Marketing medicines from the forest

Medicinal plants are one of the "fruits" of the forest. In South Africa, some 27 million people use indigenous medicines, and demand for many popular plant species today exceeds supply. In KwaZulu-Natal Province, over 4 000 tonnes of medicinal plant materials are traded in a year, with a value of US$13 million - a third of the value of the province's annual maize harvest.

Nationally, it is estimated that 20 000 tonnes may be traded in a year, with a value of about US$60 million. Such plants are important not only for their medicinal value, but also for the individual incomes they generate and the industry they underpin.

But unsustainable harvesting practices mean that supplies are on the decline and many species have become extinct outside the protected area of KwaZulu-Natal.

Medicinal plant products on sale at the market
(FAO/17502/R. Faidutti)

A major study was therefore started in South Africa by the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) to review the whole medicinal plants sector. The project aimed to investigate the economic feasibility of cultivating high value medicinal plants for local markets and focused particularly on cultivation potential, production costs and marketing.

Through its Forest Products Marketing Programme, FAO works to document and increase knowledge of current marketing practices in the forestry sector. The marketing component of the INR project provided FAO with an excellent opportunity to develop and test approaches and methods for similar studies in other countries. This work also resulted in a new FAO publication - "Marketing of Indigenous Medicinal Plants in South Africa".

The book describes the demand, supply, current marketing practices, potential and limitations in the medicinal plant market in KwaZulu-Natal Province and makes recommendations for a wide range of decision-makers. It is the latest in a series of case-studies describing marketing practices for specific forestry products, as a first step towards improving efficiency and transparency in marketing.

FAO has identified marketing as a vital element in the sustainable utilization of forests. Efficient marketing enables producers, harvesters, processors and sellers to target and tailor their products, thus cutting waste and maximizing income. For instance, in the field of medicinal plants, "Both healers and consumers have indicated that they are concerned about the quality of the products purchased in the markets". This suggests that improved quality control could boost sales.

The Forest Products Marketing Programme covers all forest products, both wood and non-wood, and even forestry services, such as eco-tourism. "While wood products usually have good marketing systems already in place", said FAO's Senior Forestry Officer, Leo Lintu, the programme coordinator, "marketing for non-wood forest products is a very new area". The case-studies are intended to be used by all actors in the field, including policy-makers, marketing personnel, and extension workers. They can also be used as training materials.

13 November 1998

For a free copy of Marketing of Indigenous Medicinal Plants in South Africa, contact [email protected]

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