Despite his job in the financial services industry in the north Nigerian city of Kanotwo years ago, Usman Ahmad began purchasing cheaper herbal remedies to treat his family’s ailments after rising inflation pushed modern drugs beyond his budget.
Africa’s most populous country is experiencing double-digit inflation, especially high food prices, and many Nigerians are looking for ways to cut basic costs.
Traditional herbal remedies have become a one-way street, even though the industry is not regulated by health authorities and medical experts often warn of the risk of false, even dangerous, remedies.
“My income can no longer support the increasing hospital costs,” Ahmad told AFP outside a spice kiosk that sells an anti-malaria brew in Kano.
An antimalarial mix cost Ahmad 200 naira (2.09 cents) compared to the 2,500 naira ($6) he would pay for hospital treatment.
Nigeria’s economy has been hit hard by falls in global oil prices and the pandemic, which reduced petroleum revenues, weakened the local naira and helped keep inflation around 17 percent.
– A fraction of the price –
Economic pressures from low oil prices plunged Nigeria into recession in 2016 and 2020, pushing another seven million into poverty in 2020 alone, according to the World Bank’s global poverty index.
Even before that, millions of Nigerians lived in poverty on less than a dollar a day.
Herbal medicines have an entrenched culture in Nigeria, especially in more traditional communities, but the medicines have become more popular in recent years, even among Western-educated Nigerians like Ahmad.
Grocery stores and itinerant salesmen promising a cure for all forms of illness, from the common flu to diseases such as cancer and diabetes, are common on the streets and in markets.
Herbal sellers advertise their concoctions from loudspeakers atop old cars, while others push strollers and carts filled with spice mixtures through the streets.
“Due to the economic situation, I have turned to herbs to treat ailments in my family,” Abubakar Hamisu told AFP outside a spice shop in the northern city of Katsina, a two-hour drive from Kano.
It only took “a fraction” of what he would spend in the hospital, the 43-year-old father of seven said while holding a plastic bag full of antimalarial herbs.
– Increasing sales –
Herbalists say sales have increased and demand has increased from cash-strapped customers.
“The number of customers has quadrupled as we help people from different social backgrounds every day,” said Abubakar Khalid, a herbalist in the Yakasai district of Kano.
Ibrahim Musa, a physician at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, Kano’s largest medical facility, blames the trend on inflation, with food costs absorbing revenue.
Nigerians usually pay for health care out of pocket, despite the rise in recent years of health insurance for those on regular incomes.
“A lot of people don’t have enough money to buy drugs,” says Musa, a hematologist.
Nigeria’s healthcare system is one of the worst in the world, ranked 163rd out of 191 according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Public health expenditures amount to 3.89 percent of Nigeria’s $495 billion GDP, compared to 8.25 percent in South Africa with a population of 59 million, less than a third that of Nigeria, according to World Bank figures.
According to the Nigeria Medical Association (MNA), Nigeria has only 40,000 doctors for its 210 million population, a ratio of two doctors for every 10,000 people. The WHO standard is one doctor for every 600.
– Counterfeiting and fraud –
Nigeria imports 70 percent of its pharmaceutical needs. But a huge amount of fake and substandard drugs are finding their way into the Nigerian market.
“People continue to lose faith in orthodox medicines,” Musa said. “As a result, they are turning to herbal preparations that are much cheaper and readily available.”
But the company has been infiltrated by quacks who make unreasonable claims of cures for a quick profit, herbal sellers say.
In 2017, Hajara Bashir’s husband died of internal bleeding after drinking a herbal concoction he bought from a itinerant salesman outside his home in Katsina.
“He stumbled into the house and lay on the floor vomiting blood. The bottle had no label, so we couldn’t trace the seller,” she said.
Last December, the drug and food watchdog NAFDAC warned Nigerians against using herbal concoctions because of poor storage that exposes the drugs to bacteria.
Adnan Mu’azzam Haido, a doctor in Kano, said a major drawback of herbal medicine is the trend to cure all ailments, as well as its claims to cure diseases considered incurable but manageable, such as AIDS, cancer and diabetes.
“People have lost faith in healthcare and we need to regain them,” Musa says.
“We can only do that if we strengthen the healthcare system through universal access, universal coverage and quality.”