African Violet Blues: Why Hasn’t This Million-Dollar Flower from the Taita Hills Made the Local People Rich?

This article By img05John Mbaria was published in The EastAfrican – May 31st – June 6th 2004 edition. It is worth a read and a long think about how we can use this knowledge today and learn from errors in the past to work with the people in the Taita Hills to bring them sustainable income through alternative livelihoods that conserve their environment. Let us start applying our local knowledge, the strength of our environment in positive and enriching way both for the environment and the people. To quote from the article:

“Slowly, however, a beginning is being made by locally-based scientists working with local communities to develop biodiversity products on a commercial basis. Though still confined to pilot projects and typically available only within the region, there is no reason why these and many other products cannot, with proper marketing and packaging, secure niches in global markets.”

It seems we never truly got beyond the “slowly”…our new law continues to empower bioprospecting. We should be responsible about how we take this into the future – because it has the power to bring sustainable incomes to poverty stricken neighborhoods – but it also has the power to corrupt. We need to find that “fine balance”.

African Violet Blues: Why Hasn’t This Million-Dollar Flower from the Taita Hills Made the Local People Rich?

John Mbaria


While Africans are encouraged to ‘conserve’ nature, the West is actively engaged in commercially exploiting it. JOHN MBARIA outlines the predictably paternalistic trajectory of an ongoing project to ‘save’ the last wild population of African Violets in Kenya.

May 31-June 6, 2004 (The East African)

The 400-acre Mbololo Forest in the Taita Hills in Kenya’s Coast Province is what is known as a cloud mountain forest, its steep terrain bathed in cloud. Its moist habitat is home to a great many plant species. Among them, growing on cliffs and large rocks under the forest canopy, is the last remaining wild population of the Saintpaulia teitensis species of African violets. Meanwhile, the rapidly growing human population in the area adjacent to the forest is engaged in an intense daily struggle for survival. Entire families toil for long hours on end to make little more than half-a-dollar a day. Few people in the community are aware that the African violet — a plant with thick, leathery dark green leaves with red undersides, that bears four to eight bluish flowers — is more than a just a pretty flower; that cultivating it on a commercial basis may hold the key to liberate them from poverty. Strangely, those who are aware of its economic and aesthetic potential, seem to be obsessed more with “saving” this “last frontier” of the African violet than with how and whether it can help the Taita people change their lives. Indeed, the Taita people appear to be in the way, and the persuasive power of the dollar is being brought to bear to get the Taita to look elsewhere for income-generating activities so that they no longer use the forest’s resources intensively, thus contributing to its “preservation.” It is a typical donor-NGO-community liaison – just as with wildlife conservation, the “problem” is identified as people and conservation becomes an either/or paradigm. Reviving the people’s centuries-old symbiotic relationship with the forest (which has only recently come under strain from growing population and land hunger) is apparently considered unrealistic. Instead, says a “Saving the Species” posting on the website of Rob’s Violets, (“growers and exhibitors of African violets since 1975”): “The long-term goal is to maintain forests outside the Mbololo Forest so people will not need to go into this forest for their livelihood and in doing so impact the African violet habitats.”

Ordinary folk in Taita would probably be astounded were they to be told that people in the US, Japan, Russia, the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere around Europe have formed African Violet Societies and Clubs that mint millions of dollars from growing and displaying the violets. “There is at least a $50 million-a-year industry built around the interest in this flower,” says Gerard Hertel, a Professor of Forest Ecology and & Entomology with the Department of Biology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania in the US, who, along with Kamau Wakanene Mbuthia, of the National Museums of Kenya, has been studying the violets under a project funded by African Violet Society of America, Inc . Mbuthia and Benny Bytebier of the Museums’ Taita Biodiversity Project have documented eight separate populations of the Saintpaulia species in Mbololo Forest.

Prof Hertel adds that in 1891, a German, Baron Walter von Saint Paul-Illare, sent seeds from Tanga in Tanzania back to the Royal Botanic Garden in Hanover, Germany. Since then, three species of African violets found in the Coastal Forests and Eastern Arc Mountains of Kenya and Tanzania have been transformed into 10,000 hybrids and a multimillion dollar industry. “Probably most homes in the US have had an African violet growing in them at one point or another.” He says the trade in violets is exploitative. “To date, little has been returned to the people who depend on the habitats where the violet grows (naturally).” Conservationists have been campaigning to get the local people to preserve “the necessary genetic stocks” of the violet lest they disappear. As justification for this, Prof Hertel says East Africa’s wild population of violets “are too small; little can be made in the short or long-term from harvesting them locally.” Professor Hertel is not alone in advancing this argument. The East African Wildlife Society (EAWLS) is currently engaged in a project that seeks to offer the Taita people what EAWLS director of programmes Hadley Becha calls “innovative and alternative livelihoods.” In other words, get them out of the forest.

