Traditional Chinese medicine provides China a surprisingly robust soft power tool in Africa, as Beijing increasingly exports medical expertise while also increasingly sourcing ingredients from Africa to meet domestic demand.
While China’s presence and influence in Africa is well documented – especially regarding resource extraction – another element is increasingly becoming an important economic and political tool: traditional Chinese medicine. Chinese involvement in Africa has long included a prominent medical presence, with Beijing supporting medical efforts on the continent for decades. As China’s export capacity increased in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Beijing began to increasingly augment its efforts in Africa with the promotion of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
The inaugural China-Africa Forum on Traditional Medicine was held in Beijing in 2000, with 21 African health ministers in attendance. This push coincided with efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO), which earmarked traditional medicine a policy priority for Africa in 2001. That same year the African Union declared 2001-2010 to be the ‘Decade of African Traditional Medicine’. This supranational focus aided Chinese efforts in promoting TCM in Africa, drawing on the parallels between African and Chinese medical practices.
Traditional Chinese medicine a major growth market
In 2003, vice minister of commerce, Wei Jianguo argued that “China and Africa should take advantage of the continent’s long history of applying traditional medicines and China’s established theories and mature techniques in traditional Chinese medicine [to] enhance bilateral economic and technological exchange and mutually beneficial cooperation.” This sentiment was echoed by Koukouvi Apelete, chairman of the Togolese Association of Traditional Medicine Practitioners, in February 2017: “collaboration between traditional Chinese medicine and African traditional medicine practitioners is possible and will profit both sides. Both medicines are complementary.”
Since then the global herbal medicine market has grown to $60 billion, with Africa becoming the largest medicine export market for China in 2012. This figure is in addition to the domestic Chinese traditional medicine market, which accounts for 22.4% of the national pharmaceutical industry, and one third of China’s gross medicine production. Despite rising incomes and increased access to western medicine, China’s growing middle class still prefers to consume TCM products: China’s domestic TCM market has seen 20% growth for the past five years and now stands at $114.2 billion.
With over a million Chinese expats in Africa, the number of TCM practitioners there is also increasing, serving both Chinese and local clientele. TCM often fills coverage gaps in African healthcare systems, as well as providing cheaper alternatives to government or private western medicine clinics. Financial restraints, existing traditional medicine usage and suspicions about the quality of medicine and care in mainstream facilities provides a ready potential consumer base for TCM.
Dr. Ebrahim Sanba, former WHO Regional Director for Africa noted that “for more than 80% of Africans, traditional medicine is the first or only resort. There is clinical evidence which indicates that traditional medicines are effective for the treatment and/or management of some health conditions such as malaria, sickle cell anemia, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.” Indeed, Tu Youyou won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine for her discovery of the antimalarial agent artemisinim thanks to her work with traditional Chinese medicine. This discovery has become the posterchild for the benefits of TCM, and one that particularly resonates in Africa, where as much as 1.5% of GDP is lost due to the disease in high risk countries.
To this end, China is pushing TCM as a key pillar of its new innovation driven growth model as it transitions from a manufacturing based economy. A key element in this effort is promoting TCM in Africa, both as an effective soft power tool and expanding export market. This engagement is seen in Malawi and China’s April 18th memorandum of understanding to draft a national policy for traditional medicine accreditation, and develop traditional medicine programs at the Chinese-built Malawi University of Science and Technology. The focus will be on eliminating malaria in Malawi. More recently, Beijing organized the China-Africa Malaria Symposium on April 21st, where Fouad Mohadji, former Comoros vice president stated that “this continent should adopt alternative therapies from China that are cheaper, yet have proved to be effective in treating malaria.”