African plants heal the world

People have used plants to protect themselves against disease for thousands of years, and even today at least 80% of people in developing countries use medicinal plants as their primary healthcare.

Professor Kobus Eloff is the founder and leader of the multi­disciplinary and collaborative phytomedi­cine programme at the University of Pretoria (UP). Since 1995, the programme has investigated the therapeutically useful ­compounds found in plants that grow in South Africa for the benefit of both people and animals.

With a number of research focus areas, the phytomedicine programme's work goes beyond simply isolating bioactive compounds to testing their toxicity and pharmacological action in animals, as well as looking for ways they may be applied in industry or used by people in rural areas.

The programme was designated as a National Research Foundation developed research niche area in 2007. The methods developed by the phytomedicine programme are now used globally, with more than 1000 citations in the international literature.

The multidisciplinary nature of the work incorporates chemistry, botany, microbiology, genetics, zoology, agronomy, toxicology and veterinary science, among other fields. "It involves so many disciplines because there are so many different applications of plant extracts," says Eloff.

Diversity of students
Eloff says the programme caters to a diversity of students, from agronomists to dentists. Over the past 10 years he has delivered 22 PhD and 27 MSc students. Nearly 84% of these students were black, 35% were female and 39% were from outside South Africa, particularly the African continent.

Research areas include microbial and parasitic anti-infective agents, and aspects related to the herbal medicine industry. Several patents have been registered and are under preparation and two commercial products are already on the market.

More recently the phytomedicine programme has focused on the use of plant extracts in animal health and production as well as in plant protection against fungi. "This is due to current gaps in research and strengths within the programme, especially our close ties to the UP faculty of veterinary science," says Eloff.

Although Africa is home to 10% of the world's higher plant species on just 2% of the Earth's surface area, only around 8% of these plant species are used for human and animal medicines. If African medicinal plants were used as intensively as plants from Europe, 22 times more plants would become commercially useful products.

With funding from the European Union Centre for the Development of Enterprise, the phytomedicine programme managed a project that led to the establishment of the Association for African Medicinal Plant Standards ( and Eloff was its first board chairman. This led to the creation of the first African herbal pharmacopoeia, which sets the standards for the 51 most important indigenous medicinal plants, in collaboration with 30 scientists from 17 different countries.

It was during his time as executive director of the National Botanical Gardens at Kirstenbosch and later as director of research at the National Botanical Institute that Eloff created a programme for plant utilisation. Out of this grew his interest in developing the commercial potential of African plants and the phytomedicine programme.

The programme currently has seven master's students and 16 PhDs. Lecturers from historically disadvantaged universities also visit the phytomedicine programme and then apply its techniques at their universities.

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Tunisia struggles to grow more wheat as Ukraine war bites

Since the Ukraine war sent global cereal prices soaring, import-dependent Tunisia has announced a push to grow all its own durum wheat, the basis for local staples like couscous and pasta.

Democracy under serious and sustained attack from within the US

Far-right Republicans and the conservative supreme court are working on a carefully laid plan to turn the US into a repressive regime

Grilling for UK leader Boris Johnson after top ministers quit

The prime minister has faced lawmakers' questions after two of the most senior figures in his government resigned. The finance and health ministers said they could no longer tolerate the culture of scandal

Declare an ‘energy emergency’, says National Planning Commission

The commission said the goals of the National Development Plan, which it is charged with advancing, ‘cannot be achieved without energy security’

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…