However, Becha admits that violets can generate income for the local people. “I am positive that the flower has an economic value.” He adds that the Taita have not been cultivating it because they are yet to realise this value.

But why is the EAWLS not assisting them to realise this potential? “As a membership organisation, we in EAWLS can only highlight the bioprospecting potential in the flower with the hope that our partners can take it up,” says Becha.

He, however, adds that his organisation is currently involved in teaching the local people how to reduce land degradation through planting trees, soil management and through farm forestry and how to start up apiculture (bee keeping) and ecotourism projects.

A fundraising venture has been set up. A dispatch from the Department of Biology, West Chester University entitled, “Helping the People Protect the African Violet Habitat,” says, “Funds are needed for fuel-efficient stoves, to provide technical assistance to maintain agricultural production, to help develop tree nurseries, to pay people to help plant and restore the forests that have already been removed.” Potential donors are asked to direct “tax-deductible donations through the WILD Foundation of US” and to “contribute a small percentage of the sales of domesticated violets to the conservation of African violet.” Other methods used to raise money for the project are through adding a small amount to the cost of violet and violet-related products for conservation purposes; asking those who place orders for the flower to contribute to conservation, and by “asking elected representatives in Washington to increase the funding for the US Agency for International Development Offices in Kenya and Tanzania to assist in violet habitat protection.”

Nowhere does the dispatch, nor the entire EAWLS project, mention that the Taita people, with a little imagination, the right international contacts and some capital, can cultivate the flower commercially and become rich enough to contribute to its conservation concretely. After all, the very rarity of this wild variety could be leveraged to create a niche market willing to pay the real social cost of preserving the African violet: the livelihood of the Taita people.

The story of the African violets is a pointer to the sheer economic potential poor countries fail to realise by not developing commercial products out of their biological resources. In East Africa, this potential stretches from the marshy terrain at the coast through the grassy savannah plains and onto the highlands and most of the inland lakes. The region teems with a huge variety of plants, larger and lesser animals, birds, fish and a huge population of harmful and beneficial insects. There are nestles, thistles, thorns and marigold; woodpeckers, lions, ostriches and beetles. Though much of this diversity is represented fairly evenly throughout the region, it is in such rainforests as Kakamega in Kenya and Bundongo in Uganda — which are thought to have been part of the Guineo-Congolian Rainforest that originally stretched across the continent from Guinea to Kenya — and in the Eastern Arc mountains and Coastal forests of Kenya and Tanzania that the diversity is best demonstrated.

East Africa has one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world. Covering a mere 1.4 per cent of the world’s surface area, these “hotspots” contain 44 per cent of the plant species and have larger numbers of endemic species per hectare than any other place in the world. Being part of the tropics, the East African countries together host 50 per cent of the earth’s biological species and 80 per cent of its arthropods.

Says the Biodiversity Hotspots website of Conservation International: “The Eastern Arc Mountains and Coastal Forests hotspot stretches along most of the eastern coast of Tanzania and into extreme southeastern Kenya. The hotspot extends more than 400 kilometers inland across Tanzania toward Lake Nyasa. It also includes the offshore islands of Pemba, Zanzibar and Mafia. A chain of upland and coastal forests, this hotspot comprises only 0.1 per cent of tropical Africa’s land area yet contains a startling 13 per cent of the entire continent’s vascular plants. Nine endemic primate species, like the critically endangered Tana River red colobus monkey, and the delicate African violets are among the region’s best known species.”

But for all this natural wealth, poverty and all its manifestations continue to grip East Africa, where the majority of people live on less than a dollar a day. The question often asked is why the West, which can never hope to have as much natural wealth as East Africa, is able to exploit so much of the region’s resources for its own benefit.

More often than not, the region’s low technological development is blamed for the inability of the people to fully engage in bioprospecting. Part of the answer lies in the cultures of the region’s peoples; part in the economic model applied by different countries; part in lack of capital, and part in Africa’s socio-economic relationship with the rest of the world.

However, an emerging school of thought believes that East Africans have allowed themselves to be swayed, if not to be misled, by the environmentalist lobby that emphasises and funds “preservation” of species at the expense of utilising such species to meet the growing needs of local communities.

