander & Charles Breen
Institute of Natural Resources, University of Natal
Private Bag x01, Scottsville 3209, South Africa


A large and active trade in traditionally used indigenous plants exists within South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. Rapidly increasing demand for medicinal and other purposes has resulted in overexploitation of wild populations, a reduction in supply and an increase in cost. The need for sustainable use of wild populations and for enhanced supply through cultivation is acknowledged.

Although the production of traditionally used plants has been suggested for over a decade, there has been little response. The lack of understanding with respect to the cultivation and economics of producing useful indigenous plants can be considered one of the most limiting factors in commercialization. Producers do not engage in commercialization as there is no indication of the potential costs and returns of producing plants for traditional markets. To promote greater understanding, the Institute of Natural Resources is currently testing the cultivation of indigenous plants in small-scale agricultural systems, and studying the economics of cultivating selected species in various agricultural systems. These projects, their approaches and preliminary findings, are discussed.

Medicinal plant trade

In KwaZulu-Natal, commercialization of indigenous plants is well developed in the informal sector, with a large and active trade. An extensive network exists, which harvests large volumes of plants from wild populations throughout the subregion and distributes them to the consumers, who may be both rural and urban. The trade network has an number of key components; it includes collectors, transporters, hawkers, wholesalers, retailers, mail-order companies, traditional healers and exporters. In the medicinal plant trade, several large urban street markets exist within the Durban metropolitan area and numerous stores or informal street sellers are found in almost every town and village in the region. Some 60-70% of urban Africans are believed to make use of traditional medicine. The size of the national market for medicinal plants is believed to considerable, with an estimated trade value of at least USD 128 million per annum in 1995. In addition, the trade is substantial in other plant products used for craftwork, housing, beverage, food and fuelwood. For example, in 1990 over 116 tonnes of dried Juncus kraussii (Hochst) was traded (Heinsohn 1991).

Unsustainable use

The demand for traditional medicines and other plant products continues to grow in South Africa. The growing human population, the slow employment growth rate, the influx of foreigners seeking work, and the limited resources of the government to service primary health care and other welfare requirements results in a rapidly increasing use of indigenous plant products. In addition, the strong cultural attachment by many communities to traditional practices, even within modernized urban settings, sustains the demand for traditional plant products. For example, the use of traditional medicine by South Africans is believed to have assisted them in winning the 1996 Africa's Cup of Nations [Africa's premier football event].

The increased demand for plant products results in a greater harvesting intensity being placed on the remaining plant resources. In addition to unsustainable harvesting, development reduces the area of natural vegetation. This situation is illustrated by the localized extinction of popular medicinal and craftwork plants in KwaZulu-Natal. Numerous species are no longer found on private and communal lands. Harvesting pressure is so intense that one species, Warburgia salutaris (Bertol. f.) Chior., has become extinct in Hluhluwe Game Reserve. As a result of the above, demand exceeds supply and prices have increased. For example, small Siphonochilus tubers can fetch over USD 2.60, and large Boweia bulbs can cost over USD 5 per bulb. These prices fuel further exploitation, and more plant populations further afield are coming under harvesting pressure. In the Durban markets one now finds that Warburgia is being imported from Mozambique.

The need for a sustained supply

Indigenous plants are extensively utilized by both rural and urban populations, with a significant economic value to society in KwaZulu-Natal. Plant products provide society with a wide range of essential consumer goods, including fruit, housing material, fuelwood, craftwork and traditional medicines. In addition to consumer goods, the plants provide important trade goods, with numerous enterprises dependent on trading plant products.

The value of indigenous plant products and the need for sustained supply is illustrated by the use of medicinal plants. Traditional medicines are frequently used by low-income groups in urban and particularly in rural areas in primary health care. This is prevalent in the KwaZulu-Natal region, which has one of the highest incidences of poverty in South Africa. The medicinal plants are valuable for a number of factors. For example, the medicines are usually considerably cheaper than are the western medicines, and access to treatment is cheaper, with little travelling required to visit the local traditional healer. The value of traditional healers is increasingly being recognized by health authorities, who see traditional medicine as an important element of primary health care. The cost to government of supplying sufficient western medicine to the entire low-income group is prohibitive and has high cost implications for the users, considering travel costs and time wasted.

In addition to the health value, the benefits to the economy are considerable. The USD 128 million per annum expenditure on medicinal plants in 1995 promoted additional economic activity and made an important contribution to job creation, with several hundred thousand people directly employed in the industry.

There is also a growing interest from large pharmaceutical companies, both local and European, for access to large volumes of plant material. For example in Namibia, several hundred tonnes of Harpagophytum are exported annually. Trade and adding value to plant products through local processing can present valuable economic opportunities in developing regions. These regions need a sustainable supply of useful indigenous plants, as these plants not only address essential needs in the short term but also have the potential to be important economic opportunities. In KwaZulu-Natal, current and future welfare of the population, is and will be, dependent on the sustainable supply of useful indigenous plants.

