By Rogers Atukunda
In June 2021, a little-known Ugandan scientist shook the world, immediately capturing the attention of the World Health Organisation (WHO), when he announced a traditional herbal remedy for alleviating coronavirus patients as the country battled a delta variant-driven third wave.
Pharmacologist Prof Patrick Ogwang, led a team of scientists from Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) that developed Covidex—a 100% herbal medicine made using a combination of herbs containing antiviral properties that local communities in Uganda, have traditionally used to treat viral infections.
Dr. David Nahamya, executive director of Uganda’s drug authority, approved it as “a supportive treatment in the management of viral infections but not as a cure of COVID-19” despite resistance from WHO which insisted on robustly investigating the remedy first.
Dr. Samuel Opio, secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda, welcomed Covidex as a positive step in finding “local solutions” to the global challenges, an idea championed by deceased Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli.
In December 2020, the late Magufuli advocated for the use of local herbs to fight Covid-19 making Tanzania the first country to order the Madagascar Covid herb.
Uganda’s President Museveni also welcomed the use of herbal remedies saying Uganda would manufacture its own vaccines.
In July 2021, he authorised Shs3.7bn funding to Gulu University to speed up its research and production of Covilyce-1, a treatment drug for Covid-19 discovered by Dr Alice Veronica Lamwaka, a senior lecturer and the in-charge of Pharmaceutical Studies (PharmBiotec).
In the same month, Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) to champion the pathogenic economy through supporting local scientists and innovators) by way of supporting the pathogeny economy, issued Dr Ogwang with an investment licence and five acres of land in Soroti Industrial Park to set up a factory for producing Covidex herbal medicine.
Uganda’s “magical herb”
The manufacturer, Jena Herbals Uganda, formulated the product from herbal plants and got authorisation to conduct random controlled clinical trials, which are the highest level of evidence to ascertain any claims of treatment.
Famed as the “miracle cure”, Covidex contains extracts of berberine, zanthoxylum gilletii and Warburgia Ugandensis which Prof Ogwang deeply studied for over 17 years.
Zanthoxylum gilletii is known in Ateso as eusuk, in Runyankore as omutatembwa, in Luganda as entale-ddungu and the East African satinwood in English.
Z.Gilletii is used to produce the spice uzazi, charcoal and firewood, timber, aromatic oil, medicine (decoction drunk for constipation, complicated gastrointestinal conditions, colds and fever/antimalarial preparations), ornaments and magical or superstitious use in western Kenya.
Warbugia ugandensis, on the other hand, is known in Ateso as abaji, in Ankole as omwiha, in Luganda as Mukuzannume, in Lusoga as Balwegira and in English as pepper-bark tree, Ugandan greenheart, East African greenheart or East African greenwood.
According to Wikipedia, Warburgia is an evergreen tree with a spreading, rounded crown and can vary widely in height from 5-42 metres. The stem is usually short, unbranched for about 3 metres and about 70cm in diameter.
Warbugia is harvested from the wild for local use as a medicine (extracts contain antimalarial, antifungal, and antibacterial properties tested against leukaemia and cancer), food flavouring, insecticide, wood etc.
Before, it was also used as a shade-providing ornamental, yoke pole of ox-wagons, construction of the railway and its leaves for flavouring curries.
Prof Alfred Maroyi in his paper “The genus Warburgia: A review of its traditional uses and pharmacology”, says Warbugia can be eaten as a fruit with a hot peppery taste.
“The purplish, globose fruit can be 3 – 5cm in diameter with a leathery skin. The leaves and seeds are sometimes used to add flavour to curries.”
Prof Maroyi, a Botanist in the Botany Department at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, says the dried bark is commonly used as a remedy for stomachache, constipation, toothache, cough, fever, muscle pains, weak joints, general body pains and stomach worms.
“The inner bark is reddish, bitter and has a peppery flavour. It is used in the treatment of a variety of conditions including the common cold. Dried and ground to snuff, it is used to clear sinuses. It can be chewed, or the smoke from the burning bark inhaled, as a remedy for chest complaints.”
