Indigenous medicine is widely used in South Africa, with reports of up to 80% of blacks in South Africa making use of traditional medicines [Holdstock 1978]. There are reports of over 100 000 indigenous healers practising in South Africa [Gericke pers. comm. 1996] and using indigenous plants as their materia medica. The plant trade is believed to generate a large volume of economic activity with an estimated value of US$ 110 year-1 (R 500 million year-1) [SA Druggists pers. comm. 1996]. Observations of the market indicate that most of the plants are harvested from wild populations and are not cultivated. The current demand for numerous popular plant species used for traditional medicines exceeds supply, with traders reporting acute shortages and price increases. To date, several plant species, such as wild ginger (Siphonochilus aethiopicus) and the pepper-bark tree (Warburgia salutaris) have been exploited to such an extent that they are seldom found in unprotected areas [Cunningham 1988].
The declining supply of indigenous medicinal plants and the associated products is likely to generate significant economic and welfare losses considering the large number of people who either consume or trade indigenous medicinal plants. A decline in the availability of a culturally important and easily accessible consumer good is likely to generate significant losses for the user community. The loss of income-earning opportunities for people active in the plant trade will also represent a serious loss to those involved in the trade. Additional losses would also occur as potential income-generating opportunities associated with a growing local demand [Cunningham 1988] and international demand [Lange 1997] are not realised. Furthermore, intensive harvesting of wild stocks is a serious threat to biodiversity in the region with over 700 plant species traded in South Africa [Mander, Quinn and Mander 1997].
As a result of the declining supply of medicinal plants and the localized extinctions which have occurred, Cunningham  called for the cultivation of indigenous medicinal plants for marketing. However, there has been little response to Cunningham's 1988 recommendations and/or to increases in market prices which have occurred in the intervening nine years. As supply diminishes and prices increase, the potential opportunities for cultivating indigenous medicinal plant products have increased substantially. The question arises as to why the higher prices have not stimulated the cultivation of high value medicinal plants in South Africa?
Discussions with agricultural economists [Lyne 1996, Darroch 1996] indicated that insufficient knowledge of the economics of indigenous plant production and associated markets, limited both cultivation initiatives and institutional support for such initiatives. The lack of information has prevented individuals, organizations and government bodies assessing opportunities in cultivating indigenous medicinal plants for the market.
Consequently, a research project was initiated by the Institute of Natural Resources, and supported by the Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism through the Human Needs, Resources and the Environment programme at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. The project's aim was to investigate the economic feasibility of cultivating high value medicinal plants for local medicinal markets, with a focus on:
· the production potential and costs of cultivating important indigenous medicinal plants, and
· the markets for indigenous medicinal plants.
This report covers the latter aspect of the larger research project, that is, the market study component. The market study aims to describe the demand, supply, potential and limitations within the medicinal plant market and current marketing practices for the purposes of providing information and support for a wide range of decision-makers, including:
· small- and large-scale farmers,
· current market players,
· health authorities,
· conservation authorities,
· forestry authorities,
· policy-makers at all levels of government,
· communities and individuals which own or have access to medicinal plant resources, and
· various commercial interests.
As this study is one of the first comprehensive market surveys on medicinal plants undertaken in southern Africa, it aims to provide information that would be useful for a number of purposes. As there is little known about the South African market, largely due to the informal nature of the trade, the secrecy of trade attributed to the conflict between of plant traders and conservation authorities, and the past discrimination of indigenous medicine, the survey needed to provide information for a wide range of applications.
The case study has had a spatial focus on the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa, and specifically on Durban (a city with some 4 million people) (Figure 1.1). KwaZulu-Natal has a large black population (of some 6 to 7 million black people) with an active trade in indigenous medicine. The province is consequently an area of active plant harvesting, trade and consumption, with Durban forming the hub of the regional plant trade [Cunningham 1988]. The other provinces in South Africa also have an active trade in indigenous medicines, and some reference will be made to national trends in the case study, where information is available.
Figure 1.1: The spatial location of South Africa, the province of KwaZulu-Natal and Durban city