Uganda: Farmers Rake Millions From Malaria Drug

Godwin Muhwezi-Bonge | 04 Mar 2024
Monitor (Kampala)

Mr John Tabaro, an elderly farmer in Kabale District who has tilled the land for years growing mainly sorghum made his first Shs2 million last year thanks to a "little-known" crop Sweet Wormwood whose scientific name is Artemesia annua.

"I made about Shs2 million after three months of growing [it], I had never made so much money at ago before [and now] I managed to take my children to school and all I think of is more and more artemesia," he said gleefully.

Such is the reception the alien crop has received in an area with no tradition of growing cash crops that after three seasons of uninterrupted cash flow, farmers are considering replacing traditional food crops with the quick maturing Artemesia, a crop used in the production of Artemesinin - an ingredient in the manufacture of anti-malaria drugs such as Coartem, and Artemether.

"I have so far given up on growing sorghum," a traditional crop regarded highly in the area. "I prefer Artemesia because it matures faster [3months] and gives higher returns compared to sorghum that takes seven months," he said.

Two years ago, farmers like Mr Tabaro were hard to find.

"People were at first reluctant to take on the crop because of the bad experience they had had with the now defunct Agro Management [a company that introduced pyrethrum growing in the area]," Mr Cleth Rugwiza, the extension officer of Aflo Alpine Pharma Ltd (AAPL), said.

Introduced in 2005, Artemesia was not well received as farmers remained reluctant to hurriedly replace their food crops with the untested cash crop on fragmented pieces of land.

When the pioneers registered successes, Mr Rugwiza said, more farmers then clamoured for more seedlings from extension agents. Outgrowers have since grown from 350 farmers when the crop was first introduced to more than 12,000 farmers to date.

"We did a lot of work to diminish the negative experience through sensitisation in churches, and public gatherings," he said.

Mr Aggrey Bitungukye, another farmer, said: "At first, I thought a kilogramme of dried leaves was difficult to raise but when I managed to raise about 220 kilogrammes from my piece of land, I picked up even more interest."

Income boost

Persuaded by the need to diversify incomes of subsistence farmers in Kabale, Aflo Alpine Pharma Limited, introduced the cultivation of a locally grown, affordable anti-malarial treatments, for distribution in the local, regional, and international markets.

"Kabale was chosen for its alpine climate a kin to that of Vietnam and India where the plant is mainly grown," Mr Rugwiza said.

Chloroquine and quinine-based derivatives have for long been used in the treatment of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease kills about 3,000 people per day.

However, patients' increasing resistance to traditional anti-malarial drugs, and the need to stem off malarial deaths has give birth to a new line of treatment in Artemesinin Combination Therapy, of which Artemesinin extracted from Artemesia annua forms a vital component.

EXTRACTION: Mr Robert Tumushabe, the factory supervisor of Aflo Alpine Factory demonstrates how artemesinin is extracted. Photo by Godwin Muhwezi-Bonge

"We extract up to 98.6 per cent of Artemesinin from dried leaves of artemesia annua," Mr Robert Tumushabe, the factory supervisor of AAPL, said. The factory processes 12 tonnes of dried artemesia leaves per day. One tonne of dried Artemesia leaves produces six kilogrammes of crude Artemesinin crystals.

The Artemesin is then sold to the world's renowned pharmaceutical companies such as Cipla Pharmaceuticals of India from where Artemesinin-based drugs are manufactured.

"Our market is worldwide but we sell most of our bulk in India," Mr Freddie Zagyenda, the chief executive officer of AAPL, said.

There is growing demand for Artemesinin as leading pharmaceuticals take on manufacture of Artemesinin-based drugs after World Health Organisation authorised Artemesinin combination therapy as the new line of malaria treatment.

Unfortunately, this demand has not translated into higher Artemesinin prices on the world market instead prices have been falling. World market prices fell from $350 per Kg in 2005 to $200 per Kg in 2007, a thing that has negatively impacted on the company's bottom line.