He says the fresh roots are boiled and mixed with soup for the prevention of diarrhea while bathing with a leaf decoction is used as a cure for several unspecified skin diseases.
“The bark, roots or leaves can be boiled in water and the decoction drunk to treat malaria, but this causes violent vomiting.”
In terms of agroforestry, fallen leaves provide green manure and mulch, Prof Maroyi states, adding, “the heartwood contains sesquiterpenoids that can be used against armyworms, which are widely occurring African crop pests.”
He further says the resin obtained from the stem is used as glue, the wood makes good timber for building and making furniture, fuel, charcoal and has a high oil content and burns well with an incense-like smell.
NFA takes first steps to preserve Warbugia
Owing to its numerous medicinal purposes, National Forestry Authority (NFA) three years ago started growing Warbugia in Mabira Forest Reserve.
Mabira, a rainforest area covering about 300 square kilometres in Buikwe District, between Lugazi and Jinja, is about 56km from Kampala city.
Mr Ali Banda joined NFA in 2006 as a patrol guard. He is the guardian and protector of the forest. Today, he also doubles as a caretaker. His job includes tracking loggers, lumbermen, and charcoal dealers. When he spots them, he calls his colleagues who help with the arrests.
A lover of nature and herbal plants, Banda was part of the team that planted Warbugia at Najjembe station in Rwankiima sector in Lugazi municipality.
“I planted them myself in 2019. I got some of the seeds from the forest. We have a nursery bed nearby,” Banda told this reporter.
The rest of the seedlings came from Namanve Range (Tree Seed Centre). “Out of the 2,000 seedlings which we planted on about two acres of land, only about 300 survived. The sunshine killed the rest,” Banda explained.
Warbugia grows best in areas where annual daytime temperatures are within the range of 14 – 28°c and prefers a mean annual rainfall in the range of 1,000 – 1,500mm.
The plant prefers a fertile, loamy to clayey soil and can tolerate occasional waterlogging.
In Mabira, though planted at the same time, some of the plants grew faster and taller than the others because of the differences in fertility levels of the soil.
Its habitat is lowland rainforest, upland dry evergreen forest and its relics in secondary bushland and grassland; termite-hills in swamp forest, etc.
It is found in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, eastern DR Congo, and Malawi.
Mabira embarks on Warbugia growing
Banda, who also doubles as a local supplier, has been in the herbs business for close to 20 years.
When he gets sick, he only goes to the hospital for testing to ascertain what disease he has.
“After getting tested, I go into the forest and gather herbs to self-medicate. I have also helped those suffering from hernia and pressure by getting them the right herbs.”
NFA allows local communities to harvest herbs to alleviate their illnesses if they aren’t taking them in bulk because bulk would destroy nature.
Banda who supplies both locals and herbalists, says before the outbreak of Covid-19, residents only used Warbugia to cure cancer, sore throat, stomach complications, dry cough, and heart-related problems.
“You boil the leaves or bark (which smells of sandalwood). Then you take one to two spoons for an adult and half a teaspoonful for a child in a day. Some just chew the leaves and swallow the juice.”
He says overdose can be dangerous to the internal organs but fortunately, the herb is too sour for anyone to overdose.
These various uses have put Warbugia in high demand. For example, Banda gets numerous orders from locals at a fee of between Shs5,000 and Shs10,000 to gather the herbs from the forest.
He sells a sack to herbal companies between Shs80,000 and Shs100,000 depending on the type of client.
“Sometimes you help sick people but when they get better, they don’t remember to appreciate you or pay for your services. The forest is also infested with snakes and wild animals which endanger my life.”
NEMA commits to ensure prudent use
Mr Francis Ogwal, the Natural Resources Manager (Biodiversity and Rangelands) at National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), told this reporter that the current laws ensure balanced use and development of natural resources.
