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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

SUA hits upon plant extracts with potential to cure devastating poultry diseases

31st January 2012

This week our columnist GERALD KITABU interviewed FAITH MABIKI, a Lecturer in Environmental Science and Chemistry, Faculty of Science, Department of Physical Sciences, Sokoine University of Agriculture who is doing PhD research in natural products: EXCERPTS:


QUESTION: I understand that you are doing a PhD in Natural products, what are they?

ANSWER: The term “Natural product” is rather controversial due to its contextual use. Generally the term refers to anything that comes from the nature and that is beneficial to other living organism as it is. However, there are common natural organic components across living organism playing big role in metabolism and reproduction as well as in making the cell structure.

These include proteins, sugars, amino acids, lignin cellulose and many others. They usually exert their biological effect within the cell of the organism that produces them. In natural products research however, these are not considered as natural products.

In that context therefore, natural products are defined as organic components produced from nature be it plant, microorganism, animal and any many others which posses biological effect on other organisms be it medical or as pesticide.


Q: What have you found in your research so far?

A: In a continuing research in our natural products research group at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), we have found that some extracts from one of the Euphobiacea plants growing in Tanzania are bioactive against pathogenic viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Among which are viruses that cause serious and devastating diseases in poultry in Tanzania such as Newcastle Disease (ND), Fowl Pox (Pox), and Infectious Bursal Disease (IBD). These diseases pose the unceasing great set back to poultry industry in Tanzania. The extracts of the plant have also demonstrated its potential to prevent the growth of important bacteria and fungi that cause diseases in animals and humans.


Q: So, what is the importance of your finding in Tanzania today?


A: Let me answer this question using one of our findings on the effect of the bioactive compounds on Newcastle virus that cause ND. I can confidently say more than 95 percent of Tanzanians know this disease and can tell its impacts. Newcastle disease (ND) is a viral and often fatal disease that has been reported to affect a wide range of avian hosts, irrespective of age and sex.

It is reported to be a major constraint to the development, survival and productivity of free range chickens which is the main source of animal derived protein in Tanzania.

Vaccination has been considered the most and effective way of controlling it. However, due to keeping chickens of different age in the flock, lack of cold chain and transport facilities in rural areas as well as lack of trained and competent staff in remote areas, control of this disease using available vaccines in practically not feasible.

Overall, challenges are linked to accessibility, affordability, storage and the ignorance on the use of the vaccine. I anticipate that these can be solved by using science based local and traditional technologies. It should be appreciated that Tanzanians especially in rural areas where they seriously face this challenges, have a long-term experience of using their natural products to control diseases in humans, animals and plants.

However the lack of scientific validation of these solutions has been a drawback to the advancement and exploitation of such important and relevant local technologies.

The importance of our findings lay not only on the discovery that the extracts can control ND but more importantly is the scientific validation which is a key stepping stone towards further local and commercial exploitation. Our findings link the community with proper science of using the plant as cheap, accessible and locally available technology. 



Q: Why did you venture your PhD into natural products

A: My background, interest and opportunity have pushed me to venture into research on Natural products. I have a background in chemistry, microbiology and environmental science. In addition, I have knowledge and research experience in green chemistry that I gained through research and Master of Science (MSc) studies. 

  On the other hand I built my interest in natural products sixteen years ago when I perceived that it can be an environmentally friendly and human safe option for life. Fortunately in that context I came across a funding opportunity from Carnegie Foundation of USA through African Natural Products Network for Research and Training (CR AFNNET). Through which I ended up advancing my career at PhD level in that field. .


Q: Some People regard natural Products as superstition (witchcraft) what is your views?

A: Natural Products is not necessarily witchcraft! I feel so bad with this perception which has made most of Tanzanians dormant of our own resources and technologies. Sometimes it is better to review in our minds of what was going on before the invasion of foreigner in Tanzania.

This misconception has a long history since the introduction of colonial rule and western traditions. The approaches used to civilize our fathers made them believe that our technology is unworthy and foolish. The technologies were not only grounded but also not documented which created a dependent mind on western culture, practices and products which cost our country in the present generation.

For instance, many Tanzanians today are marketing American and Chinese Aloevera products such as tooth paste, you will never see a Tanzanian promoting a “mdaa” an Euclea species growing in many part of Tanzania and been utilized since time of our father for teeth care. On the other hand lack of scientific proof such as on content and doses of the products forces the traditional practitioners to involve supernatural beliefs to convince the customers on working powers of the products. 

