Considered traditional for lack of substantiated data and short of defined dosages, herbal medicine has been relatively avoided in urban settings, although everyone participates in it to varying degrees. The advent of the pandemic in 2020 has brought traditional and herbal remedies to the fore. Supported by politics and government recognition, the field is slowly growing as a business and alternative health care, writes EBR’s Trualem Asmare.
Months after the Covid pandemic hit Ethiopia, Lia Tadesse, Minister of Health, went on national television to update the nation on promising developments in a herbal medicine to fight the virus . Giving a press conference alongside Hakim Abebech Shiferaw, a famous herbal medicine expert, Lia went so far as to say that the remedy was on the verge of being recognized by her ministry.
The announcement was received with both joy and concern for Ethiopians. World health leaders such as Senait Fisseha, adviser to the director of the World Health Organization (WHO), were quick to condemn the announcement as average Ethiopians had their proud moment.
Although herbal medicine is not openly supported or opposed, the practice is slowly establishing itself as an organized enterprise.
Solomon Adamu, a self-proclaimed traditional healer, acquired his expertise in Gojam and Gonder in Amhara State. In an effort to back up his knowledge with evidence-based learning, he also attended Medco Bio-medical College and graduated as a health worker.
Solomon now owns St. Michael’s Traditional Clinic in Bole District after founding it in 1997 with an investment capital of ETB 250,000 and five employees. Now endowed with a capital of ETB 800,000, the clinic provides care to anyone under the age of 60. All types of men and women go to her clinic to get treatment for various diseases.
“We focus on diseases like cancer, tuberculosis and wrinkles,” Solomon told EBR. “Most of our treatments come in the form of lubricants.” About 30 patients visit the clinic daily.
“Five or six years ago, our society did not understand traditional medicine well. He was scorned as one who causes more harm than good,” Solomon told EBR. “Now more people seem to understand the benefits, as evidenced by the number of visitors we receive each day.”
Solomon also wrote a book called Tibebin Bemankia, which translates to Wisdom with a Spoon. Among other things, the book aims to teach people how to self-medicate at home for certain illnesses and avoid going to hospital for easy health issues. Solomon also hopes people who read his book will question the type of treatment they receive in hospitals.
“Traditional medicine, well supported by evidence-based research, can play an important role in healing people, just like in other countries,” Solomon says. “Traditional medicine and modern medicine must go hand in hand and we must stop despising the former.”
Most people are wary of remedies. One such person is Lulit Melaku, a 28-year-old mother of two, who lives in the same district as Solomon’s clinic. Most of the time, Lulit took her children to the hospital or clinic whenever they got sick. However, one day, one of the children couldn’t get better even after a hospital visit. Prescribed drugs just wouldn’t work. It was then that his father recommended a traditional clinic to him. That’s exactly what she did and her boy was healthy again.
“I only paid 600 ETB,” she told EBR. “Now I wouldn’t mind going to traditional clinics for my children when they get sick. I’ve also become generally cautious about flying to hospitals before trying any home remedies.
Gizaw Bekele is the owner of Green Care Herbal Clinic. He studied herbal medicine for 13 years and was first licensed to operate in Canada. He provides treatments in the form of drinkable liquids that took him six years to prove that they are without side effects. Arriving in Ethiopia in 2010, he started his business with an initial investment of ETB 60,000. It now has four employees and 20 suppliers of plants and other natural products.
The products he uses include carrot, orange, and coffee oils as well as onion, rosemary, argon, aloe vera, and moringa, among others. He then prepares his medication without any added chemicals. The most expensive treatment at Gizaw Clinic is 4000 ETB while the cheapest is 500 ETB. It treats hair, face, migraine, diabetes, cancer and other ailments. He thinks the company’s response to his services is quite positive and even has clients from Canada, the United States and Arab countries.
“It’s full of challenges,” recalls Gizaw. “A lot of people come to me after losing hope after a series of other treatments.”
Gizaw and his colleagues are now working to raise the capital to ETB 40 million with plans to open a facility offering both traditional and modern treatment in Bahir Dar, the design of which has been finalized.
“If professionals from both industries can collaborate, the landscape of medical treatment will change dramatically,” Gizaw says. “From saving hard-earned currency to improving the treatment itself, we can see significant results through collaboration.”
The feeling seems to be shared by the leaders of public health establishments. Tegbar Yigzaw, former president of the Ethiopian Public Health Association (EPHA), sees the potential of traditional medicine as it is indigenous knowledge that has been used for centuries to treat health issues. For Tegbar, the collaboration between science and the practice of traditional medicine is an important element that is still missing.
“The practice of traditional medicine has been politically recognized in Ethiopia. Yet this is not well supported by science,” he argues. “Our training should involve both sides of health treatment.”
Despite the increasing spread of conventional medicine services, Ethiopians still rely heavily on traditional and herbal medicine. Modern health services are still very limited to the urban areas of the country and fail to keep pace with the staggering population. Traditional medicine practitioners mainly implement herbs, spiritual healing, bone setting, and minor surgical procedures to treat disease. Ethiopian traditional medicine is extremely complex, diverse and varies greatly from one ethnic group to another. Traditional remedies are based on an explanation of illness that draws on both the mystical and natural causes of an illness and uses a holistic approach to treatment, according to a 1991 study by Bishaw M. published on the US National Library of Medicine.
As traditional medicine is culturally embedded, accessible and affordable, up to 80% of Ethiopia’s population depends on it as their main source of health care, according to a 2006 study by KD Kassaye and colleagues at Jimma University. . The influence of traditional medicine is also observed among Ethiopian migrant populations with the presence of practitioners and medicinal plants.
Globally, China is a nation that has been praised for its herbal medicine treatment environment. Ancient in its infancy, Chinese herbal medicine focuses on potions. Its theoretical basis is believed to have come between the second century BCE and the second century CE, but the focus was more on acupuncture than on herbs. However, just like in Ethiopia, the remedies mostly lack a theoretical basis.
The advent of Covid-19 has put stress on the medical industry. As a pandemic is defined by the absence of cures, the majority of Ethiopians have turned to herbs and other plants to boost their immune systems. With this momentum, traditional medicine is now on its way to increasingly feature in the medicine industry.
EBR 10th Year • Feb 2022 • No. 104