‘Trade, not aid’ — changing the world with eco-preneurs

A cut-leafed Crane’s-bill. (Photo: DAlvesgaspar, Wikimedia Commons)

Who has not heard of the benefits of echinacea, St. John’s wort, lavender and peppermint?

They’re not just used to make tea. Medicinal plants are ubiquitous in food supplements, medications and a myriad of personal-care products, including skin creams and shampoo.

According to the World Health Organization, 80 per cent of the world’s population uses medicinal plants, creating a burgeoning $60-billion international industry.

A cut-leafed Crane’s-bill. (Photo: DAlvesgaspar, Wikimedia Commons)

A cut-leafed Crane’s-bill. (Photo: DAlvesgaspar, Wikimedia Commons)

It is estimated that nearly one-third of the world’s heritage of such valuable plants grows in Africa, yet only 0.01 per cent of its people have participated in the global market.

For the past eight years, two very different organizations led by one woman have made great progress in helping Africans exploit their own natural resources. One group is for-profit, the other not-for-profit.

“Trade, not aid” is Carole Robert’s motto. The co-founder of the BDA Foundation (biotechnology for sustainable development in Africa) and PharmAfricain, a biotech company that develops innovative organic ingredients, envisioned a business model that would create a positive impact socially, environmentally and economically.

“BDA is like a school and an incubator,” Robert says. “It trains African entrepreneurs to cultivate medicinal and value-added plants with quality control meeting the expectations of the international market.”

Robert refers to the students at the foundation, who undergo a rigorous selection process and of whom half are women, as “eco-preneurs.” While they learn to grow, harvest and sell medicinal plants that meet international standards and acquire entrepreneurial skills, they do this with an eye toward biodiversity. “We want the entrepreneur to exploit natural resources and keep it for future generations. With that they can create their own economy, ” Robert says.

PharmAfricain performs research and development so products meet the standards of such regulatory bodies as Health Canada. “If you want to present a new botanical for health value, you need serious research done,” Robert says.

Prior to Robert’s initiative, it was a “chicken and egg” situation, she says. “Nobody invested in research and development of African plants because there was no quality-controlled supply, while nobody trained African producers in quality control because the plants were not authorized and commercialized on the developed market. “I thought, with proper effort there is no reason we can’t bring quality-control production to Africa. Starting a new business has a huge impact on an entire society, bringing dignity, independence, hope and confidence in the future. There is room for active ingredients from the African market.”

BDA’s program accompanies the young entrepreneurs through their training and helps them access capital and offers support during the first years running their company. It is a certified program that brings reassurance to the buyer.

“What we want to create is local enterprise, not have foreigners come in and hire producers. We cannot deliver this program alone and we have many strategic allies, including international research institutes, government organizations, foundations and universities,” Robert says.

The organization needs mentors. “We are looking for people who have retired, but who are experienced and willing to hold the hand of our entrepreneurs.

“We need to train them in English, because the market is in English. Having a once-a-week conversation on Skype builds a feeling of trust. There is so much room to provide guidance, advice and moral support.”

Carole Robert will be honoured as a Woman of Distinction in the environment category by the Women’s Y foundation on September 30.

To learn more about her work or about mentoring, visit bdafoundation.org.

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