Herbal medicine is different from voodoo,says Dr Akintunde Ayeni Herbal medicine is different from voodoo,says Dr Akintunde Ayeni
For over 14 years the Herbal Therapy Society of Nigeria (HTS) has painstakingly educated its members on the dos and don’ts of modern day... Herbal medicine is different from voodoo,says Dr Akintunde Ayeni

For over 14 years the Herbal Therapy Society of Nigeria (HTS) has painstakingly educated its members on the dos and don’ts of modern day herbal practice. In this interview, its president, Akintunde Ayeni (President/Founder- YEMKEM Group) explains  some of the society’s achievements, including its challenges and possible solutions to positioning traditional medicine in primary health care. Excerpts:

What basically are this group’s vision and mission?

Herbal Therapy Society of Nigeria (HTS) is an association of intellectual herbal practitioners, which handle herbal-plants in a modern way. Modernity in the way of packaging, producing, preserving in a standard form- liquid, capsules, powder or solid state like soap. It is demystifying the traditional medicine as a healing art and not voodoos.

Any challenge?

I see our movement as a wave, full of turbulence. It will surely land at the coast safely, soon. This is because the practice has stabilised across the country. We faced a lot of challenges right from inception because even to get the organisation registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) was tough. It took more than two years. I piloted the association with other intellectuals in the society and that mutual focus is yielding results. Gone are the days when people can do anyhow or package anything in the name of ‘products’.

Nigerians are now accepting the patronage of these herbal products openly. This was achieved through concerted efforts by all of us. No more hiding place for quacks, who can package anything, anyhow in the name of herbal product. Though our ideas as members differ due to experience, exposure, background and academic qualifications, yet we have a common goal pushing us and we are proudly showcasing our profession. In the same vein, our indigenous herbal products are already in the international market. This is because the society has been able to separate religion from herbal practice. No more incision or incantations before you use these products, unless you go to an herbal practitioner in his domain for treatment.

Can you throw more light on this?

Application of incantations is part of traditional medicine in treating or preparing of some herbs for healing. We took time out to educate our people that herbals are different from spiritualism, but both are under traditional healing. Now, our members produce herbal medicine that are acceptable both on national and international scenes. People can buy and use them without seeing the producers because the leaflets will state in precise terms how to use them. Also, our members were educated on dressing and how it influences marketing and the perception of individuals. Members do not have to carry on as cultists, but entrepreneurs. Dressing, as harmless as it looks, puts people off from buying herbal products, but by the time our members changed their mindset, the narrative will change as well.

Why are you so zealous about herbal medicine?

African flora and fauna are the best in the world because of the rain forest, and are highly effective and efficacious. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the African Tropical Forest is where one can get 100 per cent organic raw materials like herbs, plants, shrubs compared with the European world full of fertiliser. The intimidating problem is that the Federal Government has not been able to support this sector as it ought to in terms of botanical garden in the six-geopolitical zones to start with. India, China, Japan and even Ghana, have all gone far ahead of Nigeria where manufacturers and producers go to obtain the raw materials in form of these herbal plants for production. That explains part of why Nigeria’s traditional medicine is lagging behind. If this is tapped into, it is a veritable source of alternative to oil. The foreign exchange (FOREX) involved is great.

So, what do you think is the way forward?

One is to establish a foundation for traditional medicine in Nigeria. The government can make a whooping hard currency from herbal medicine. Look at the plethora of foreign natural medicine across the country. Other countries are making huge money from Nigerian’s patronage of those products, and our government is folding its hands. Those people go back to their countries adding value to their countries, yet Nigeria is worse off. Those using those imported products do not understand that the human body will adapt to the flora and fauna it grows with in the environment. Nigeria has an edge because they are purely organic, and can be exported.

The Late Prof Adeoye Lambo said African disease needs African medicine because of our body mechanism. Many old people have answers to some of these terminal and non communicable diseases, but are scared to come out with them to the government because there is nothing on ground to protect their patency. And Nigeria being what it is, lack of transparency is also a factor. There should be a University of Traditional Medicine, where people can go and learn and graduate, and be employed in traditional healing hospitals, as it obtains in China. Sickle cell is being addressed by the government now with herbal solution, that is just the tip. If the government can organise this sector, it will reap more FOREX than oil, like $100b, and won’t have to go borrowing. China has shown the way by making $350b from its traditional medicine. A proposal has been made to incorporate herbal medicine in most conventional universities, but some of our people who are just with school certificate could not fit in, hence that is a defeated way to go.

Are there other suggestions that government can work on?

There should be a soft loan window for practitioners as members of cottage industries. Japan is an example.

How is your group dealing with quackery?

As a society, we can only encourage piety among our members. The larger responsibility lies with the government at different levels. My society is doing its best, but we are guiding against being misunderstood so as not to be seen as killing others, who are just budding, after I have made my own money and fame. Where there is no law, there will be disorder. NAFDAC is doing well in finished products listing and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice). The sector can do better because fake, adulterated, and counterfeit still abound. All these are being done with non members, who cash in on fast and popular products and imitate them, and put fake NAFDAC labels and numbers.

