The Covid-19 pandemic has presented a lucrative business opportunity to some entrepreneurial villagers in the Eastern Cape.
They are doing a rapid trade in Artemisia afra — commonly known as African wormwood or umhlonyane — the same herb that is a major ingredient in a so-called Covid-19 cure being manufactured in Madagascar.
A small plastic bag or bunch of this herb sells for about R15.
While some traders are selling the traditional medicine along the roadside next to the N2 between East London and Mthatha, in the Mthatha CBD and other areas in the province some are couriering it to other provinces, especially Gauteng and the Western Cape, both hard hit by Covid-19.
The local vendors rushed to trade the traditional remedy after unproven claims by Madagascar that the country had found a Covid-19 cure — Covid-Organics — made primarily from umhlonyane.
It is one of the oldest, most widely used and effective indigenous medicines in Southern Africa and is found in natural habitat such as mountains as well as in many home gardens.
It is known for helping to clear the respiratory tract and is used to treat a wide range of ailments from coughs, colds, fever, loss of appetite and colic to headaches, earache, intestinal worms and, notably, malaria. It can be inhaled and its extracts can be used in a full body wash.
One fan of the traditional remedy is SA Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who made a full recovery after contracting the virus. Vavi posted a video in which he claimed to have used it as a home remedy by steaming himself.
The World Health Organisation has warned that the Covid-Organics infusion, which Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina has touted as a remedy against the deadly coronavirus, has not been clinically tested.
Four cousins — Sibongile Mvubu, Masilinde Pasiya, Mzodumo Makhuphula, and Thulani Ncanywa of Ndabakazi Komkhulu village near Butterworth — are vendors of the herb.
Ncanywa, a first-year business management student, told DispatchLIVE: “We heard from radio comments that umhlonyane could assist in calming Covid-19, and saw a business gap. The Madagascar story of umhlonyane is a story of hope for African traditional medicine and the indigenous knowledge system. Since we started selling umhlonyane on April 22, we wake as early as 5am and go and collect fresh herbs down in the forest and then go to spots along the N2 where we sell it. I have been using umhlonyane for many years, so have my parents, like our ancestors. This is the first time we have sold it.”
He said at first they made as much as R1,700 in a day, but returns had been decreasing as more vendors entered the market.
An unemployed couple, Sibongile Kotase, 50, and Nonkumbulo Dadlana, 48, are vendors at Tholeni village.
Dadlana said: “We heard on the radio that umhlonyane might assist in treating Covid. We are unemployed and struggling to feed our family so we are making use of the opportunity to earn some money out of this natural herb.”
Health minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Twitter last week that Madagascar had contacted SA to help research whether the indigenous plant was a possible treatment for the new coronavirus.
“We will only get involved in a scientific analysis of the herb,” Dr Mkhize tweeted.
The general secretary of the Traditional Health Practitioners’ Organisation, Solly Nduku, said no cure had been found for Covid-19.
“But, I can confirm umhlonyane has helped with flu as far back as the 1800s, during the time of the Spanish flu of 1918 and also after World War 2 in 1946. But as traditional health practitioners we are not claiming that umhlonyane cures coronavirus. There is no such scientific evidence at present,” Nduku said.