“We preserve certain aspects and allow a few activities like research. To ensure proper use of natural resources, we work with agencies like NFA, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) or sometimes ministries and local government since some plants criss-cross from forest reserves to national parks,” Ogwal explained.
For Prof Ogwang, it started as just research but this changed all of a sudden and the use of Warbugia was no longer minor because of the outbreak of Covid-19.
“Law provides that during a crisis when there is a calamity, then access to genetic resources should be looked at in this context. We were in lockdown and Covid was eating up the world. This was the context in which Prof Ogwang’s research became a solution. First of all, it wasn’t big harvesting. But I heard that now they are doing clinical trials which means they may need to harvest in bulk. That is where we need to consider the environment,” observed Ogwal.
He added: “For large-scale production (for commercial use or export), the developer has to meet our conditions. We first determine whether they will harvest in the reserve or outside to ensure the resource is not overused. Now that we know the value of this plant, it has become an eye-opener to identify other plants for medicinal purposes. This process will help us know how to conserve them.”
Where else is Warbugia found?
Ogwal says the information is still scanty on where this plant is found.
Apart from Mabira forest, it is said to also exist in Echuya Forest Reserve in Bufumbira county of Kisoro district and Rubanda county in Kabale district. Ogwal was, however, hesitant to confirm this information.
Measures to protect and preserve the herb
Unsustainable overharvesting of the bark reduced the population of the longifolia subspecies to the Rondo Forest Reserve in Tanzania, which prompted the IUCN to list it as vulnerable in its Red List of Threatened Species.
To avoid such a scenario, Ogwal suggests a countrywide inventory of Warbugia in collaboration with Makerere University (Botany Department) to determine its abundance and ascertain whether it is threatened or endangered.
“If endangered, you won’t be allowed to harvest the plant because then it would go extinct. The law is very clear and gives NEMA the mandate to protect the environment.”
Ogwal believes the government needs to spend more money on natural resources which currently attract little government resource allocation.
“Resources don’t just rejuvenate. There are many plant species with medicinal properties out there hence the need to improve on their population and preservation.”
He also suggests limiting large-scale extraction except for additional uses that don’t threaten the plant’s ecological survival.
“Traditional or small-scale use can continue because local communities have been conscious about harvesting herbs. So, these are exceptions. It is only commercial and large-scale use that becomes a concern.”
Transfer of knowledge and benefit-sharing
“This is a two-way because we learn more from the community about the use of herbal plants, Ogwal stated,” adding: “They (communities) know the names of the herbs making them the primary sources of information on the use of these herbs. Science only comes in to do an analysis of ingredients and explanation.”
Ogwal who also doubles as the National Focal Point on Convention on Biological Diversity and National Focal Point for Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Biodiversity Sharing, says NEMA has a project, which started last year, about building capacity between government agencies and local communities.
According to Nagoya Protocol, when you access a genetic resource and commercialise it, the benefits accrued should plow back to communities who preserve it or the government agency that protects it.
“There is what we call Mutually Agreed Terms (MAT) which translates into a contract between the supplier who provides first knowledge and the one accessing. This ensures that the resource benefits the people. For example, if someone wants to use Prof Ogwang’s knowledge now, he ought to get some benefits as well. We are trying to see how communities can benefit from preserving these medicinal plants.”
According to Ogwal, this project will take four years and will be piloted in Kisoro district focusing on the Batwa. It will also be piloted in Karamoja focusing on sandalwood which is said to preserve milk and heal wounds.
“We are looking beyond Warbugia and will see how communities can benefit from people accessing these plants. This project will also be an eye-opener.”
Ogwal said the biggest challenge of protecting the environment outside the reserves and protected areas lies in the fact that NEMA does not have an Environmental Protection Force.
“Government made an arrangement for an environmental protection force but they aren’t under our mandate. They are still part of the police. We don’t have direct command and control over them. NEMA is contacting the government to develop its own force under its direct command. We will have our own unit although we may have to start small.”