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A Profile of Ethnobotany in Africa:
Results of an Africa-wide survey
(R.Höft & M.Höft)

In the last few years, ethnobotany has gained momentum as a scientific discipline in Africa. Increasing population pressure conflicting with restriction of access to limited plant resources has been calling for new approaches in resource management. Researchers and development workers from a number of backgrounds have drawn methods from various scientific disciplines, modified and merged these into what can now be considered a package of ethnobotanical methods. Involving all partners, applied ethnobotany has a potential to respond to the acute needs and concerns of people faced with the rapid deterioration of their natural and cultural heritage.

In the following we attempt to provide a picture of the current situation of ethnobotany in Africa by evaluating a questionnaire which has been filled in by more than 200 African ethnobotanists prior to the establishement of an Africa-wide network of ethnobotanists. The XVth AETFAT (Association for the Taxonomic Study of the Tropical African Flora) Conference held in February 1997 in Harare was an important occasion for many interested botanists and ethnobotanists to discuss priorities and working methods of this Network.

Objectives of the African Ethnobotany Network (AEN)

The African Ethnobotany Network (AEN) aims at harmonizing the efforts of individuals and small teams who contribute through research, education, provision of field training, various means of sharing information, and the improvement and diversification of existing ethnobotanical methods to the recognition of ethnobotany as scientific discipline and as an appropriate technical tool in the management of plant resources. The AEN does, thereby, not intend to compete with other specialized groups with overlapping interests (such as the AETFAT, the Indigenous Plant Use Forum (IPUF), the Southern African Botanical Diversity Network (Sabonet), or the IUCN/SSC Medicinal Plants Specialist Group) but to collaborate with these wherever possible. At the same time, it can provide a service to individuals who feel the need for material and information additional to those available within the existing networks.

To encourage the start of an African Ethnobotany Network and to create some fundament for reference, a questionnaire was sent to the members of AETFAT (Association for the Taxonomic Study of the Flora of Tropical Africa) and to the African ethnobotanists in contact with the People and Plants Initiative of WWF, UNESCO and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. By 1 September 1997, about 300 recipients had responded with the large majority wishing to participate in the African Ethnobotany Network. Additional replies have arrived after this date. The current Network membership list is included at the end of this Bulletin.

Evaluation of questionnaires

From the questionnaires, it would appear that equal importance was accorded to the information of ongoing and past research and to the exchange of ethnobotanical methods (Figure 1). Of lesser importance, but nevertheless mentioned by 10% of respondents, was the desirability of financial assistance.

Figure 1

Answers with respect to the main interest related to the interdisciplinary field of ethnobotany reflected the priority of conserving and sustainably managing natural resources. A majority of the respondents mentioned nature conservation together with botany or economic botany as their prime interest (Figure 2). Among the more important fields (< 30%) figured forestry, rural development and cultural aspects. Religious aspects, zoology, animal husbandry, soil science and veterinary sciences were mentioned by less than 10% of the respondents.

Figure 2

Among 100 respondents who estimated the percentage of their time allocated to ethnobotanical work the average was 33%. The teaching load being heavy for most university-based researchers, and administrative tasks sometimes limiting the length of field stays, it was interesting to get an idea of the time allocation for different categories of ethnobotanical work, such as research, teaching, data analysis, administration, learning, publishing and communication (Figure 3). While only 168 of the 231 respondents answered this question, it would appear, that the time spent for research by far exceeded the time for teaching and data analysis. Time spent on data analysis was a mere 12% and the allocation for writing/publishing less than 10%. Of course, these figures are estimates, but it may be fair to say that an increased awareness about analytical tools and quantitative methods in ethnobotany is likely to lead to a relative increase of the percentage of time required for data analysis and presentation.

Figure 3

Even fewer respondents (n=73, Figure 4) gave details on their teaching. When looking into the categories of training provided by participants of the AEN, field surveys and surveys with communities were clearly the most common (ca. 33%), while only 15% (i.e. 11 people) appear to use statistics in their teaching programme. This agrees with the small percentage of time spent on analysis of ethnobotanical data (see Figure 3).


Figure 4

Among 107 academic staff who responded, the average number of students trained in ethnobotany was 14. Consequently, and discounting multiple scoring of individual students, each year about 1500 African students are learning about ethnobotany according to this limited survey. While this figure is encouraging, it does not indicate the position ethnobotany takes within the overall curriculum, particularly while there are still very few institutions that provide formal curricular courses in ethnobotany.

