Dorcas Lekganyane’s work focuses on studying the role, application, and trade of traditional medicinal plants in Southern Africa.
Her project is in alignment with the World Health Organization Regional Committee for Africa’s call to develop herbal pharmacopeias and to develop and apply scientific methods to prove the safety and efficacy of medicinal plant products.
African traditional medicine is thought to be the oldest and most varied of all healing practices. Unfortunately, it has been poorly documented and remains so to date. Access to Western medicinal resources remains limited throughout Africa due to a lack of infrastructure and accessibility to rural communities.
Traditional medicine, therefore, remains a basic resource for curbing an assortment of health care issues for Africans. Indigenous plants are the primary source of traditional medicine so preserving them becomes imperative.
The novelty of Dorcas’ research has won her 12 prestigious awards since the project began in 2015. In 2015 She was awarded the ‘Office of Research Grand Prize’ for the best research work out of 500 international delegates at the International Barcode of Life conference in Canada.
In 2017, she was named the ‘Best Young Scientist Award’ by the South African Association of Botanists (SAAB) and the Department of Science and Technology granted her a ‘Woman In Science Award (WISA)’.
She believes a healer is someone who has an in-depth understanding and knowledge of their environment and its basic needs. Healers are driven by a burning desire to find lasting solutions to challenges and to bring about change harmoniously.
Healing falls into three categories: physical, mental and spiritual health, each with its own unique complexities and art form. Her work addresses all three and can be used to understand the science behind healing.
The indigenous knowledge narrated in the tales she was told when she was a child sparked her curiosity initially. In high school, she shone in science and was constantly inspired to create and innovate. She won medals at Eskom Science Expo competitions and was the top science student in grades 11 and 12.
She studied science at university and in her honours year she began seeking for something original that stood out from normal science experiments. She was drawn to topics that resonated with her childhood memories and once she learnt how to balance science and indigenous knowledge, she realised she had found her passion.
The idea for her post-graduate project was sparked by the experience of walking through a muthi market in 2014. She realised that there was untapped knowledge in this area that was being disregarded because of the stereotypes and social stigmas around the use of ‘muthi’.
Scientifically proving the medicinal effect of plants used by traditional healers and removing stigmas has become her priority. Her teachers were the traders and healers at the markets. She found that people are willing to listen and want to learn more about the mysteries of African medicine.
The term ‘muthi’ is often associated with some kind of witchcraft or sorcery. There is not enough documentation or open resource information to effectively study traditional medicine without engaging healers. Her greatest challenge has been her greatest victory: debunking the mystery around muthi and understanding – from a scientific point of view – the importance of specific plants.
Dorcas has found that her work is evolving from the curiosity of what plants are used for traditional medicine to the effects of consuming these plants. She is finding out how traditional healers interact with their food. What do they eat, and how. This is an opportunity to explore African’s culinary tastes, while finding new medicines. It is the epitome of nutritious eating
She is working with the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Traditional Health Council to create an awareness about the use our indigenous plants for medicine. This project has great socio-economic impact and the potential to discover new plant species as well as new medicine.