11 May 2021 | Story Andre Damons | Photo Anja Aucamp
Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa is Professor and Director of Pharmacology at the University of the Free State (UFS) and the chairperson of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicines for COVID-19.

The Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) for Health in the Department of Pharmacology in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) has been awarded an annual Technology and Innovation Agency Platform (TIA) grant of R17 million for the next five years.

This research and teaching programme in the School of Clinical Medicine will now be rebranded and be known as the African Medicines Innovations and Technology Development Platform (AMITD), which will strive to respond to community health needs and address industry research challenges.

Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa, Professor and Director of Pharmacology, says the AMITD will aim to stimulate economic growth directly and indirectly by providing science-based solutions and developing technologies that utilise indigenous knowledge (IK) and South African iconic biodiversity to produce high-quality proprietary and commercial IKS/ African Traditional Medicine (ATM) products, focusing on priority diseases. 

Prof Matsabisa is also leading Africa’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic after being appointed chairperson of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Expert Advisory Committee on Traditional Medicines for COVID-19 last year.
“Through this platform, IKS will be in a position to increase the number of postgraduate students being trained and developed in the fields of IKS health and pharmacology, technicians and technologists, scientists, researchers, and communities nationally and across our borders.”

“We will work with IK communities of practice in the field of health and traditional medical knowledge, together with the traditional health practitioners (THPs) in South Africa, encouraging them to participate meaningfully in the formal economy of the country by utilising the knowledge of the rich South African biodiversity. This will be done through an inclusive model, which will significantly empower the involved communities to become full participants in the formal economy,” says Prof Matsabisa. 

AMITD will answer industry needs and questions through technology development 

According to Prof Matsabisa, AMITD will work with private pharmaceutical companies to address technological challenges regarding herbal or ATM products that need improvement, and even develop new products for the market. The main scope of the platform will be to conduct applied and need-driven IKS health research.

The AMITD is envisaged to be a unique platform in that it will include focused technology development, community and indigenous knowledge-holder participation, inclusive innovation, bioprocessing, early commercialisation, and support. The focus will be on inclusive development and holistic research of IK-based products across the value chains, i.e., research, development, and commercialisation.  

Prof Matsabisa says the awarding of the IKS platform will see the UFS IKS compete favourably with other institutions globally. The UFS has declared the IKS as its flagship initiative and would like to advance IK-based innovation by transforming informal sectors into formal secondary economies that will be translated into actual decent job creation. 
“In the longer term, the plan is to establish an AMIDT Institute, and to become the international IKS research hub. To continue maintaining this position as the preferred research institute for training, research, and technology development for industry, government, local communities, and forming partnerships with leading national and international institutions.” 

“The overall benefits will be skills development, job and wealth creation at community level, high-level training at higher-education level, and industrial and business developments around IKS/ATM production activities. The AMIDT will move the country from the current resource-based thinking to a more intensive knowledge-based thinking and development.  Abundance of natural resources means nothing to the country if those resources cannot add value and develop commodities for industry development and job creation, including social impacts,” says Prof Matsabisa. 

Why IKS TIA platform for UFS

The UFS is recognised as a national leader in pharmacology as well as research and development of IKS and traditional medicines.  The UFS has developed and built infrastructure in this field of scientific research, and has the best modern equipment for the training, teaching, and development of prototypes and products for commercialisation based on IKS.  Interdisciplinary and interfaculty research is undertaken in this study area, and we have an excellent track record of sound community engagement with relevant stakeholders. 

“UFS pharmacology research is also recognised internationally as the science force in South Africa and Africa on IKS and traditional medicines research.  We have hosted and continue to host international students and researchers in our facilities and laboratories, which meet international scientific research standards and pharmaceutical manufacturing standards,” says Prof Matsabisa.     
The appointment of Pharmacology IKS as platform will further strengthen our current local, regional, and internationally active research collaborations.  These collaborations exemplify the strength and potential that the AMIDT platform could have in Asia, Africa, the UK, the US, Latin America, and Europe. We will strive to establish a mutually beneficial partnership with relevant players in Australia to make this a truly global IKS platform/research institute. 

The short-term goals of the platform are to

• create internationally competitive, quality, safe, effective, and easy-to-use products from local, commercially cultivated medicinal plants that consumers and patients have confidence in;
• develop and pilot locally developed technologies to meet local pharmaceutical needs;  
• create SANAS-accredited, standardised research methodologies on plant extraction, research, and validation;
• host students, technicians, technologists, researchers, and scientists (from South Africa, Africa, and abroad) to undertake short-term and long-term collaborative research;
• market the value of IKS to a competitive local industry and establish an ATM-based pharmaceutical industry in South Africa; and
• grow the platform through employment of qualified and competent personnel.

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