Conservation agencies have pooled resources to protect one of Kenya’s endangered medicinal plants from extinction. Wandera Ojanji explores the medical and commercial potential of the project.

Communities in western Kenya have taken up on-farni cultivation of mukombelai - an indigenous medicinal plant - whose roots have traditionally been chewed for their aromatic flavor, used as an appetizer, aphrodisiac and for treatment of sexually transmit led diseases. The fast growing vine or climber is mainly found in the remnant tropical rain forest of Kakamega and its outliers - Malava and Bunyala forests. However, the vine - scientifically known as Mondia whytei - has come under extensive and unsustainable harvesting in the forest.

It is extinct in Central Province due to over-exploitation and increase in demand for agricultural land. Consequently, Kenya Wildlife. Service (KWS) has slapped a ban on the harvesting mukombela from protected areas.

The extensive and unsustainable harvesting has been fuelled by the huge demand for the roots, commonly known as mukombela in Luhya and ogombo in the Luo, muhukura in Kikuyu, mkonkora in Kamba, olmkonkora in Maasai and chemuchongolanik in Nandi

"It has been estimated that over one tonne of the roots are collected from Kakamega Forest every month for sale in the country," says Kavaka Mukonyi, a researcher with the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri).

The situation could have been worse if Kenyans had ventured into exporting the root to Europe. Ghana, Congo, Malawi and South Africa are some of the African countries exporting it to the lucrative international markets.

Mukonyi says women account for 60 per cent of traders selling the roots in markets like Luanda, Kisumu and Gikomba in Nairobi. However, men account for 98 per cent of hawkers in bars, streets and bus parks.

A kilo of fresh roots costs about Sh450, while one teaspoon of powdered roots costs Shl5, according to Dr Wilberforce Lwande, a researcher with the International Centre for Insect Ecology and Physiology (Icipe). In Germany, a kilo of fresh roots goes for Sh 14,000.

Unlike other medicinal plants that taste bitter, the golden yellow roots of mukombela possess an aromatic vanilla-like scent, have a sweet taste, and produce a tingling sensation on the tongue when chewed. Recently, Kefri carried out chemical analyses of the vine to determine its efficacy in the management of various diseases. The studies found that it has strong antibiotic properties and can be used for management of stress, depression, memory loss and hangover, enhancement of sexual strength and vigour, as an appetizer and as a flavoring agent.

"Root extracts are active against ‘Neisseria gonorrhoea' and even superior to minoglycine drug used in treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. The extracts had comparable efficacy with Norfloxacin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic widely used in the management of STIs," says Mukonyi, who carried out the analyses.

"Both root and leaf also showed antibacterial against Pseudomonas auriginosa, Bacillus subtilis, Shigallae dysentrae, Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhii and to fungi like Candida albicans and Aspergillus niger. This explains why most herbalists in western Kenya use mukombela to treat STIs."

Further analysis showed that mukombela had diuretic effects similar to those of furosemide a drug used to enhance urination. It also had contractile effects similar to oxytocin, a hormone released by the pituitary gland that stimulates contractions of the womb during childbirth and also triggers the secretion of milk during lactation.

With support from Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari), the Icipe/Kefri team carried out studies to specifically establish nutritional and livestock feed value of the plant as a basis to develop products and enhance domestication of the species.

The studies indicated that the vine is highly nutritious. The bark is high in energy, with a calorific-value of 3.25 cal/g. Roots showed varied mineral  concentration, ranging from potassium 32.82mg,  sodium 24.66rng, magnesium 2.83mg, • calcium 8.25mg, iron ().43mg,

zinc 0.052mg, copper 0.069mg, manganese 0.053mg, lead 0.02rng, cadmium 0.05 mg. Leaves have even higher mineral concentrations: calcium 16.44mg, magnesium 6.589 , and iron 2.21 mg.

The roots were also rich in vitamins like carotene, thiamineuiacin and riboflavin. "These phytochemical and nutritional studies have been useful in supporting traditional claims and enhancing the species value for improved marketing and conservation," says Mukonyi.

While work to domesticate Mondia whytei actually began in 1997, it was not until 2000 that communities around Kakamega Forest started commercial production of the crop on their farms. Kefri, KWS and Icipe initiated the project as part of the Integrated Conservation of Kakamega Forest Project with financial support from MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Biovision and Kari.