The situation of ethnobotany as a multidisciplinary science which draws methods from various academic fields and subjects is reflected by the large number of techniques used regularly by the respondents (Figure 5). Although the techniques listed may overlap, the answers were classified in 14 different categories. About one third of the respondents mentioned plot sampling, Participatory Rural Appraisal methods (PRA) and general ecological methods (e.g., population analysis, vegetation analysis, soil sampling), followed by more typically ethnobotanical techniques such as identification tasks and free-listing. A number of quantitative techniques for applied research projects included the application of resource sustainability measures (i.e. analysis of resource regrowth versus extraction rate), preference ranking and resource quality measure (distinction on the basis of individual plants on the appropriateness for a certain use). Plotless sampling and multivariate methods developed for vegetation analysis, such as classification and ordination (16.5%), cluster analysis (13.9%) or other statistical methods (12.6%), appeared to be less popular.

Figure 5

Participants were asked to indicate in which vegetation type they carry out ethnobotanical research to get an overview of the relative importance attributed by ethnobotanists to the major vegetation units (Figure 6). Almost one third of the 159 respondents work in savanna areas. Relative to their extent, wetlands, montane forests, lowland rain forests and Afroalpine vegetation are important targets for ethnobotanical research.

Figure 6

It was also interesting to note that almost 50% of the ongoing ethnobotanical research is carried out in protected areas. Forest Reserves and National Parks figured more prominently (< 30%) than National Reserves, Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Twelve principal agencies were identified for funding projects of 136 respondents (Figure 8). Governmental departments and universities ranked highest with ca. 20% of all projects funded, followed by private sources and international NGOs engaged in conservation with ca. 15% each. Among the UN agencies, UNESCO and UNDP were mentioned while UNEP did not provide funding to any of these projects. Naturally, a large number of projects funded by any single organization does not necessarily imply that the total amount provided is high. From this survey, the budget spent annually on ethnobotanical work in Africa adds up to about 3 million US dollars.

Figure 8

To date more than 250 respondents have expressed their interest in participating in the AEN. In view of the fact that of this number only about half are doing ethnobotanical research or teaching the question arises whether the AEN will develop to serve an increasing number of vaguely interested people or whether it will develop with the support of active and engaged participants into a powerful source of applied ecological science for conservation.

Setting-up of the African

Ethnobotany NetworkA workshop held during the AETFAT Conference in Harare in February 1997 provided a first forum to discuss the expectations from such a Network and to complement the picture that arose from the evaluation of answers provided by respondents to the questionnaire.

The AETFAT workshop felt that the central objective of an African Ethnobotany Network should be to facilitate the exchange of information and experience. As many African researchers have as yet no access to electronic information exchange and depend on poorly equipped libraries, access to relevant literature and thus the awareness of ongoing research and useful methodologies is limited. This situation could be improved by sharing documents and exchanging literature within a functioning Network. On the basis of the need identified at the AETFAT workshop and the postal survey (see Figure 1), Tony Cunningham has prepared a review of ethnobotanical publications from eastern and southern Africa which is part of this Bulletin.

The African Ethnobotany Network should furthermore help develop the contact between colleagues who have similar interests, use the same methodologies or undertake work that is complementary to the work of others. It could thereby facilitate exchange among individuals and projects and help stimulate and shape joint undertakings of various kinds. While a strong Network could eventually provide some support for raising resources for applied research projects, the Network itself should essentially function on a voluntary basis.

The Network should raise awareness about ethical issues, such as Intellectual Property Rights, resource access rights and the patenting of Indigenous Knowledge. In informing about approaches used to protect local knowledge, community land rights and access to biological resources the AEN could contribute to increased awareness among local people, researchers and policy-makers. In concrete terms this could imply a more common use of contractual agreements with respect to private commercial use of indigenous plant knowledge. It should also make it a basic principle for ethnobotanists to ask who would benefit from their work, to seek agreements with elders in charge of safekeeping communally owned sacred sites before embarking on field research and to publish only the results that are agreed to become "shareware".

Common concern was expressed about the need for close collaboration and consultation of the existing information among members from the beginning of each undertaking, to avoid duplication of efforts on the one hand and to focus efforts, e.g., on areas of high botanical and cultural diversity, on the other hand. Increased recognition of ethnobotany as a scientific discipline was rated highly desirable, but the need was also recognized to further validate existing methods and define common concepts, e.g., concerning the term ethnobotany itself.

AEN secretariat

A number of points were identified by participants in the Harare workshop of how the AEN could maximize its impact. These include the identification of national focal points, working groups or projects, the preparation and distribution of publication lists and the availability of regularly updated address lists or data files of members of the AEN.