Production advocated

The need to cultivate large numbers of popular indigenous plants was identified some 50 years ago by Gerstner (1946). Work done by Cunningham and Heinsohn in the 1980s and 1990s indicated the need for cultivating both medicinal and craftwork plants, citing the important role that these plants played in society (cited by Heinsohn 1991). A large volume of research has been and is currently being undertaken within South Africa, focusing on the mass production of useful indigenous plants.

A large body of information now exists regarding tissue culture for many of the popular medicinal plants, like Boweia volubilis (Harv.), Eucomis autumnalis (Mill.), and Siphonochilus aethiopicus (Shweinf.).

There have been frequent international calls for `conservation through cultivation', but with little response from either the private or the public sector. In South Africa, one of the large timber companies took up the challenge to mass produce popular medicinal trees; however, it produces trees for distribution to interested groups and has not yet considered commercial production. More successfully, Durban City Parks Department has established a medicinal plant nursery to promote the cultivation of local plants. This nursery has been successful in pioneering cultivation techniques and makes plants available at nominal prices. There has been wide publicity associated with the nursery, but as yet commercial production has been minimal. Some success has, however, been achieved in developing the skills of traditional healers in plant production, and there is a growing interest in production at the homestead level.

The question arises why, with all this information and market signals, is there no real commercial cultivation of traditionally used plants?

Lack of understanding

In the private sector, there appears to be little understanding of indigenous plant cultivation in agricultural systems, particularly concerning the performance of plants and the economics of production and marketing processes. As a result, neither the state, private companies, nor individuals are unable to recognize the value of commercializing the production of indigenous plants. As there is no clear indication of the costs and benefits of commercial cultivation, no serious consideration is given to production. Private companies and individuals do not understand the cost implication of production, and they do not understand what financial benefits they could gain from cultivation.

Small-scale farmers in communal areas, who are aware of the market in useful plants, have no tradition in cultivating indigenous plants and rely on the natural environment to produce them. There is also little awareness of the potential for cultivating indigenous plants and consequently cultivating them is not considered. Small-scale farmers are particularly averse to risk and so are unlikely to make an investment in a new venture unless benefits are guaranteed.

Large-scale farmers and agricultural companies have not understood the use of indigenous plants. The past racial divisions in South Africa have contributed to considerable ignorance as to the scale of trade in plant products, and there is suspicion with regard to traditional plant use. The large market and the potential market opportunities have largely gone unnoticed.

There has also been little understanding of the potential for domesticating indigenous plants for small- or large-scale farming systems. While there has been a lot of pioneering work, in the form of mass production, there has been little or no adoption by farmers.

An additional problem is that within the government, state departments do not understand the value of these plants to society and therefore do not consider production an option for addressing societal needs. Consequently, no effort is directed at promoting commercial cultivation, except by some nature conservation departments. As long as there is a lack of understanding in the social value of these useful indigenous plants, the better-funded government departments, like health and agriculture, will make little effort to promote their cultivation.

There is a need to know more about the cost implications of production and about supply and demand. For example, what price would the consumers pay for these plants and what is the volume of trade? There will be little investment in the commercialization of traditionally used plants until there are sufficient data on these important aspects.

Approaches being used to promote understanding

In an endeavour to develop greater understanding, the Institute of Natural Resources has initiated two projects focusing on cultivation in small-scale farming systems and the economics of cultivation. These projects are discussed here, giving an indication of the approaches being taken.

Testing the cultivation of indigenous plants in small-scale farming systems

The cultivation of indigenous plants could be a means of maintaining and increasing the supply of useful plants to the market. It is now opportune to undertake such a project within user communities throughout KwaZulu-Natal. Recent experience has shown that it is possible to cultivate numerous indigenous plant species in sophisticated agricultural systems; however, the feasibility of cultivating these plants in small-scale, low-input farming systems is unknown.

The project's approach has been to establish a number of trial sites in various rural locations by providing expertise, training, minor capital inputs (such as fencing and fertilizer) and plant material, while the user community, or individual farmer, supplies the labour and local expertise. Various plant species and production systems have been tested and monitored. The trial sites are also used as demonstration farms. The duration of the project is 3 years and thereafter the trial sites will be owned and managed by the interested group or individuals.

The approach adopted in the trials has been to integrate indigenous plants with conventional crop production since the slow returns from medicinal plants need to be supplemented by faster growing conventional food crops. In addition, the combination of indigenous plants and vegetable crops ensures that the plants are regularly watered and tended. In the medicinal plant cultivation trials, shade has been provided by adding the fast-growing pigeonpea (Cajanus cajan). Shade is essential for certain species of medicinal plants, and the pigeonpea also promotes soil fertility and supplies valuable food.

