By Hassan Zaggi
Dr Obi Adigwe is the Director General of the National Institute for Pharmaceutical Research and Development (NIPRD). In this interview with Health Reporters, he gave an insight into the many benefits state governments stand to gain if they consider investing in planting of herbal medicinal plants in their states. Excerpts:
What is NIPRD doing to ensure that herbal medicine practitioners make impact in the country?
The role that NIPRD has played in the development of phyto medicines as a means of impacting on the healthcare delivery system for Africans has been invaluable.
I can tell you broadly what we have done in two areas. One is undertaking relevant research and development activities to ensure that those plants that exist in Africa are standardized leading to high quality products and are available at affordable prices for the populace.
The second major area where we have contributed in the development of African traditional and herbal medicine is in the training of practitioners.
Since I was appointed as DG, we have trained over 1000 practitioners in herbal and phyto medicines practice. Shortly after my appointment, we developed the contextual processing protocol and we have taken the protocol to various states governors.
We have gone to about many state governors of the federation and have trained traditional medicine practitioners in their localities. We did not only train them, we also encouraged them to bring their products and exhibited the products so that other stakeholders within their states such as governors, NAFDAC officials and the investors in the healthcare sector could see what products herbal medicine practitioners had from the plants in that locality and enable a frame work that will enable them engage.
In fact, in one of the states, the governor was so impressed that he told one of the practitioners that the state government would partner with him and NAFDAC to ensure that, that particular product gets to the next level.
How much do you think Nigeria can make from the traditional and herbal medicine annually if the sector is fully developed?
It breaks my heart when we talk about diversification of our economy and the most obvious opportunity is overlooked.
I was speaking to a governor recently, and I told him that we are sitting in a multi-billion-dollar gold mine and it is as if we do not know what to do with it.
India makes billions of dollars from just a few plants. Some of those plants, we have the higher quality version of them here in Nigeria. One of those plants is Ateracta Indica. We got a grant of N10 million to develop products from this plant popularly known as Dogonyaro.
We developed six different products from the plant. We developed two teas, two brands of oil and two different brands of fertilizer from the plant. All the products are of high quality.
In India, those products are used within their country and are also exported and they earn billions of dollars, however, here in Nigeria, we only use Dogonyaro for shade. That is to give you an idea as to the potential that we have.
The same India has a whole state that is dedicated to the cultivation, processing of herbal medicines. But here in Nigeria, we have arable land and we are cultivating less than five percent of our land resources in terms of agriculture.
It is on record that the amount of plants in Nigeria that have ethno-medicinal and ethno-botanical potentials run in thousands and less than 10 per cent of them have been harnessed.
And these potentials exist in every region and every state of the federation.
We have mapped out three products per state which when they are developed, will not only generate high quality products, it will also ensure that the local people in the rural areas have jobs. It will also ensure that you build their capacity because they will be able to harvest and process them in a manner that is internationally acceptable.
It will also ensure that revenue is generated for the citizenry and for the government because they will pay taxes when they register with NAFDAC and when they sell it in pharmacy shops and when they export. We are sitting in a gold mine.
Are you suggesting that every state should have a dedicated land for the cultivation of medicinal plants?
Absolutely. Cultivation and processing of medicinal plants and generation of high quality products that can be used in Nigeria as well as exported should be done in every state of the country. That is what will guarantee us achieving the government’s goal of creating jobs for millions of Nigerians.
What actually is the constraint of NIPRD in all these?
Prioritization is number one. We have engaged all the 36 state governors in Nigeria. I am not satisfied so far with the level of response we are getting. Only a handful of them recognize the potential.
NIPRD cannot just go and start training phytomedicinal practitioners. NIPRD cannot go and start buying land in the states. It is something that people need to understand its importance and potentials, key into and then NIPRD provides technical expertise.
There is no state in Nigeria that does not have plants that have potential to generate high quality pharmaceutical products as well as to earn revenue. But many of these state governors are just looking for ready-made subvention from government whereas the gold that is in their back yard which if they harnessed will create jobs for their citizenry is just lying there doing nothing.
What is your message for traditional medicine practitioners?
Practitioners are arguably one of the biggest intellectual properties we have as a nation. This is because they are the custodian of knowledge that has been handed over from generation to generation. There is incontrovertible evidence that a lot of activities undertaken by these practitioners’ work.
About 60-75 per cent of Nigerians look at phyto medicines as the first port of call when they have health care issues. This is a body of knowledge that can no longer be ignored. Two things need to happen. One; practitioners need to recognize the importance of the knowledge that they have and base on that recognition, they need to be more proactive in increasing the value of that knowledge.
Currently, majority of the practitioners are unregulated. They need to join the traditional medicine boards in their states. Currently, majority of the products produced by the practitioners are not regulated. They need to undertake the scientific processes through research and development that will enable them get regulated by NAFDAC.
From the side of the government, it needs to recognize the potentials of this sector, especially, at the subnational level. The governors need to understand the potential that is in their backyard.
This is because a simple phyto medicinal project in their states will ensure that one million farmers, one million local women, one million youth are actively engaged in jobs and the products will yield output which can be exported or sold in the market once it gets NAFDAC registration.
The governors should be able to invest in their people so that they can yield return both in human capital as well as taxes they will generate from the proceeds.
Talking about registration of the products, most herbal medicine practitioners are complaining of the tight registration and certification processes. What is the role of NIPRD in this?
NIPRD is the gate keeper for that process. This is because if you take your product to NAFDAC for listing or to get the proper regulatory authorization, they will ask you for evidence of what the product does. It is NIPRD that generates the evidence. If you engage NIPRD, we will then develop a scientific model to test your theory.
NIPRD will formulate the product and then at pre-clinical stages induce mice with the ailment you claim it can cure and see whether that product cures the ailment in the mice. If it does, we will generate evidence that can be peer reviewed so that all over the world that thing that the practitioner has said will be agreed upon.
Most importantly, in the entire process, the practitioner retains the intellectual property. It means that when that particular formula is made public, when it is used anywhere across the world, that practitioner will gain the benefit.
The second thing NIPRD can also do is to take it to the next level so that when your product comes in liquid and you cannot export it, NIPRD can help you formulate it into capsules which is a more elegant dosage form.
NIPRD can also help you undertake clinical trials which is the step that needs to be done for you to move from NAFDAC listing to full authorization to sell your product in the market.
The practitioners also talk about the high cost of the process?
Science is not cheap. To develop one pharmaceutical molecule cost millions of dollars and in developed countries, you can try 100 formulas and only one will work. The same PCR machine we use in NIPRD is the same being used in other advance countries of the world. You have to use ISO certified reagents and ISO certified products and we have Professors and PhD holders who work in NIPRD and they need to be remunerated at a competitive rate. All these go into the cost of undertaking research.
That is the reason why the ball is in the colt of the state governors because they can subsidize the cost of undertaking the research for the practitioners that come from their states so that when the benefit comes, the state government can also recoup some of the money that has been spent.