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Unlocking opportunities through Indigenous knowledge to address current economic challenges

By Stella Sigcau


Diverse cultures of South Africa have used indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) for centuries and central to this was the preservation of environment and adhering to certain cultural norms. The Indigenous knowledge systems were part of who they were, their lifestyles and formed part of their spirituality. It was used for medicinal purposes to address health challenges including treatment of livestock diseases amongst others. They were also used for agricultural purposes like fertilizers.

According to the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa, studies have shown that traditional medicine play an important role in the management of certain ailments, while at the same time the sale of traditional and indigenous products has beneficial effects on poverty reduction and employment creation.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) refers to local and indigenous knowledge as the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. Indigenous knowledge systems are critical to natural resource management, fundamental to sustainable development, have an important role to play in addressing socio economic challenges to reduce poverty whilst creating jobs, boost environmental tourism and rural development whilst preserving old age traditions of diverse cultures.

Places like the Mpondoland, a biodiversity hotspot are one of the examples of the places which have plants that have been used throughout the ages for healing and spirituality. Apparently some of these plants are so rare there are only one or two specimens. Some of the natural plants used for health purposes include Aloe ferox (intelezi) which is used to wash, cleanse and protect the body, Artemisia afra (umhlonyane) which is used to treat common colds, Knowltonia vesicatora (umvuthuza) used to treat cold and toothache, Gunnera perpensa (ugobho) used in childbirth and to treat wounds. A challenge is that some of the information about these plants which is passed through generations has not been properly documented and this may lead to this institutional memory being lost.

President Ramaphosa in his 2019 SONA speech spoke of the 4th industrial revolution to harness technological change in pursuit of inclusive growth and social development. Indigenous knowledge systems can benefit in this regard for example through technology in particular skills development, research, processing and documenting. This also to preserve this knowledge whilst providing economic opportunities.

Cannabis also grows abundantly in this area and if used productively, responsibly and sustainably can benefit the economy of the area e.g. therapeutic or commercial use of the hemp. For instance hemp fibre, hemp seeds and their oils are said to be important for medicinal purposes in treatment of pain, controlling nausea and vomiting for cancer treatment, appetite stimulation for people living with HIV/AIDS and eating disorders, and other ailments. In various parts of the world it is used for paper, clothing, building materials, biofuel, food products, beverages. This certainly presents opportunities for South Africa on how to capitalise on the usage of hemp as a contributor to economic development. Research in this regard also presents vast opportunities.

In many parts of the world hemp is regulated and used in particular for these purposes. It is reported that, in the 19th century, cannabis was introduced for therapeutic use in Western Medicine and since then, there have been several advancements in how the drug is administered. The Chinese were the first to use it as an anaesthetic.

There are more opportunities that are presented by indigenous knowledge systems and investment in this regard is imperative. Enabling this sector will also promote sustainable development, enhance environmental tourism and certainly contribute in South Africa’s economy and address challenges including those of poverty and job creation. This can also contribute to the agriculture sector and to rural development. Important is the regulation and participation of the local communities in this economy whilst also preserving their way of life and cultures as well as protection of the environment.




February/March 2020
















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