Growing pains – Artemesia annua

This morning the Daily Monitor of Uganda reported that, “At least 30,000 farmers in the districts of Kabale, Kisoro and Ntungamo who are growers of a medicinal plant that is a raw material for anti-malaria drugs are angry that the company that urged them to grow the plant has closed shop leaving them counting losses.” The artemisinin extracted from these leaves is the base for the current recommended first-line treatment of malaria – artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACTs).

tdr9300523.jpgIt certainly seemed like a good idea in theory to grow A. annua in endemic countries and involve local farmers and the pharmaceutical industry in ACT production and at the same time promote economic development. But as the Daily Monitor shows, this can be a complicated process.  The leaves need to be harvested at just the right time to get the maximum concentration of the antimalarial drug.  The company complained to the Monitor that they were disappointed with their farmers who adulterated the quality:“Most of our farmers harvested Artemisia leaves before they matured. This lowered the artemisinin content.”

IRIN News explained that “In Kenya, the project is being spearheaded by East African Botanicals, which provides seedlings and supports both large- and small-scale farmers in a bid to rapidly increase the volume of plants.” The company spokesperson described their operations thus –

“By the end of 2005, we will have an estimated 1,200 hectares of the crop growing in Kenya,” explained a representative from the company. “We are also growing in Tanzania and Uganda, but still we cannot meet the demand. I am not able to overstate the shortage of this raw material worldwide. What we are growing is definitely making an impact on the shortage but not on the scale needed at the moment. “Everything we are doing is towards a very rapid scale-up of production: contracting more large- and small-scale farmers; planting more hectares; and finding ways to harvest the crop much faster,” he said.

IRIN also reports on efforts in Indonesia to grow A. annua. A government spokeswoman said, “farmers in Tawangmangu, where the soil was suitable for artemisia annua, traditionally grew vegetables and needed assurances that switching to the herb would bring them more benefit.  She expected Indonesia would be able to produce its own Artemisinin by 2010.” One hopes that these farmers will not be left without food crops or artemisinin profits like their Ugandan counterparts.

To make local production of Artemesia annua work there needs to be planning and coordination among government agencies, farmers, and the pharmaceutical industry. Botanical Extracts EPZ Limited in Kenya does claim to be making a profit from locally grown artemisinin, and so it should be possible for all partners to come together for success. The role of agriculture extension in educating farmers and helping them develop a safety net when A. annua crops fail is essential.

Finally, as we have stressed before, we hope that the eventual production of artemisinin synthetically or through biological processes will not render these farmers’ efforts useless.

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