The best medicine for Africa


The best medicine for Africa

A lot of knowledge on the useful plants found in tropical Africa is threatened of being lost. These plants can play a crucial role in providing food security and income. Approximately 3.500 species have medicinal value, but their use in basic healthcare can be much improved.

Jan Siemonsma about PROTA: “Our information system containing more than 7.000 useful African plant species is of great importance for education, research, extension, and industry. Not one single African country has a complete overview of its plant resources. PROTA4U provides that information and offers new chances in agriculture, forestry, and horticulture. Take the spider plant, for instance, a leafy vegetable that was all but forgotten in Kenya. After PROTA identified it as a promising crop, it is now being cultivated again by hundreds of farmers and the population has consequently gained access to a more varied and affordable food.”

“The coming years we want to focus more on medicinal plants. We have completed 800 of them up to now. There is an enormous demand for reliable information by the African user.” Millions of Africans, in some countries up to 80% of the population, are dependent on traditional medicinal plants and herbal doctors. “The economic potential of these plants for rural Africa is immense.”

PROTA will contribute to assuring that 1.2 billion Africans make optimal use of their useful plants. Siemonsma is worried about the financial means. “The money needed in the coming years is not yet at hand while there are so many ways to contribute. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated money for the set-up  of an interactive database. This project is unique in the world and Wageningen UR already has a tradition of 30 years’ involvement in such projects.” This is also a valuable project from a biodiversity perspective. “Many of these plants are threatened by extinction. It must be possible to get this financed,” Siemonsma remarks optimistically.

Dr. Ir. Jan Siemonsma, senior onderzoeker PROTA
Dr. Ir. Jan Siemonsma, senior onderzoeker PROTA

Project description

PROTA is developing a user-friendly database that currently contains knowledge of 7.000 useful African plant types. We ensure that this information will be made widely available and used. This will take place in three steps: First, we will collect all the data there is, evaluate it and make it available through publication on the internet database PROTA4U as well as through manuals and CDs. So far, 13.000 visitors access the internet database per month, 12.000 manuals and 5.000 CDs have been used at African libraries and institutes. The second step involves coming to conclusions. We analyse the information and indicate which types are promising plant types. The third step involves testing the promising plant types in small projects across local communities in Africa. Knowledge is useless if it’s not used to improve the livelihood of people or to help sustainably manage these helpful plant sources.

Let’s take the sorghum dye from Benin as an example. It is used to dye clothing but also to give cheese its red colouring. A very interesting pilot test evolved from this which led one of the donators to research if sorghum can also be developed as a commercial crop.

Colouring from sorghum: A new commercial product with international potential for food ingredients and cosmetics
Colouring from sorghum: A new commercial product with international potential for food ingredients and cosmetics


Knowledge of useful plants is at the basis of the ‘biobased’ economy, an economy based on natural and re-usable sources. The knowledge of PROTA helps rural African famers to run their farms in a sustainable and profitable manner. I can illustrate this with the ‘spider plant’. The spider plant was an all but forgotten plant type in Kenya. We reintroduced this plant and it is now being cultivated again by hundreds of farmers. The supply is the first to be sold-out on local markets and has become a hit with urban supermarkets. It offers farmers a new and healthy product, and provides them with income stability. We expect local organisations to further expand on this.

Access to information is the most fundamental way to combat poverty. A comprehensive information system such as PROTA that makes use of all useful plants on a whole continent has never been developed before. PROTA is absolutely unique.

What can this project mean to society?

Our focus is on the end-user, the African farmer. More than 500 farmers are being trained in the production and marketing of Kenya’s native vegetables and 300 farmers and producers are involved in a project extracting natural colouring dyes from sorghum in Benin. These are just a few examples of the concrete effect of the use of PROTA carried out together with governments and NGOs. We are hesitant to claim that PROTA has direct influence on the small-scale farmer. The users of the database, the books and CDs can be found at African information centres, research institutes, aide organisations, universities, the government and industry. We ensure that all these parties receive the information to then forward it to the end-user. The decisions these parties take will influence the farmer dependent on plants’ useful resources. Millions of African farmers will profit including many women and consumers. The duration of PROTA is a bit longer on average but the overall impact is a structural one.

Spider plant leaf vegetable: The reintroduction of a forgotten native vegetable.
Spider plant leaf vegetable: The reintroduction of a forgotten native vegetable.


What led up to this project?

Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA) started in 2000 and prior to that we successfully completed a similar programme in South East Asia (PROSEA). We spent the first years setting up the PROTA network, making prototypes of the database and books, and creating the basis list of 7.000 plants types. In the meantime we have published knowledge on 2.500 plant types and based on this, we set-up trainings and projects with numerous institutes and in local communities. Seven of the 16 crop types were charted in their totality by end 2010. We publish everything on the interactive database PROTA4U. This allows us to continually update the knowledge with the help of the users and to exchange experiences.

PROTA was started with a subsidy from the European Union, money from Wageningen UR and the Dutch government. Thereafter it was supported by DGIS, LNV, VROM, NWO, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the COFRA Foundation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported the project in 2008 with a contribution of U.S. $3 million. These contributions financed the project until end 2010.

Others about PROTA

‘A project like PROTA is unique and only comes along every fifty years’
Dennis Garrity, Director General World Agroforestry Centre

‘The tangible result of PROTA is my reconversion to agriculture’
Obama Etoundi, political economist, Cameroon

‘We use PROTA in vegetable growing and the results are impeccable’
René Mbassi, technician of the Water and Forest Service, Cameroon

‘PROTA information helped me to convince farmers that they can grow for the market and not only for home-use’
Philip Randall, consultant, South Africa

‘The PROTA books helped us to get support from the ADB for our agricultural training programme in 5 States in Nigeria’
Anonymous lecturer, Plateau State, Nigeria

‘…… indispensable resource ….’
‘…… impressive and invaluable ……’
Economic Botany

Native vegetables for healthier food.
Native vegetables for healthier food.

Who is Jan Siemonsma?

I have been working for years on research- and ‘capacity building’ projects in Asia and Africa as a tropical plant cultivator. I have been fortunate in having been at the inception of PROTA. Of all the projects that I have worked on, this is absolutely one of the most useful. I have dedicated my soul to this project together with an international group of committed colleagues momentarily managed by my colleague Roel Lemmens.

Tropical Africa houses a treasure of useful, native plant types bearing great potential. The knowledge of these plants has been fragmented and inaccessible to policymakers. These plants could play a large role in expanding food security and improving the income position of the African population. Reality tells us that many of these plants are threatened of being lost forever. This is a huge shame for economic reasons, but it’s also disastrous for biodiversity. I could not name a better programme than this one with all the attention there is on biodiversity lately. It offers many points of interest that can in turn become concrete spin-off projects.

The strength of Wageningen UR

One of the reasons that this has to happen at Wageningen is because you need the best library facilities. We have those here. With the push of one button, the entire global literature appears on your desk. Of course, we can’t do it alone. We need partners and Wageningen has an expansive network in Africa. The institutes of former colonialists, France and England, also contain a lot of information and we spend a lot of effort to collect this as well through our country offices in Montpellier and Kew.

While the ‘biobased economy’ is a spearhead at Wageningen, it cannot extend financial support because it does not belong to the university’s core activities. PROTA is a documentation project: We travel through global literature, collect forgotten literature in Africa and Europe and collate it to create a knowledge database. The university no longer receives funding for this but continues to underscore the great importance of PROTA by including it in this campaign.

Who are the partners of this project?

We work together with 10 research institutes of which seven are located in Africa and three in Europe. Hundreds of scientists from 30 countries furthermore contribute with their knowledge. Wageningen manages the project and scientists and students from both continents have worked together for a long time building up relations and partnerships. Our goal is to have Africa coordinate this project in the long run. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) of the African Union acknowledge the importance of PROTA. They see it is an important key in the development agenda of Africa and support the programme.

Consulation of stakeholders
Consulation of stakeholders

How can you contribute?

There are various ways to financially contribute to the PROTA project. An individual plant can be sponsored for € 1.500 but you can also contribute to the development of knowledge on a crop type. There are also other ways to help which include supporting: the PROTA office in Nairobi, promotion and publicity, management support or contributing to the activities organised at 40 different locations across Africa. You can become a PROTA goodwill ambassador and donate manuals to African libraries and institutes. You can also help by setting up projects and motivating the use of knowledge by the end-user.

What do we offer you?

We involve our donators intensely with PROTA. We send quarterly updates on the developments and make an annual report. Donators are welcome to visit PROTA activities and to involve their own relations and/or employees in the project. If so desired, we can make reference of the donator on the PROTA website.

What is the funding required for?

We want to completely chart all medicinal plants in the coming five years. We have completed charting 800, which is only a quarter. We need a minimum of € 3 million for five years and have only been pledged a small amount so far.

We can forward you a detailed budget upon request.

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