African herbs for global 'wellness'

Steve Hurt

Steve Hurt talks about Afrigetics, a web shop that offers a wide range of Southern African medicinal herbs to customers worldwide.

Health Synergetics is a Johannesburg-based company specialising in Southern African medicinal herbs. The herbs, which are sold under the brand name Afrigetics, can all be purchased online ( www.afrigetics.co.za). Steve Hurt explains: 'When I looked into the possibility of adding medicinal plants to the product list, I found that there was a worldwide niche market for African herbs. I therefore decided that to 'go online' would be the most effective way to reach customers overseas.'

Booming business

Afrigetics is just one of growing number of web shops selling African herbs. Although the majority are operated by retailers based in the US, a number of South African suppliers have recently opened their own web shops offering herbs, herbal teas and other plant products directly to consumers.

Spurring the online trade in African herbs is a booming global market for natural health and lifestyle products, including herbal supplements, weight loss products and vitamins. In the US, consumer spending in this 'wellness' sector has grown by almost 8% per year, reaching $68 billion in 2004.1 Sales of vitamins, herbs and dietary supplements in Europe and Japan have shown similar increases.

The entry of African herbs into this market was led by a herbal tea made from Rooibos (Aspalathus linearis), a shrub that grows in the Cedarberg mountains of South Africa's Western Cape. According to Steve, 'the farmers there have done a lot to popularize Rooibos tea, so it was only a matter of time before they began to offer other locally grown herbs for this niche market'.

Web-based marketing

At present, the company's core business is supplying herbs from Southern Africa to wholesale clients in Europe and the US, mostly bulk resellers and manufacturers that use the herbs as ingredients in their own products. These are not the kind of customers that shop online, but the company's web presence has generated many queries from abroad. 'The Afrigetics web shop provides detailed information about the various herbs we sell, so that clients can make an informed choice of products that would suit their customers.'

Although retail is currently a subsidiary aspect of the company's business, the Afrigetics web shop offers a selection of ten popular African herbal products. The herbs are carefully packaged and branded in a way that customers expect to find in a European or American health store. The reason for this, Steve explains, 'is to assure people that, just like the herbs they already buy in their own health store, African herbs are safe and useful products'. Likewise, the web shop offers secure, encrypted payment transactions certified by Thawte, a security certificate provider. Orders received through the web shop are mailed directly from South Africa. A freight agent in the UK handles bulk orders.

Best sellers

At the moment, the company's bestselling product is derived from the Hoodia (Hoodia gordonii), a succulent plant that grows in the Kalahari desert and has been used by generations of San Bushmen to stave off hunger during long hunting trips. In 1996, when scientists identified the ingredient that suppresses the appetite, this led to a rush on the plant and a lively trade in Hoodia on the Internet. Afrigetics obtains supplies of Hoodia from farmers who have been granted permission by South African nature conservation authorities to cultivate this protected species.

Two other herbs from Southern Africa that are growing in popularity abroad are Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum), traditionally used as a mood enhancer and now hailed by some as 'nature's prozac', and Buchu (Agathosma betulina), a shrub used by herbalists to treat urinary tract infections.

The growing demand for African herbs has created an incentive for Southern African farmers to conserve and cultivate indigenous plants. Health Synergetics is actively involved in helping them develop markets for their products. 'While we help our customers discover Africa's treasures, we seek to do business in a way that is good for the environment and the local economy. So when you next visit the Afrigetics web shop, treat yourself to a packet of Rooibos tea or a bottle of Sceletium. We will deliver it in less than four days.'

Thanks to the Internet, Africa's treasures are no longer so far away.

Steve Hurt ( steve@afrigetics.co.za ) is director of Health Synergetics CC. To find out more about the products, visit www.afrigetics.co.za.

For information about other South Africa based web shops that offer herbal products, visit www.ananzi.co.za/catalog/HealthandBeauty/HealthandMedical/Nutrition

1 Health and Wellness Trends Report 2005, National Marketing Institute, March 2005.

30 June 2005

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