Although Mr Zagyenda maintains that the falling Artemesinin prices on the world market will not affect the company's relationship with the farmers, testimonies show that the farmers are already feeling the pinch. Out growers are complaining that their produce is rotting away in their stores as the company remains reluctant to collect.

"I have sacks of dry leaf stuck here," Mr Bitungukye said. "Much as I would like to keep growing artemesia, I cannot because of lack of market."

Mr Tabaro said: "Nowadays these people [AAPL] buy on credit. They are not treating us as they did previously." He added: "I have stopped planting because I cannot sell."

Growing stock

Mr Zagyenda said the company cannot abandon farmers and will stick to its promise of buying whatever stock the farmers have.

"We provide free seedlings to farmers through our extension agents; it is a joint investment. That is assurance enough that we have interest in their stock," Mr Zagyenda said.

According to him, the company slowed down on buying as away to contain the growing stock. "We slowed down on buying as a way of storing the stock with the farmers. Currently we have more stock than the available warehouse space," he said.

"As soon as we dispose of the stock in our stores, we will begin buying."

He said buying on credit is part of the company's new system of "streamlining field payments". The company discarded the "on-spot payment system", though popular with farmers, had its own shortfalls.

"Farmers would bring to buying centres more or less produce than anticipated, which disorganised our accounting system" Mr Zagyenda said. "We later adopted an organised way for buying, where we issue holder certificates to farmers for whatever we have bought."


He believes the current discontent among farmers is mainly fuelled by speculators who were caught off guard by the company's change of heart.

"They [speculators] bought large quantities in the hope of cashing in on the stock during the time of scarcity. They are now getting impatient," he said.

"Genuine farmers should stay put because we will begin buying in two months time."

AAPL operates an out-grower scheme supported by the company's nucleus farms. Farmers receive technical advice from the company's extension who have basic training in the agronomy and management of artemesia annua.

"We train extension workers to assist farmers with the growing of Artemesia," Mr Rugwiza said. It is these agents that also determine the quality of the leaf.

The agents mainly operate in the five regions of Kabale District

Farmers receive free seedlings from extension agents. Farmers then plant the seedlings, which take about 3 to 4 months to mature before harvest.

The leaves are dried for 2 to 3 days and later sold at collection centres before it transported to the factory for processing. A kilogramme of dried artemesia annua leaves costs Shs1, 000 per kilogramme. The plant is best suited to the alpine climate present in Kabale.

And as such, the plant has not encountered diseases, which makes it easier for farmers. Trials are also going on in the surrounding districts of Mbarara and Ntungamo.

"There are dry leaves waiting to be collected in Mbarara," Mr Rugwiza said.

As the world prices of Artemesininn continue to tumble, the company is planning to diversify its product range.

"We conducting trials for new crops," Mr Zagyenda said. The company has hired services of an Indian Agronomist, Dr S. K. Natarajan to carry out the trials.

Some of the crops on trial include: Davana; Chillies; Fennel; Jasmine Rose; Ginger; Vettiver; Basil; and many more others, most of which are used in the production of essential oils and perfumes.

Trials have so far been successful. Davana from which oil used perfumes is extracted has already passed trials.

"We are now a botanical extraction plant," Mr Zagyenda said. "We want to give farmers alternatives." He said: "We will soon begin extracting oil, food flavours, and lotions."

Even then, Artemesinin extraction will remain the company's core business, at least in the near future.

That future is tied to the lives of thousands of farmers like Mr Tabaro who invested their meager resources to make a difference in their lives and secure the future of their children too.

"We will introduce the crop to farmers next season," Dr Natarajan said. "Crops have responded well because the climate here [Kabale] is similar to that of India where they are grown," Dr Natarajan said.

Diversification will prove valuable to the company, which is already grappling with the declining Artemesinin prices on the World Market.