A preliminary list of focal points has been established, which, however, needs reconfirmation, since some potential focal points did not attend the workshop and some countries were not represented. An interim secretariat is currently provided by UNESCO, through interested members of staff. While UNESCO Offices in Nairobi and Dakar, both of which have some capacity and expertise in the fields of ethnobotany and ecology, showed interest in contributing to such a service, a longer-term commitment has not been made. Clearly, in addition to the country focal groups, a functioning secretariat will be indispensable to ensure the overall co-ordination of the Network. Tasks of the secretariat may include the following:

  • compile and distribute up-to-date information on who is doing what beyond the national scale. This is already well established in South Africa, through the Indigenous Plant Use Network (Hale et al., 1995; see bibliography below), but less so in other African countries;
  • distribute relevant literature;
  • review ethnobotanical project proposals;
  • provide information on possible sources for funding;
  • compile, print and distribute a newsletter.

Country co-ordinators

A network depends entirely on the willingness and capacity of its members to share information and expertise. Country co-ordinators should, therefore, facilitate the flow of information between the secretariat and members of the network. An initial undertaking will be to publish an annual newsletter or bulletin. From then on, much will depend on the country co-ordinators and the following comments were made with regard to their role. The country co-ordinators should:

  • establish a national link among the people carrying out ethnobotanical activities;
  • compile a list of interested ethnobotanists in their country as well as information on their ongoing projects and keep it up-to-date;
  • raise awareness in their country about the existence of the Network;
  • provide the link between the national group and the overall Network including circulating information and literature from the secretariat among the members;
  • co-ordinate activities within a national working group;
  • promote collaborative research projects of scientists within and beyond the country;
  • facilitate the collection of ethnobotanical data, and the organization and publication as well as distribution of existing publications;
  • keep and gather a list of publications (old and recent) on ethnobotany and related topics in the country and - if possible - acquire relevant literature and establish a collection;
  • provide a link between local ethnobotanists and other countries as well as external (e.g., European and American) centres;
  • hold regular meetings of the country working group;
  • receive updated information from other stakeholders and make it accessible to the appropriate people and groups;
  • contribute to the validation of ethnobiological data.

Eventually the country co-ordinators should organize the development of a written national ethnobotany programme document which reviews past literature and on the basis of national capability and needs, develops a strategic research plan.These points were not discussed in detail during the workshop but the above list reflects a tentative order of priority. While some of the above suggestions may be difficult to sustain given the limitations of time and resources, others would be only possible to realize with continued institutional support. Concern was also raised about co-ordinators who, for various reasons, might not perform as the country’s ethnobotanists would wish. A small co-ordinating team was therefore proposed instead of a single co-ordinator. The addresses of nominated country co-ordinators are listed at the end of this document (page 83).

The future

The Network builds on recent initiatives in the field of ethnobotany, e.g., the Handbook that was published by the People and Plants Initiative which addresses such themes as sharing information, returning results or the legal and ethical implications of enthobiology, and which has been distributed widely throughout Africa (Table 1). The Network is intended to further amplify these efforts.

Much of the future will depend on individual initiative and the establishment of functioning national working groups. Contributions to future Bulletins and Newsletters are among the immediate desirable inputs. Monitoring of membership development and the evaluation of input from members will help to foresee future needs and strengthen the efficacy of the AEN.

Amazing and durable pieces of work are often a result of joint efforts

Furthermore, efforts should be undertaken to generate a solid methodological basis and validate methods currently used in ethnobotanical research. The particular need for methodological training will be further addressed through appropriate manuals and training courses. To this end, it might be envisaged to constitute a board of experts who could advise on methodologies and who would help to ensure that project proposals correspond to the standards before being submitted to funding agencies.

Table 1. Number of recipients of the People and Plants Handbook in Africa by countries
Country No. of recipients
Angola 5
Botswana 5
Burkina Faso 4
Burundi 2
Cameroon 38
Central African Republic 1
Chad 1
Comoros 1
Congo 3
Côte d'Ivoire 3
Democratic Republic of Congo 4
Egypt 1
Ethiopia 31
Gabon 6
Ghana 8
Kenya 204
Madagascar 16
Malawi 16
Mali 2
Mauritius 8
Morocco 5
Mozambique 9
Namibia 8
Niger 1
Nogeria 20
Senegal 4
Seychelles 4
Sierra Leone 1
South Africa 84
Sudan 5
Swaziland 4
Togo 1
Uganda 73
United Republic of Tanzania 34
Zambia 13
Zimbabwe 31


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