Table of Contents


See also the “Essential oils” and the “Indigenous medicinal plants” chapters


1. Overview

  • Herbs and spices are used for enriching what we eat and for delighting the tongue. It is the seasoning and flavouring of food brings out all the variety and tapestry of regions, nations, continents.
  • The increasing demand in developed countries for natural flavour offers tremendous potential for spice crops as sources of natural flavours. Spices include pepper, ginger, cinnamon, clove, paprika and nutmeg – to name only a few.
  • Herbs and spices are used fresh, dry and in blends in preparation of food and beverages. Because of the variety that exists, a farmer needs to do good market research to decide which crop to grow.
  • Herbs are also used to treat illnesses. They are used by phytotherapists (a person who practices herbal medicine) and homoeopaths, to treat a wide range of health problems.
  • The processing end of herbs and many spices is essential oils (see separate chapter). In addition to flavouring and pharmaceutical uses, essential oils also play a role in personal care items (cosmetics, toothpaste, perfume) and industrial purposes (washing powder, polish, paints). New applications in agriculture include being used as organic pesticides and in veterinary use for insect repellents and safer dips for fleas and ticks.
Sources: Southern African Essential Oil Producers Association (SAEOPA) and 


2. International business environment

Africa’s low per capita incomes, especially among rural populations, are directly linked to the problems of poverty and hunger. Thus, agriculture is – or could be – a critical engine of economic growth. However, small-scale producers in mainstream agriculture face multiple barriers: declining prices for traditional crops, lack of access to capital, transport, market access, and the market dominance of large commercial enterprises, among others.

Alternative crops, in the form of natural plants, are far better suited to the creation of viable agribusinesses in rural communities. First, indigenous African plants occur naturally and so are relatively easy to cultivate commercially. Second, natural plant production is labour intensive rather than capital intensive, and so minimises capital investment while at the same time maximising job-creation potential. Third, African communities have extensive knowledge of indigenous plants, creating a natural competitive advantage in this sector.

Favourable market conditions in the natural plant products sector also support the involvement of small-scale suppliers. The global nutraceutical market alone is estimated to be worth $60 billion annually in sales of dietary and meal supplements, as well as specialty products. There is also increasing demand for organic and natural products such as herbal teas, essential oils, herbs and spices, phytomedicines and phytocosmetics. This growth has been supported by a global swing away from synthetic products to those that are natural, healthy, sustainably produced and fairly traded.

Africa has only just started to tap the virtually unlimited economic potential of its natural botanical heritage. To reap the full benefit, much more has to be done to commercialise crops, to increase value-addition on African soil, and to capitalise on new market development opportunities. To introduce these crops into the main market stream will be a major challenge, but can be done with support, training and funding.

Some international websites