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Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy (TCM) in Africa: Opportunities and Challenges
2012/05/18

(This article is reproduced from China TCM website: http://zy.china.com.cn)

 

In March 2012, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies (WFCMS), in conjunction with the University of the Western Cape, South Africa and the South Africa Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association, held the first China-Africa International Cooperation and Development Forum on Traditional Chinese Medicineand Pharmacy ( "Africa Forum on TCM") in Cape Town, South Africa. Nearly 300 TCM experts, scholars, and entrepreneurs from 11 countries and regions participated in this forum. This was the largest TCM forum ever held on the African continent to date. The outputs of and expert opinions rendered on the forum can serve as lessons for China's TCM businesses wishing to enter into Africa and other countries in the world.

 

Herbal Medicine Wins Recognition in Africa

 

Africa has a tradition of using herbal medicine. Local herbalists are called the "Sangoma". It is for this reason that Africans recognize and accept traditional Chinese medicine more readily. This, coupled with Qigong, martial art and other elements of Chinese culture which are already deeply-rooted in the minds of African people, can lead traditional Chinese medicine to successfully access the black Africa community and create a huge TCM market in African countries. Traditional Chinese medicine has a good preventive effect for high-prevalence diseases in Africa including cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. This was straightforwardly pointed out when the Minister of Health of the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, said that the main reason for him to attend the above-mentioned forum was to strengthen cooperation in respect of the TCM intervention treatment of diabetes.

 

Since 1960, China has continuously sent medical teams to Africa and made contributions to the improvement of local health conditions in African countries. This has in turn led the African people to understand the good efficacy of traditional Chinese medicine. Currently, the number of students coming from numerous African countries and regions to study traditional Chinese medicine in China exceeds 1000 and some of them have been conferred master's degrees. The TCM education has also opened up traditional Chinese medicine's access to Africa.

 

In respect of traditional Chinese pharmaceutical promotion on overseas markets, the Tasly Group has established branches in South Africa, and the Lanzhou Foci Pharmaceutical Company as well as Chinese TCM practitioners in South Africa have had many TCM varieties registered in South Africa for the TCM trade. According to statistics, in 2007, China's pharmaceutical exports to South Africa, Morocco, Benin and Nigeria increased to US$1 million in value, and to 14 other African countries in the same year has increased to US$ 100,000 in value.

 

South Africa is one of the countries on the African continent where the TCM market is comparatively well-developed. The mode of TCM market development in South Africa can serve as reference when considering exploring the TCM market in other African countries and the world at large. The development of the TCM market in South Africa began with the initial use of the acupuncture therapy in the country nearly 30 years ago, especially after the end of apartheid in 1994 when the South African government adopted a relatively open policy on herbal medicine regulation including Chinese herbal medicine, and thereby provided opportunities for introducing TCM businesses into the market.

 

In 2000, the South African government went through the legislative process to recognize the legality of supplementary medicine including acupuncture. From February to August 2002, the Government of South Africa required that all herbal products be lawfully declared and registered before entering the South African market. Some Chinese and local South-African pharmaceutical businesses took this opportunity to have successfully registered a number of varieties of traditional Chinese pharmaceuticals and drugs including the Essential Balm, Ren Dan, safflower oil, Florida water, Liushen pills and other products which have by then already established good reputation in African countries. In the last 10 years, the Yunnan Baiyao, compound danshen dripping pills (CSDP) and a number of traditional Chinese pharmaceutical products have also got settled down in South Africa. The legal recognition of the Chinese acupuncture in South Africa in 2003 led the development of the TCM market in the country further onto the legalization track. Since then, the clinical application and trade of Chinese herbal medicine began entering a phase of rapid development. In 2011, TCM was officially incorporated into the health care system of South Africa.

 

Ibrahim Mahmoud, President of the South African Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association, pointed out at the forum that traditional Chinese medicine has a promising prospect for development. He believed that through joint efforts of the Chinese and African peoples, more Africans will understand, recognize and accept Chinese medicine. He also added, "To allow traditional Chinese medicine to flourish in South Africa and the Africa continent as a whole is our objective."

 

While traditional Chinese medicine in Africa has a good opportunity for developing, it also faces many challenges. The main challenges facing China's TCM businesses wishing to go global are the language barrier, uncertain therapeutic efficacy, and lack of coordinated marketing strategies. This is how Mr. Zhang Yi, Vice President of the South African Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association and Chairman of Chinese Herbal Medicine Company in South Africa, summarized his 18-year experience of developing the TCM market in Africa.

 

Language skill is an important issue that must be addressed if the TCM businesses intend to go global. Some countriesset up harsh language proficiency requirements for the registration of TCM practitioners. Moreover, high foreign language proficiency would help TCM practitioners to communicate with the patients, build their confidence, better understand their conditions, propose treatment options, and improve therapeutic effect. To rely mainly on the assistance of translators is not the way to address the issue in the long term. TCM education in China must attach importance to improving students' foreign language proficiency, aiming to train a new generation of TCM professionals who have high-level foreign language skills and promote the development of traditional Chinese medicine internationally.

 

Good efficacy is the fundamental assurance of the viability and development of TCM businesses on overseas markets. Without the capability of providing sufficient therapeutic benefits, overseas TCM practitioners would not be able to survive in the long run. TCM practitioners must demonstrate trustworthy medical skills, develop their special clinic expertise for treating certain diseases, and build up their credibility and health care business brand names in order to enhance theirviability in the process of market competition and development.

 

Marketing is an important approach for China's TCM businesses to seek continuous development and enhancement of their business brand names on overseas medical markets. As a saying goes, "Good wine needs bush, also." Being unfamiliar with the local market conditions, China's TCM practitioners in foreign countries would encounter difficulties in opening up the market if not equipped with adequate marketing skills. TCM practitioners need to note that their marketing strategies should be developed subject to the local customs, culture and values. For example, owing to South Africans' strong consciousness in animal protection, especially the white communities, many South African locals refuse to take herbal medicine containing animal ingredients. TCM practitioners therefore need to advocate the use of authentic herbal medicine and be opposed to and limit the use of animal ingredients. Such an approach is more compatible with the values of animal-friendly people, and is of significant importance for improving the reputation of traditional Chinese medicine.

 

Also, we need to attach importance to strengthening brand-building efforts for the Chinese pharmaceutical businesses. For example, authentic ingredients should be an important element of the brand-building strategy of China's TCM industry. To insist on the use of authentic ingredients helps promote the overseas sales of traditional Chinese pharmaceuticalproducts. However, to build a Chinese pharmaceutical product brand namerequires joint efforts of the whole industry. Zhang Yi revealed that the previously prestigious Ningxia wolfberry which has swept South Africa's health food market in the 2009-2010 period was subsequently negatively affected by false advertising and price wars over the past two years. Low-quality wolfberry varieties of different origin subsequently offered by some TCM practitioners or pharmaceutical distributors in South Africa caused confusion among local consumers. The resultant lack of trust in Chinese pharmaceutical products was very detrimental to the overall interests of China's TCM industry.

 

Zhang Yi believes that the patented traditional Chinese medicine products have produced good therapeutic benefits to consumers in South Africa. TCM practitioners and Chinese herbal medicine traders should follow the market rules rather than engaging in vicious competition by going into price wars or speculations. The whole industry needs to make coordinated efforts to preserve its brand image and ensure orderly operation so as to promote the healthy development of the TCM businesses in the world.

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