Sifelani Tsiko Senior Writer
A team of University of Zimbabwe researchers has discovered what it says is the first — that anti-oxidants found naturally in Zimbabwean herbal teas are much more than those found in South Africa’s rooibos, which has become a hit with tea lovers across the world.
Lead researcher and PhD biochemistry student Michael Bhebhe told The Herald yesterday that after a four-year study to determine and compare phenolic compounds (anti-oxidants) in local herbal teas with the South Africa rooibos, they discovered that Zimbabwean herbal teas are richer in anti-oxidants properties, which can prevent the on-set of degenerative diseases such as cancer, stroke and diabetes.
“Our own indigenous herbal teas are rich in anti-oxidants and some of them have even higher properties than most imported Chinese and Indian herbal teas as well as South Africa’s rooibos,” he said.
“We also tested their toxicity levels and we found that our local herbal teas have a high margin of safety. Our teas have both food and medicinal properties (nutraceuticals). They are all under-utilised and if we market them aggressively, they have the potential to compete on global scale and help the country to earn more foreign currency and cut its import bill.”
The UZ research team was made up of Prof Maud Muchuwetu, Prof Dexter Tagwireyi, Batsirai Chipurura — a PhD student and other assistants.
Researchers found out that the Zumbani (lippie javanica), Makoni Herbal Tea produced from the leaves of the Fadogia ancylantha bush that grows mostly in the Eastern Highlands area of Zimbabwe, Mufandichimuka or Umafavuke (myrothamnus flabellifolius), Muwonde or Umkhiwa (Figtree) leaves (ficus sycamora), Moringa leaves and Baobab pulp and seed mix contained more anti-oxidant properties than most imported herbal tea brands. “Our indigenous herbal teas are all under-utilised and we need to popularise them for their health benefits,” Bhebhe said.
“We want our research to play a significant role to the country’s economic blue-print Zim-Asset by providing research findings that can help our industry and local communities to see the benefits of value addition to our natural resources.
“There has been an avalanche of foreign herbal teas into the country because of aggressive marketing and proven health benefits of teas like rooibos from South Africa and others from China and India.”
The lead researcher said the Zumbani and Muwonde leaves have two times more phenolic compounds than imported rooibos brands.
Most of these Zimbabwean herbal medicines have been used to effectively treat influenza infection, boost the immune system, build stamina, treat abdominal pain, including menstrual pain, backache and chest pains, coughs and a variety of other ailments for centuries.
In addition, some have been used as aphrodisiacs and to treat fertility problems in women.
Several previous studies have confirmed that the herbs, usually consumed in the form of a tea, can suppress the replication of bacteria and viruses.
“Most of these Zimbabwe traditional herbal teas have active anti-viral replication components which help to clean out chemicals which weaken our immune system,” Bhebhe said.
“Our studies have vindicated this and we are encouraging people to drink Zimbabwean herbal teas more regularly and not occasionally when they fall sick.
They must drink it often and help our country to cut its huge import bill.”
With advent of colonialism, antibiotics have been developed and popularised to target various bacterial infections among people while indigenous herbal or natural medicines have been neglected.
However, in recent years, scientists have found out that indigenous medicines have proven to be effective against some viral infections as they explored novel therapeutic and preventive agents against viruses.
South Africa’s amber tea — rooibos grown traditionally in Cape Town drives an industry which is worth an estimated 600 million rand (US$52 million) a year.
Local herbal tea producers believe strongly that if various stakeholders pull together, Zimbabwean herbal teas can be fully commercialised for the export market, just like South Africa’s Rooibos Tea Council (RTC) has done with Rooibos in that country. A company producing Makoni Herbal Tea is currently selling only 20 tonnes per year on the commercial market and has a huge potential to surpass this level.
Bhebhe said if local herbal teas are promoted effectively, they could easily become Zimbabwe’s Rooibos.
“Rooibos tea was marketed aggressively internationally by South Africans and this has brought health benefits and huge profits to that country’s economy,” he said.
“We need to do the same to our Zimbabwean herbal teas.”
The study which has been accepted for publication in the South African Journal of Botany, opens the door to the development of the country’s herbal medicine industry and helps to give Zimbabwe a place in the global herbal tea industry.