Two years ago, Yoweni Mkweza used to frequent various locations in his home district of Chiradzulu with a wooden box firmly attached to his bicycle’s carrier or crossbar.
He could shout till his voice got hoarse in a bid to attract consumers of his herbal medicines from which he could make a small amount to keep his life going.
Today, the 29-year-old is brushing poverty aside with a processed medicinal plant, Mondia whitei, locally known as gondolosi, which the World Health Organisation credits for having aphrodisiac and anti-depressant properties.
Mkweza is processing the root into juice. He says he is determined to bridge the gap that exists in Malawi when it comes to processing herbal medicines.
“We can borrow a leaf from Asian countries such as India and China. For a long time, Malawians have been ignoring resources that are readily available here,” he says.
He is worried that products that could be made from locally available resources are being imported from elsewhere due to shortage of innovative ideas among Malawians, among other reasons.
“Then a lot of talented and educated young people complain about high unemployment rates in the country. The problem is that they wait for others to employ them,” Mkweza says.
He also admits that it has not been a bed of roses for his business to break through.
Mkweza had hatched the idea of venturing into the herbal medicine business after being inspired by a friend who laid bare the gaps that exist in herbal medicine trade in Malawi.
The friend informed him that India, China and other countries were doing well in herbal medicine processing and that pushed him to start researching on plants with anti-fungal and antibacterial properties in 2012.
“I came up with a product which I branded Goodbye Pain. The product had to be fine-tuned before being taken to the market. I remember testing it 13 times or more.
It caught the attention of consumers in Blantyre and other areas,” Mkweza says.
He further claims that his product became a household name to the extent that he had to engage the services of agents who sold it on his behalf.
Apparently, some of the agents started making counterfeit products, a development that blemished the image of the original product.
Mkweza says he, however, moved in swiftly to take the matter to court where the ‘criminals’ were found guilty and are paying fines for their acts.
Then, he moved to processing juice from Mondia whitei after seeing men buying and chewing the root at Lizulu, a farm produce market along the M1 Road in Ntcheu District.
“I wanted to save such men from the burden of chewing the root. So, even those with teeth problems can consume the liquid product,” he says.
Those who fetch the root from where it grows are also finding convenient markets as Mkweza buys their product in bulk and saves their time along the busy road.
The gondolosi processing task is time consuming. The work starts with the energy supping process of cutting the roots into small pieces, to drying—which takes three days on average. The product is then ground into powder.
And he has a lot to show for his sweat. “From using an ordinary bicycle, I bought a motorcycle and now I have cars. I even employ people to help me in my business.
I travel to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to sell my products,” says the businessperson who has established a branch in Zambia.
He remains positive that his company, Vibrant Healthy Living, will continue to conquer on the market so that in two years, he should be able to double the number of young people he is employing.
In other African countries such as Uganda, locals are making a killing from sales of processed gondolosi.
Studies into the potential of the medicinal plant’s processing industry date back to over a decade ago. In the east African country’s capital, Kampala, a study on Mondia whitei explored consumers’ and vendors’ perceptions about the perennial climber that grows from a large tuberous rootstock.
It also determined the marketing margins and the market flow of the roots in the city, documented demand and supply opportunities as well as challenges to marketing of the roots by the vendors.
“[The] majority of the vendors (74 percent) and consumers (85 percent) perceived the trade in the roots as worthwhile. Men and adolescent boys were reported to be the main consumers,” the study’s findings said.
Kenya, too, joined the fray, with gondolosi being largely sourced from that country’s Kakamega Forest. Growing interest in the plant has seen organisations such as Kenya Forestry Research Institute introducing a programme to train people in awareness and conservation of the root.
However, like in Malawi, researchers in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and other countries have cited seasonal low supply of the roots and the prevalence of unorganized market structures as some of the factors that hamper gondolosi trade.
But these so-called challenges, according to Mkweza, should be treated as unexplored potential for Malawi, hence his interest in turning the tables against poverty and creating a sustainable supply of cash through the juice.
He says he is also simply responding to familiar calls by the government and other stakeholders that Malawians should explore value addition and opt for local products.
“The Best Buy Malawi Strategy is at the heart of my government’s commitment to promote economic growth and sustainable development,” President Peter Mutharika said in 2017.
Government spokesperson Mark Botomani says Mutharika is as committed as ever to the “noble” cause.
And for Mkweza, the acceptance of his product among Malawians puts in a good word the concept of ‘buying local’ while its exportation augments persistent calls to manufacture products that can make it on the international market.