Roaring trade as villagers cash in on umhlonyane as Covid-19 'cure'

Thulani Ncanywa, wearing a cap, and his cousin Mzodumo Makhuphulo are some of the villagers selling umhlonyane, or African wormwood, along the N2 near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. / LULAMILE FENI
Thulani Ncanywa, wearing a cap, and his cousin Mzodumo Makhuphulo are some of the villagers selling umhlonyane, or African wormwood, along the N2 near Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. / LULAMILE FENI

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented a new business venture to some villagers in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

They are doing a roaring trade in Artemisia afra - commonly known as African wormwood or umhlonyane (in Nguni) and lengana (Sotho) - the same herb that is a major ingredient in a so-called Covid-19 cure Madagascar produced. A small bunch of this herb harvested in the hills sells for about R15 in the Eastern Cape.

Sontoyi Nyembezi from Emalahleni, Mpumalanga, is selling a 500ml bottle for R100 and said business was booming.

"I have sold more than 250 bottles in Mpumalanga. There are orders from Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng and other provinces," Nyembezi said.

She said as an African country, Madagascar's idea needed the support of the continent, even though South Africans have used the herb for hundreds of years to treat flu and similar ailments.

While traders sold the traditional medicine along the N2 - between East London and Mthatha - the Mthatha CBD and other areas in the Eastern Cape, others are couriering it to Gauteng and the Western Cape, both hard-hit by Covid-19.

Limpopo authorities, however, yesterday warned against the selling of lengana on the streets, saying people would rather harvest it for personal use at their homes.

Well-known traditional doctor, Dr Sylvester Hlati, has expressed concern about possible over-harvesting that can lead to the herb being wiped off in some areas.

Decades ago, the African wormwood used to be part of the range of plants in household gardens in SA. But now is mainly found in the veld.

The herb is reputed to also treat loss of appetite, colic, headaches and intestinal worms. It can be boiled and drunk when cool, or it can be inhaled through steaming treatment.

One fan of the traditional remedy is SA Federation of Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who made a full recovery after contracting the virus.

Vavi posted a video in which he claimed to have used it as a home remedy by steaming himself.

The World Health Organisation has warned that the Covid-Organics infusion, which Madagascar President Andry Rajoelina has touted as a remedy against the deadly coronavirus, saying it has not been clinically tested.

Four cousins - Sibongile Mvubu, Masilinde Pasiya, Mzodumo Makhuphula and Thulani Ncanywa of Ndabakazi Komkhulu village near Butterworth - are also vendors of the herb.

Ncanywa, a first-year business management student, said: "We heard from radio comments that umhlonyane could assist in calming Covid-19, and saw a business gap. The Madagascar story gives hope for African traditional medicine and the indigenous knowledge system.

"Since we started selling umhlonyane on April 22, we wake up as early as 5am and go collect fresh herbs in the forest and then go to spots along the N2 where we sell it. I have been using umhlonyane for many years, so have my parents, like our ancestors. This is the first time we have sold it."

He said at first they made as much as R1,700 a day, but returns had been decreasing as more vendors entered the market. An unemployed couple, Sibongile Kotase, 50, and Nonkumbulo Dadlana, 48, are vendors at Tholeni village.

Dadlana said: "We heard on radio that umhlonyane might assist in treating Covid-19. We are unemployed and struggling to feed our family, so we are making use of the opportunity to earn some money out of this natural herb."

Health minister Zweli Mkhize announced on Twitter last week that Madagascar had contacted SA to help research whether the indigenous plant was a possible treatment for the new coronavirus.

Traditional Health Practitioners' Organisation general secretary Solly Nduku said: "I can confirm umhlonyane has helped with flu as far back as the 1800s, during the time of the Spanish Flu of 1918 and also after World War II in 1946. But... we are not claiming that umhlonyane cures coronavirus. There is no such scientific evidence at present."

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