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    Medicinal Plants


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2001

    There are good prospects for export growth from LDCs in this market. Sales of herbal medicine alone are estimated to have exceeded US$ 12.5 billion in 1994 and US$ 30 billion in 2000, with annual growth rates averaging between 5% and 15%, depending on the region. The herbal supplements market had an even higher annual average growth rate of 25% between 1990 and 1997.

    Markets for herbal medicine in developed countries - especially in Europe and the United States - are highly regulated and very difficult to penetrate, particularly for developing countries and LDCs whose products have not undergone the stringent tests applied by developed country pharmaceutical manufacturers before mass production.

    Rising global interest in medicinal plants has also created a sustained and largely 'underground' trade in plant materials, many of which are being collected in LDCs in an unregulated manner, resulting in indiscriminate harvest of wild varieties and serious damage to biodiversity.

    It is, therefore, not possible to assess global trade in all medicinal plants. A substantial part of this trade is not recorded. In addition, official trade statistics either do not identify the plants individually, or do not separate their medicinal use from other usage. Total recorded exports of medicinal plants from LDCs peaked at US$ 37 million in 1998 before falling to a reported US $27 million in 1999. They averaged around US$ 31 million a year from 1995 to 1999.

    Major trade constraints

    - Lack of knowledge of supply. Few, if any, LDCs have carried out an inventory of species and sustainable off-take on the basis of gathering or limited husbandry. Prospects for cultivation are yet to be studied. At present, few LDCs have the resources and institutional capability to advise on policy or the regulatory mechanisms to provide consistently high-quality products. Know-how in processing technologies is also deficient, as is the availability of sustainable production processes.

    - Limited knowledge of properties. There is also limited knowledge of the herbs' medicinal properties beyond traditional knowledge and belief. This restricts the use and marketability of the plants.

    - Intellectual property rights. An issue of potentially huge importance to the LDCs and all developing country exporters is intellectual property. Plants have been used in traditional medicines for centuries and hence cannot be protected by patent. They can be registered as individual or regional trademarks, with explicit rules of origin. Knowledge of the whole intellectual property rights (IPR) field is limited in the LDCs, as is access to IPR systems.


    - Prospects, policies and strategies for LDCs. LDCs should aim to cultivate in a sustainable manner and enter markets at the early stages of the value chain by first supplying developed country manufacturers with unprocessed raw materials. Then they can move towards providing herbal supplements before tackling the highly regulated market for herbal remedies.

    - Explore alternative sales techniques. Alternative sales techniques, especially sales via the Internet, are available to the LDCs. According to the Nutrition Business Journal, dietary supplement sales on the Internet reached US$ 40 million in 1998, an increase of US$ 12 million over 1997 figures. This accounts for only 0.3% of the total 1998 United States supplement market of US$ 13.6 billion. However, the rate of sales growth for supplements on the Internet far exceeds that of natural foods and mass-market stores, and multilevel marketing.

    For more information, see ITC's quarterly Market News Service bulletin on Medicinal Plants (abstract and subscription information are available on page 37 of the magazine). For technical assistance from ITC, contact Micaela Maftei, ITC Senior Commodity Officer, at maftei@intracen.org

    Medicinal plants and the diseases that they treat

    Medicinal plant-based products sold over the counter in developed countries

    • Quinidine, suppresser of out-of-sequence heartbeats from the bark of Cinchona sp.
    • quinine, antimalarial from Cinchona sp.
    • pilocarpine, glaucoma treatment from Brazilian Pilocarpus sp.
    • picrotoxin, used worldwide as a nervous system stimulant from Anamirta sp.
    • L-Dopa, treating Parkinson's disease from Mucuna sp.
    • bromelain, anti-inflammatory from pineapple Ananas sp.
    • scopolamine, sedative from Datura sp.

    Medicinal plant-based products sold mostly in developing countries

    • digitalin and digoxin, heart drugs from foxglove Digitalis sp.
    • atropine, powerful pupil-dilator from belladonna Atropa sp.
    • curare, muscle relaxant (notably used in surgery) from Chondrodendron sp.
    • ephedrine, decongestant from Chinese Ephedra sp.
    • ipecac, emetic and dysentery cure from Central American Cephaelis spp.
    • sennosides, laxative from Senna sp.

    Medicinal plants used for traditional treatments in selected LDCs


    1. Tuberculosis is the number-one cause of death; traditional treatments include:

    • Alepidea amatymbica
    • Helichrysum capitatum with Scabiosa columbaria
    • Casearia aspera (which is reported to be as psychotropic as Cannabis sativa)

    2. Most common diseases:
    Upper respiratory tract infections

    • (Lengana) Artemisia afra for common colds and coughs

    Skin infections

    • Dicoma anomala

    Wounds and sores

    • Geranium caffrum for clean wounds

    3. Diarrhoea and vomiting (in children)

    • Geranium caffrum and oral


    4. General body aches and pains; arthritis and rheumatism

    • Malva parviflora

    5. Hypertension/diabetes

    • Sutherlandia frutescens
    • Trifolium burchelianum
    • Melolobiun alpinium
    • Tephrosia semiglabra


    1. Malaria

    • Aristolochia petersiana

    2. Anaemia

    • Alternative Eulophia species

    3. Respiratory tract infection, e.g., pneumonia

    • Cassia petersiana bolle

    4. Diarrhoea

    • Acalypha sinensis

    5. Childhood diseases, such as


    • Ceratotheca sesamoides

    6. Sexually transmitted diseases (general)

    • Tamarindus indica


    • Cassia petersiana

    United Republic of Tanzania

    1. Malaria

    • Cinchona succirubra
    • Cinchona ledgeriana
    • Cinchona hybrid
    • Artemisa afra
    • Azadirachta indica

    2. Diabetes mellitus

    • Centella asiatica
    • Runex urambarensis

    3. Epilepsy

    • Hyptis suaveolens
    • Vismianthus punctatus
    • Ficus bursei

    4. Gonorrhoea

    • Ozoroa mucronata
    • Markhania obtusfolia

    5. Asthma

    • Grewia sulcata


    1. Malaria

    • Dialiopsis africana
    • Pterocarpus angolensis

    2. Upper respiratory tract infection (bronchitis)

    • Mangifera indica

    3. Diarrhoea

    • Mangifera indica with Cassia abbreviata

    4. Malnutrition

    • Pterocarpus angolensis is used to treat mouth ulcers in malnutrition

    5. Sexually transmitted diseases (gonorrhoea)

    • Erythrina abyssinica