Indeed, even as the environmentalists beat their drums, various private Western interests are engaged in a long-running, thinly veiled plunder of Africa’s biodiversity resources. For instance, in Madagascar, two anti-cancer drugs — vinblastin and vincristine — were made from the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) by the pharmaceutical firm, Eli Lily Company. Though the two drugs are said to generate $100 million per year for the company, none of this is shared with Madagascar.

Closer to home, the story of Aloe vera is even more interesting. Though its trade is partly hampered by a decree issued by former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, and by CITES having put it on its endangered list, a number of middlemen continue to capitalise on it. Participants attending a conference held recently on Aloe in Lakipia district were told that Kenyan middlemen in cahoots with non-Kenyans dominate the business, exporting Aloe to foreign manufacturers who later flood the Kenyan market with soaps and drugs made from it.

In addition, many communities in the highlands of East Africa had discovered and used Prunus africana to treat “the old-man’s disease” — as prostate cancer is often referred to. But they had yet to master how to exploit it on a commercial scale. That is, until people like Jonathan Leakey came along. Endemic to the highlands of Cameroun, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, Prunus africana is a slow-growing indigenous tree species whose healing properties are said to have been discovered in South Africa about 400 years ago. Modern scientific research has established that pygeum powder, which is extracted from the bark of prunus africana, provides relief from prostatic hyperplasia, a swelling of the prostate gland, and prevents the development of prostate cancer.

Following this, a lucrative trade in its bark has emerged, with the World Agro-Forestry Centre (ICRAF) revealing that a kilogramme of powdered extract retails at about $12,000 on the international market.

Early last year, the Cable News Network (CNN) reported that the international trade in prunus barks was worth $220 million a year. But, according to experts at ICRAF, only a neglible proportion of this vast fortune ever “trickles down” to the true owners of the tree. In Kenya, Jonathan Leakey was licensed by KWS’s CITES office to export the prunus bark in the early 1990s. Last year, the Community Museums of Kenya (CMK) took the matter before the Public Complaints Committee of the National Environment Management Authority over what CMK programme officer Issa Mohamed, termed “massive de-prunisation” of the Tugen Hills forest. This is a 100-km stretch of indigenous forest on the western escarpment of the Rift Valley. During the NEMA proceedings, Leakey denied that he had been harvesting the bark from government protected forests as alleged by the CMK, and that he had instead been buying the barks from local farmers. Environment Minister Newton Kulundu later cancelled Leakey’s export permit despite the latter’s plea to be allowed to export a 25-tonne consignment of the barks he had retained from earlier extraction. The Economist of London had reported in April last year that the trade in prunus bark rose from 200 tonnes in 1980 to about 3,500 tonnes last year, 68 per cent of it going to the German market, where Leakey is said to be a supplier to one of the leading pharmaceutical companies.

Indeed, bioprospecting is big business in the US, Europe, China and most other developed countries. Scientists at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe) estimate that naturally-derived medicine creates over $400 billion; agrochemicals generate $30 billion; commercial seeds $30 billion, while industrial enzymes generate over $1.5 billion each year. In addition, WHO estimates that herbal medicinal products, food supplements, flavours and fragrances add $60 million to the wealth already wielded by residents of developed countries. The potential is even greater when it comes to insects. The head of the Bioprospecting Programme at Icipe, Dr Wilber Luande, says that “insect services” — in terms of pollination, soil fertility, predation and parasitism — “have an annual value of $117 billion, $17 trillion and $417 billion respectively.” Dr Luande says that Africa — where 80 per cent of the population relies on traditional medicine — does not feature anywhere in the list of the top earners and exporters of raw material for nature-based commercial products. Instead, the US, Japan and China take the lead. IN most cases, African countries prefer to plead with the European Union, the US and other developed countries to be allowed to sell them their biological resources at a pittance. On their way back to Africa, these resources undergo various modificationss and are acquired by Africans for a fortune.

The shaky local private sector has largely opted out of bioprospecting, thus failing to capitalise on emerging opportunities from biological resources and preferring to concentrate on such traditional industries as manufacturing, agriculture, mining and commerce.

Slowly, however, a beginning is being made by locally-based scientists working with local communities to develop biodiversity products on a commercial basis. Though still confined to pilot projects and typically available only within the region, there is no reason why these and many other products cannot, with proper marketing and packaging, secure niches in global markets.


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