Africa's trade with China is booming, but it's dull. Strangely, aphrodisiacs might just correct that problem

Malaysian firm that targets Chinese users last year estimated the global market for aphrodisiacs to be worth at least $7 billion.

CHINA’s Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) this week all but labelled a lucrative health supplements category as useless, alarmed by a sharp rise in medical cases involving such products over the last year.

In a statement, the CFDA said it had not approved the listing of health supplements claiming to “invigorate the kidney and strengthen the sex function”, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua, and urged the public to report the sales of such products.

They are unlikely to get an avalanche of complaints—the failure of sex supplements to work is usually a difficult pill to swallow for many unsatisfied consumers who would be far too embarrassed to seek any redress.

But the blacklisting highlights the country’s booming virility industry, the development of which has been decades in the making.

A Malaysian company in the industry and which targets Chinese users last year estimated the global market for aphrodisiacs to be worth at least $7 billion.

The local—and legal—Chinese market may have further shrunk after authorities earlier this year tightened the law, making it costlier to partake of or trade in protected species. The organs of many of these creatures, such as tiger penis, often end up on dinner tables or in decorated bottles as portions to be taken to boost sexual performance among other alleged health benefits.

Chinese aphrodisiacs have largely depended on natural products, but the growth of the illegal supplements, suggest demand for this exceeds legal supply in the world’s most populous nation.

Silent, lucrative market

The two bans will have further shrunk the sex boosterism market, creating an opportunity for traders to look for other markets to meet demand.

Step up Africa. Last year Chinese-Africa trade volumes surpassed the $200 billion mark for the first time, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Hidden in this headline figure was a trade imbalance slightly in favour of the Africans, on account of Chinese natural resource imports from Africa.

If you take away oil and minerals from the relationship, the Chinese revert into the driving seat, exporting far more to Africa than they buy. The relationship has in recent years come into scrutiny, but it is undeniable that Africa’s future economic fortunes are linked to the Chinese economy.

Last year an International Monetary Fund working paper found that a one percentage point increase or decrease in China’s domestic investment produced a corresponding 0.6 percentage shift in sub-Saharan African countries export growth. This effect was even higher for resource-rich African countries such as the oil exporters.      

Given the risks in this should the commodity markets tank, or Chinese appetite dwindle, African countries are looking to diversify this export trade relationship

The Chinese aphrodisiacs market is one for which demand will reliably remain solid. Africa is home to a host of flora—and fauna—and decades old beliefs that have effects on boosting sexual performance and libido.

The main challenge appears to be the lack of organisation and a commercial culture in the region, where such products are often for recreational use with few destined for external markets.   

Kenyans and ‘miracle’ octopus soup

Kenyan media recently highlighted a story of men in the country’s coastal city of Mombasa falling over themselves to imbibe up octopus soup, believing it to have performance enhancing capabilities. Many of them swore by it—an important factor in a trade that has little supporting respectable scientific evidence, and which critics say  operates mainly on the placebo effect—where belief plays the main role. 

But the country is also home to omukombero, a root derived from a climbing plant scientifically known as Mondia whytei. The name in a dialect of the Luhya community means desire and is believed to have high levels of chemicals that conflates mood, sexual desire and movement.

The plant is however also distributed across eastern, West and southern Africa, which are also rich reservoirs of plants perceived as aphrodisiacs, where it goes by various names such as mudondo in Angola, mindi in South Africa and mujimbaye in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Tshiluba languafe.

In West Africa there is the velvet bean, a ferociously itchy legume known as Werepe in Yoruba or the Agbala in Igbo, and feijões malucos (mad beans) in northern Mozambique. Tapping it could further supplement the Asian market, where it is also native.   

Grains of paradise, a spice found in Sierra Leone and Liberia among other West African coasts, also has long been used traditionally as an aphrodisiac, with the scientific name of Aframomum melegueta.

Yohimbe’s praises

Another potential source of exports would come from the Yohimbe tree, a west African evergreen tree whose bark has an active chemical which when used in extracts dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure. It is also native to the DR Congo, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea

It is already used as prescription medicine in the West, where in the United States it is strictly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A report from the non-profit American Botanical Council showed that dietary supplements from yohimbine were the number two selling in mainstream channels, and were worth $67.3 million in sales last year, almost 20% up on 2012. 

In southern Africa the Zulu know of the ibhucu, or Rooiwortel in Afrikaans, an evergreen perennial that some body builders claim outperforms Viagra. adding to a long list of other products such as the leopard orchid endemic all over the continent that Africa could seek to export.

Experts say that the main challenge to sustainable production of such products has been the availability of a market, which with proper marketing in new emerging markets such as in China could yield gains for entrepreneurial Africans.

There is an added incentive also: most of these plants have other uses which could negate export market volatility, the bane of so many African countries.

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