Preliminary results

Initial observations in the two medicinal plant trials indicate that the addition of limited agricultural inputs such as lime, manure, mulching and minimal watering has made significant improvements to the production potential of the indigenous plants. Several bulb species, which normally die back, have continued to grow throughout the winter, have produced numerous bulbules, and have grown considerably within a year. Some tree species have also shown fast growth rates, but more data over several years will be required before any conclusions can be made. The key to success appears to be locating the plant in a site that is similar to its natural habitat. It has been observed, however, that farmers do not apply the same effort to growing medicinal plants as they do to their more traditional crops.

Progress has been exciting in the Juncus kraussii cultivation trial. During the last autumn over 5000 cuttings were planted. These plants grew well during the winter, with a large number of new culms being produced within a few months. In addition, numerous plants produced seed heads within 6months after planting, and we expect that plant numbers will increase rapidly, from both germination and vegetative reproduction. In the Juncus kraussii trial, the only agricultural inputs were to plough the soil and to weed occasionally.

These trials have drawn considerable interest from the traditional healers and other community members in the associated areas. The growing difficulty of obtaining medicinal and craftwork plants appears to be making cultivation an increasingly acceptable option to traditional users. Large numbers of farmers, traditional healers and weavers are now indicating an interest in growing indigenous plants.

The economics of cultivating indigenous plants

Before any farmer will invest in a new crop, the following questions and many more need to be answered. Will the returns on plant sales outweigh the costs and give a profit? What agricultural inputs are required and how much will they cost? What will the selling price be in 3 years time? Will the cultivation of indigenous plants be the most economically efficient use of my land?

The aim of the project is to promote the sustainable use of indigenous plant species by evaluating the economics of production and informing people of the implications for commercial cultivation. The project focuses on 6 to 10 species, representing the popular plant forms that are traded in the market. The intention is to investigate the economics of cultivating the most popular and most highly valued species, as these would probably be the most commercially feasible options. If commercial cultivation is not feasible with these species, then it will probably not be feasible for the lower-valued species.

The approach involves three main components: (1) developing a greater understanding of the market, (2) identifying or predicting indigenous plant performance in different production systems, and (3) establishing the production budgets for cultivation within various agricultural systems. The information gained from this work could then provide an understanding of what range of prices could be expected on the market, and what range of costs and yields could be associated with the different agricultural systems. The project will develop a model that will be able to assess a large number of combinations of variables such as price, market demand, yield characteristics, agricultural inputs and input costs. A flexible model is required because of the variability in plant performance, the diversity of agricultural systems, the fluctuations in price depending on location, season and substitute products, and the costs and availability of agricultural inputs.

The key project actions are as follows:

Preliminary results

The acceptability of cultivating indigenous plants by traditional users and the concomitant willingness to supply accurate information to the market surveys have been positive except among some groups of traditional healers. Part of the market indicates that they will use cultivated plants, and the question arises what will the more reluctant groups use once wild stocks have been eliminated or are no longer available. It is likely that they may follow the trends already exhibited by numerous traditional healers and make use of cultivated plants. Consumers have also indicated an interest in using traditional medicines from commercial companies, and mail order companies have been successful in marketing traditional medicines.

Interest in the project and its products has been growing and a network is developing. Such a network will play an important role in the distribution of the research findings. In addition, the participatory nature of the study is also drawing people into it, increasing the numbers of those involved in the project. In the year ahead, the project will be investigating the market, potential yields, and production budgets. By the end of the year, it is hoped that modelling on various production and market scenarios will begin.


An analysis of the situation in KwaZulu-Natal indicates that the trade in indigenous plants plays an important role in society's welfare and that this role is being threatened by unsustainable harvesting. The potential welfare losses have been recognized in the past, and cultivation is suggested as a solution. However, little or no commercial cultivation has taken place, mainly because of the lack of understanding with respect to marketing and cultivation economics. Farmers and other potential growers have not considered the cultivation of indigenous plants for traditional markets because of their limited understanding of the market and of the production of indigenous plants.

A synthesis of botanical, social and economic information, like that now in progress, will provide opportunities to identify the most economically efficient cultivation strategies. Such strategies could then be assessed by various producers in terms of their own limitations and opportunities.


The support of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (South Africa), the Human Sciences Research Council, the Goldfields Foundation, and Nestlé (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd are acknowledged.


Gerstner J. 1946. Some factors affecting the perpetuation of our indigenous silva. Journal of the South African Forestry Association 13:4-11.

Heinsohn R.D. 1991. The potential for cultivation of Juncus kraussii and other wetland species used for craftwork in Natal/KwaZulu. Institute of Natural Resources, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. 175 p.

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