African Botanicals to be used to Boost Fight against Parasites

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


More than 1 billion people in the developing world currently suffer from tropical diseases, which leave a trail of disfigurement, disability and even death. Yet only 16 out of 1,393 – 0.01 percent – of new medicines marketed between 1975 and 1999 targeted tropical diseases (International Journal of Public Health).

A combination of poverty and lack of political will means disease-ridden countries do not invest enough in research and development to find new medical remedies to save lives.

A pioneering project hopes to turn to the continent’s plants to dig up new remedies to tackle the many diseases borne by parasites.

It seeks to boost prosperity in Africa while taking on the many diseases that harm and kill people and hold back economic progress on the continent. If successful, it will make disease-fighting part of the future prosperity of African science – and boost the woefully neglected field of tropical medicine.

What is at stake is the future of Africa, as the continent has the lowest life expectancies in the world. With just 15 percent of the world’s population, Africa carries a high disease burden, for example it has 60 percent of the global HIV/AIDS-infected population. Access to clean water is poor, with only 58 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa having access to safe water supplies (WHO). This leaves people exposed to water-borne parasites like Schistosoma (, which infects hundreds of millions and is the most crucial parasitic disease to tackle after malaria.

Africa’s biggest killers in order of severity are HIV/AIDS, diarrhoeal diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, childhood diseases, sexually transmitted diseases, meningitis, tropical diseases, Hepatitis B and C, Japanese encephalitis, intestinal nematode and leprosy.

Health resources are not being proportionately allocated: only 10 percent of financing for global health research is allocated to problems that affect 90 percent of the world’s population. This has been called the 10/90 gap (

“The untapped potential of African innovation capacity is enormous,” explains Dr. Éliane Ubalijoro, an adjunct professor of practice for public and private sector partnerships at Canada’s McGill University Institute for the Study of International Development (ISID) ( Her research interests focus on innovation in global health and sustainable development.

“Using African biodiversity to produce solutions to local (and global) problems will provide a generous return on investment in an area of the world that is destined for growth.”

Ubalijoro was recently awarded, along with Professor Timothy Geary, director of McGill’s Institute of Parasitology, a Grand Challenges Canada ( of CAD $1 million (US $1.04 million) to address parasitic disease through African biodiversity.

The Grand Challenges Canada grants are “dedicated to improving the health and well-being of people in developing countries by integrating scientific, technological, business and social innovation.”

It’s predicted Africa’s growing population will reach between 1.5 and 2 billion inhabitants before 2050: a lot of people needing affordable remedies and treatments.

Innovators have spotted an opportunity to simultaneously improve public health while also boosting Africa’s income from discovering new drugs. Traditional knowledge can play a critical part in the evolving innovation and commercialisation of Africa’s medicines and treatments.

Turning to these remedies and botanicals needs careful stewardship: Africa has a terrible reputation for counterfeit medicines, which kill and harm many people every year. The medicines also need to be affordable and accessible.

In some Asian and African countries, 80 percent of people use traditional medicines for primary care at some point (WHO). There may be sceptics amongst those used to name-brand medicines but traditional African medicines have a rich cultural heritage and have sustained Africans over the centuries. It is estimated the continent has over 50,000 plants to draw from, with fewer than 10 percent so far investigated to tap their potential medical utility.

From the start, most of the new funding for the McGill project will be spent in Africa. Out of the CAD $1 million dollar grant, more than half the funds will go directly to partners at the University of Cape Town and the University of Botswana. At first, the funds will be used to screen local biodiversity for promising leads. These will then be subjected to chemical testing in the lab to extract their potential utility for treatments.

“This system allows selection of natural product compounds that act on multiple target sites in the parasite,” according to Ubalijoro, “thus reducing the chances of developing resistance to the kinds of novel drugs that we hope to develop based on promising leads derived from this effort.”

The approach being taken by the project hopes to reduce the time it takes to get drugs to market and to shift the power and initiative to local solutions and scientists, rather than waiting for outsiders to come to the rescue.

The project hopes to contribute to not only improving people’s health but to stimulating local economies. This will be done by growing local pharmaceutical industries, retaining local talent which often now leaves the continent and doing rewarding and dynamic science within Africa. In short: making being in Africa attractive.

It is hoped the success of the project will breed more success, as has happened in other places – think Silicon Valley in California, or Bangalore in India.

“Success in this project will diminish the risk for technology-based investments related to health innovation,” said Ubalijoro, “helping to encourage local venture capital to help grow African science entrepreneurs. The overall benefit is improved livelihoods and prosperity locally as well as reduced spread of disease threats locally and internationally as we travel globally. ”

By bringing the science closer to those who need the help, it is hoped the painfully slow process of new drug development will take on a greater urgency.

“Discovery to production of a marketable drug can be a lengthy process,” said Ubalijoro. “But as novel methodologies are used to decrease candidate drug failure through the development and clinical processes, we can decrease the time it takes to bring drugs to market while empowering local innovation systems to lead the process instead of waiting for others to do so.

“The sense of urgency felt by local scientists to solve local problems can stimulate innovation and safe delivery of new medicines for African populations.”

Ubalijoro wants to see greater cooperation across disciplines and for people to come together in “innovation clusters,” that bring together policy, business and technical capability.

“I would like to see local investment in innovation coming from the public, private and NGO sectors,” explained Ubalijoro. “I would also like to see women scientists taking an active role in leadership and in becoming the next generation of innovating African scientists.”

Ubalijoro says that for those with money to invest, this is a vast opportunity waiting to be tapped. And she would like to see a dedicated African Innovation Fund set up for this purpose

“The message for venture capitalists and investors is simple: by cultivating local talent, we can help African scientists and entrepreneurs explore indigenous-based solutions to local health problems while taking advantage of the most advanced technologies available globally to ensure that quality, risk mitigation and profits can grow hand in hand with healing the ailments of African populations.”

Published: May 2011


1) RISE-AFNNET: African Natural Products Network: RISE-AFNNET works to develop Africa’s rich biodiversity into a natural products industry of social and economic significance. Building on an already active research network of 10 member countries called NAPRECA, RISE-AFNNET expands existing research programs and formalizes educational activities in such natural products (NP) fields as engineering, biochemistry, environmental science, pharmacology, economic development and nutrition. Students work on natural product research projects in the context of poverty alleviation, gender equity, and Millennium Development Goals. Website:

2) GIBEX: The Global Institute for Bioexploration is a global research and development network that promotes ethical, natural product-based pharmacological bio exploration to benefit human health and the environment in developing countries. GIBEX was established by Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both are leading US universities with strong records of building successful international programs in discovering and developing life-saving medicines. Website:

3) Screens-to-Nature Training: Scientists Learn New Way of Screening Plants for Pharmaceutical Applications. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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