MOST of us might walk past this tree only stopping to admire the shape of its leaves or its vibrant colours, without even thinking to acknowledge the incredible powers it has. This plant, found only in Mauritius, is called Terminalia bentzoe and it has the potential to address the global challenge of antibiotic resistance.
This is because extracts from its leaves show potent activity against a wide range of bacteria that could be pathogenic, or disease causing, to humans. This was already discovered by locals who have been using it as traditional medicine for generations against infectious diseases.
Despite all the medical progression across the world, this traditional medicine continues to be highly relevant in Africa today.
According to the WHO, 80% of the world’s population, primarily those of developing countries, rely on plant-derived medicines for their healthcare. This is in part attributed to barriers in access to clinical medication - for example, a 7-day course of treatment with the antibiotic ciprofloxacin could cost in Kenya close to a month’s wages.
This healing power of plants is the passion and specialisation of Mauritius’ new, and first, female president - Ameenah Gurib-Fakim.
In an interview with Mail & Guardian Africa, Ameenah explained that while African traditional medicine is the oldest and perhaps the most diverse of all medicine systems, “unfortunately traditional medicine does not have the status that it deserves, unlike China and India where government endorsement is present.”
Mauritius president Gurib-Fakim. (Photo/AFP).
“Africa is so so rich in invaluable biodiversity that it is unbelievable but unexplored, under-utilised and yet faced with extinction. The rate of biodiversity loss on the continent exceed the global average but fortunately it is slowing down.”
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, 3,148 plants in Africa were listed as facing extinction in 2014, a clear sign of the continuing decline of biodiversity on the continent that is driven largely by human-induced factors. Yet the potential for finding more is enormous as at date only about 1% of tropical species have been studied for their pharmaceutical potential. Every time we lose a forest we could potentially be losing a lab that we may never recover.
When asked which are some of our most “valuable”, but also possibly unrecognised, plant, a few stood out to Ameenah; the Hoodia cactus, the Cancer bush as well as the Sceletium. “These are all poised to make a difference not just economically but to the health of the people be it in the nutrition sector or health sector as well” she said.
The Hoodia Cactus is like an organic pill that can act as an appetite suppressant - a key factor in combatting obesity. Southern Africa’s Khoisan people have been eating the Hoodia for thousands of years, to stave off hunger during long hunting trips.
Possibly one of the most important medicinal plants in southern Africa, the cancer bush is a herbal remedy traditionally used for stomach problems, diabetes and lately as an important tonic to improve the overall health of cancer and HIV/AIDS patients.
Sceletium tortuosum has been used by South African pastoralists and hunter-gatherers as a mood-altering substance - elevating the mood, decreasing anxiety, stress and tension. It is used to treat depression and is excellent for rehabilitating drug addictions as it is not addictive itself.
Ameenah also named a couple of other “beautiful” African plants who may be better known and whose applications can be in different areas; Pelargonium sidoides and Rooibos.
This plant increases the body’s natural healing rate and is very effective for treating acute bronchitis. It also has anti-infective properties, helping to fight viruses and stimulating the immune system to hunt down invaders. It is another legacy of the San people.
In a TED talk Ameenah did showcasing Africa’s “Humble plants that hide surprising secrets” there were a couple more show stoppers that should also be on this list:
Baume de L’ile Plate
This unassuming bush could be your good friend if you have asthma. Another plant endemic to Mauritius, it’s leaves have been used by locals for generations against respiratory problems. According to Ameenah, preliminary lab work on leaf extract showed that the leaves contained ingredients that are very closely related, in terms of chemical structure, to those medicines which are sold in the chemist’s to treat asthma.
Looking for the elixir of youth? Then this plant could hold some secrets that you’ve been waiting for. It has developed a remarkable tolerance to drought and can withstand 98% dehydration for up to a period of a year – and yet it can regenerate itself almost completely over 24 hours and flower. Ameenah explained that the ageing process is the loss of water from the upper epidermis resulting in wrinkling and that this plant could therefore provide ways of slowing down the ageing process and reinforcing cells against the onslaught of enviro-toxins.