This came at a time when the community was experiencing problems accessing the roots in Kakamega Forest. The forest, is partly controlled by the Forests Department and KWS, each with different access rules. While the Forests Department allowed communities access to the forest for harvest ing of certain products like mukornbela, it was illegal under KWS management.

According to Medicinal Plants: Rescuing a Global Heritage — a World Bank technical report — a number of medicinal plants have been harvested almost to extinction and "unless action is taken, more are headed towards extinction".

It adds that the global demand for more herbal ingredients has created possibilities for

local cultivation of medicinal crops and regulated and sustainable harvest of wild stands.

Currently, more than 40,000 vines of Mondia whytei are growing in rural homesteads around Kakamega Forest, according to Mukonyi.

"Through research and documentation of indigenous knowledge, we were able to identify active ingredients, knowledge we used in selection of superior cultivars for domestication," says Mukonyi.

While the demand for mukombela is high, Dr Lwande believes the communities can reap maximum benefits if they sell processed products or value added products and not just the fresh roots.

He cites the development of Mondia Tonic — a powder processed from the roots of the plant — that was funded by Ford Foundation. The partner institutions are now building the capacity of Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), a community-based project to coordinate production, processing and marketing of Mondia whytei in Western and other parts of Kenya.

However, the World Bank report warns that creating a regularized production of these species also raises many difficult issues. "Some of these issues relate to medical efficacy and its proof. Some relate to the protection of fragile tropical habitats. Yet others relate to local empowerment, gender equity, regulatory measures and the rights to traditional knowledge."

Mukonyi believes that growing mukombela presents one of the greatest opportunities for economic prosperity of the local community and conservation of Kakamega Forest if well supported.

"Cultivation of medicinal plants can be an incentive for conservation and economic empowerment, a tool for salvaging from poverty and saving heritage of human knowledge in developing countries," he says.

Compared to other commercial crops in Western Kenya, mukombela has higher returns. Farmers can earn a minimum of Sh 10,000 per acre after three years. (Mondia whytei takes three years to mature.)

Mukonyi wants the plant adopted as an alternative commercial crop in Western Kenya for local and export markets. He is buoyed by successes elsewhere in the world.

The World Bank report, which gives a global view the importance of medicinal plants in international development, states that between 1990 and 1995, sales in medicinal plants and products have more than doubled in China, while exports have soared almost three-fold during the last decade in India. The report observes that China had 439,000 hectares under medicinal plants cultivation and earned $1,451 million from sales of herbal medicines in 1995, which included $63 million from sale of 4,200 tons of ginseng.

According Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Nonwood News, March 2000, West African countries earned $10 million from 50,000 tones of shea nut. oil obtained from Vitellaria paradoxa.

While acknowledging the existence and dangers of illegal bioprospecting as witnessed in the case of other medicinal plants like Prunus africana and   useful products from natural resources through discovery in a well-established legal framework is a stimulus for enhanced biodiversity conservation and improved rural livelihoods.

"A well-established system like bio prospecting involving local communities owners of resources and relevant stakeholders will promote sustainable utilization of Kenyan biodiversity," says Mukonyi

Kefri, Icipe and KWS have signed a memorandum of understanding on bio prospecting. It is based on the Convention on Biological Diversity focusing on three main areas — conservation, sustainable utilization and equitable benefit sharing.

Under sustainable utilization, government and research institutions partner with communities and private or business enterprises to promote sustainable use of biodiversity.

Mukonyi says developing countries have not put adequate emphasis on promotion of medicinal plants as reflected in their budgetary allocations.

"Developed nations are actively bio prospecting I fie virgin mega biodiversity of developing countries through their pharmaceutical companies. About $4-'J billion is generated from medicinal plants by developed nations while source countries don't benefit," laments Mukonyi.

"Well-established bio prospecting framework in partnership with developed nations could be an alternative to control biopiracy and equitable benefit sharing to all involved stakeholders as well as support conservation. The same can be promoted within countries."

For those medicinal plants which are yet to be domesticated but faced with over-exploitation Mukonyi recommends that the government puts in place a

certification processes that would ensure sustainable utilization. Under the certification process, communities would sign agreements with for instance KWS or FD to access given quantities of the plant from given sites. The certification process would also help to identify which medicinal plant or parts of the plant are from the wild or on-farm.

The Standard 4 January 2006

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