Just to fill the gap between demand and supply which original producers cannot fill. I give a lot of kudos to late Dora Akunyili her tenure was full of sanity. After her exit, the agency experienced a relapse. Broadcasting Organisation of Nigeria (BON) is also doing its best by not allowing spurious claims and counter claims in the airwaves. In the United States (US), natural products are listed by the F.A.O with caveat: not to cure, treat or heal. So, if a consumer has any complaint, it can be investigated. Here in Nigeria, people that have no business with herbal products are coming into it because of economic survival. Such people produce in a room cheaply, and roll out those things without going through GMP. The implications on consumers are always grave. This is because consumers always go for cheaper products, unlike original that has gone through NAFDAC and other GMP. Court is also not easy to approach because it is quite slow to deliver justice. My experience with fakers of my product- Osomo at the court was not funny. We were on the case for almost three years before I pulled out. That is enough to discourage any entrepreneur. I can tell you that 90 per cent of bitters in the Nigerian market are outright fake.

What is your stand on a national body for practitioners?

Ghana has one national umbrella. My society- Herbal Therapy Society of Nigeria is made of practitioners, who are people of honour and integrity, who have conscience and equally value culture. The issue of one umbrella for traditional practitioners came to a standstill under General Ibrahim Babangida. He initiated an election to give us a national president, among Soluade, Lambo and Fadahunsi. And after the election by all participating practitioners at Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS), the winner, Chief Fadahunsi, who was to be given the staff of office collapsed on the spot and died, the General and Admiral Augustus Aihomu put a stop to the initiative, and put the practice under Ministry of Science and Technology.

In modern day, we as practitioners do not have a common goal coupled with personal ego. Medical doctors have a common umbrella because they are educated and enlightened. Way out is to pass the Traditional Health Bill. Once that is done and it spells out functions of each agencies and practitioners, easily, a national umbrella of all associations, societies, groups etc, can be formed.

How does your role model traditional medicine hospital look like?

It is high time the Federal Government allowed traditional hospitals to run side by side allopathic hospitals. It will be situated in the hospital premises, and a patient can decide where to obtain treatment as it obtains in China and India. Both orthodox and traditional doctors work hand in hand. That relationship is non existence in Nigeria. Way forward is a cordial relationship to exist between both in Nigeria for the sake of patients.  If such hospital exists and solely funded by the Federal Government, many healers with potent herbal answers will come out and surrender to the hospital, so far their potency is guaranteed. Now, most of them are in the hinterland just treating within their communities. When they die, their knowledge dies with them. Western medicine and drugs originated from herbs.

What does the future hold for traditional medicine in Nigeria?

It can’t die. It is viable. It is lucrative. These problems will go away one day and a new day will break. Whoever made it happen both at the national and individual levels, their names will be in gold and their memories written on the sands of time. This is because people prefer herbal medicine to synthetics. It is affordable, accessible, available and natural.

You were alleged to have served some jail terms outside the country, what precisely happened?

I have never been jailed in or outside the country. This is not a new rumour. This is purely the work of enemies of progress. They do not understand how the prosperity comes. They cannot believe that selling of herbal medicine could be this lucrative. I started in a single room. I moved to a three-bed-room apartment. Then I moved to the five-bedroom at St Finbars, and to Somolu to consult. I invested in real estate that yielded my personal house and the hotels, which in turn are serving me and the business. This is because I did not eat my seeds, but replanted them, which is now putting food on my table.

I have always used my experience to encourage my co-practitioners to grow their business, instead to eating the profit. They should learn to plough their profits back into the business, which in turn will grow and take care of their needs. If they do not sacrifice now, but live large, there is no way the business will grow, because ‘owo owo, eniyan kan kii fi kole– (you do not use money meant for business to build a house). I invested in advertising through ‘Alaafia Tayo’, which gradually changed people’s mindset about traditional medicines. When you consolidate your business to a certain level, you can relax and it will be serving you naturally. I am not bothered because it has gone on for more than 20years. It is all about progress in life. You see, if I have not progressed from’ Alaafia tayo’ to ‘YEMKEM’ they won’t talk about me. I have moved from talking on television to concentrating on the business’ expansion. Now that they do not see me on television again they concocted that rumour.  Foundation is important.

When I commissioned this head office in Egbeda in 2001, many things were said and it boiled down to the fact that they do not understand how a healer can build such edifice. Likewise in 2003 in Ekiti. Not to talk of Pathfinder Hotel in 2007. All these amounted to progress in life. The truth is that those rumour mongers have never seen much established traditional practitioners like in the rest of the world, such as the late Sosobala Mbatha, who took the first step to own an airport in a small South African country town. He had two private jets, completed the landing strip, next to his house. A modern-style marching band, and a very modern car, for a traditional, but very successful, South African herbal healer. He was a multibillionaire in dollars. Mine is like peanut to some of my herbal healer-friends in other countries. Those mongers see practitioners as illiterates. I am yet to have a private jet. They wil see more successful traditional practitioners soon.

Nurudeen Adegbenro