I was born on a farm in Kenya. My folks left Africa when I was young and set up a medicinal plant research program in Brazil (which they still run to this day – check out Iracambi). As soon as I could, though, I came back. As an 18-year-old boy, fresh out of high school, I drove for 7 months from London with two buddies across the Sahara, around Lake Chad, through the Congo rainforest, over the fabled Mountains of the Moon and down into the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, back to where I was born. It was a homecoming and, with a few exceptions while I pursued studies at Cambridge in the UK and Yale in the US, I’ve lived in Africa ever since.
My journey into African plants began when, as a student at the Yale School of Forestry, I was shown a map of the world by the great ethnobotanist Dr Michael Balick. The map showed the sources of all the best-known plant-derived medicines, with the location marked as a black dot. The Americas, Europe and Asia were liberally spattered with these dots. But there, right in the middle of the map, lay Africa, with barely a single dot on it. As if Africa doesn’t have medicinal plants. Now I knew that not to be true. There are as many medicinal plants in Africa as anywhere else in the world (in fact my life was saved from malaria as a baby by a traditional healer with medicinal plants). It was just that the world didn’t know about them. So, there and then, it became my mission to change that.
Since then, I’ve spent more than 20 years investigating African plants, looking at what makes them special, how they are traditionally used, what their phytochemical properties are and what their potential commercial applications might be. I’ve come at this mostly from a conservation angle, because I believe that the key to conserving Africa’s medicinal plants is to give them real economic value. But in the process, I’ve learned a huge amount about how these plants can be harnessed for the greater good in the 21st Century. And that’s what I’m here to share with you now.