It is ignorance to believe that nature cannot provide solution without witchcraft powers, this is as worse as believing that God created an imperfect world.


Q: You have hinted on traditional medicine, how does it differ from natural products?

A: It should be understood that Natural Products doe not mean traditional medicine (TM); Traditional medicine (TM) refers to the knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness (WHO).

Thus why some times is referred to as ethno medicine, alternative medicine or complimentary medicine focused on health issues. Unfortunately, witchcraft is associated with treatment of diseases in humans as well as mystical systems.

What about treatment of livestock and plant diseases? What about grain conservation using natural products? what about biological control of pests? products of renewable resources? What about water treatment using natural products?

Unlike traditional medicine, natural products covers a wide variety such as natural foods, vegetables, fruits, dyes, cosmetics, deodorants, spices, flavours, detergents, medicines, toxins etc with diverse of application as such. Why the whole natural product concept being covered by traditional beliefs? In deed Natural Product science should be seen as a multi- and inter-disciplinary science that addresses the problems and issues associated with managing Natural Product chains and systems.


Q: How will your findings change their perspective?


A: This needs an extensive long term interventions through educational and sensitization programmes at different levels. Currently strategically we involve undergraduate and postgraduate students in our natural products activities and while in the process they learn to differentiate superstition beliefs and natural products.

These students afterwards go to teach to school and work in communities all over Tanzania, from that point we know the news will spread faster. Another strategy is using the media like what I am doing now. 



Q: Most natural Products come from Forest and other tree species. Don’t you think that over utilizing of natural products/trees may completely deplete  forest and cause environmental degradation?

A: Due to its geography that is characterized by evergreen rainforests, open woodlands, savannahs, montane forests, Tanzania is endowed with a great diversity of ecosystems that support the growth of natural product industry.

Plants have played a great role in supporting the primary health care systems and in providing local market products in rural and urban areas for a long. In that regard therefore over-harvesting is not an easy problem to deal with, because the communities who harvest the plants are rural poor based and obtain good money in the business.

It is reported that about 3 percent of Tanzania known species of higher plants are threatened to extinction. Of the reasons include harvesting of natural products and Climate change. Natural products if well harvested and processed can substantially improve the livelihood of Tanzanians.

In order to optimize the harvesting, processing and value addition to natural products, scientific studies on the supply chain of Natural product involving each stakeholder is of vital importance. Integration of Natural products in environmental sustainability under different situations including climate change mitigation strategies is also very important.

Scientific studies on sustainable harvesting of trees, feasibility for propagation and domestication of specific plant can be better options and strategies to reduce over harvesting. In totality, trained manpower and strong inter-disciplinary collaboration strategies between natural product supply chain stakeholders is very important.


Q: What are the challenges you have faced so far in course of doing your PhD research?

A: So far the biggest challenge I am facing is lack of analytical facilities.  Chemical analysis is very important for quality and purity standardization of natural products especially if one wishes to compete in free market. 

Lack of awareness among natural product supply chain stakeholders and use the approach perceived by donor communities as the correct methods/approach limits the contextual studies of natural product systems.  Another thing is limited funding.


Q: What are the future plans available to make use of the current natural products to address daily changes facing this nation?

A: Thank you ! First we need to be patriotic, remain and work in Tanzania for Tanzanians. However, we are supposed to protect knowledge and products of natural products.

For example we have protected the products which have shown activity in order to add value of our findings and open window for commercialization of our inventions and discoveries. We encourage other stakeholders to do the same through BRELA.

We have also to establish an inventory of the natural products found in the market originating within in the country as well as for awareness creation on the value and opportunities in natural products science and technologies.

Now SUA through the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is offering MSc training programme on Natural product technologies and value addition which is a very multi disciplinary course as one of the strategy to educate more people. It is a regional programme with Makere University and Nairobi University, anyone interested can contact me elaboration.

Development of appropriate methods for practical natural products assessments and analysis this very important for marketing 


Q: What is your advice to the government, general public and other stakeholders?

A: I think future investment for developing countries like Tanzania should be in Natural products. This is what we have at hand using the available resources. This should accompany the improvement of natural products infrastructure including policies and finding natural Products market.

Tanzanians should be proud of what we have and be awake and creative on how to sustainably exploit our natural resources. We have a potential in Natural products to venture for betterment of our livelihood.

NGOs and private sectors, industries in Tanzania who already produce natural product are invited to link with us for advice, analysis, and research assistance and also for knowledge sharing.

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