Why Traditional Chinese Medicine is China’s Fastest-growing Export to Africa?

China is Africa’s single largest business partner, with growing bilateral trade volume every year. On one hand, the value of Chinese extraction in Africa has been heavily documented. Moreover, Chinese medicine seems to take over health centers in Africa. The amount of Chinese medicine in pharmacies across African cities is skyrocketing each year.

In 2018 alone, the number of medicinal imports from China into Africa was worth a staggering $2 billion. In fact, so much is the amount of medicine coming into Africa from China, that the value perhaps, can be attributed to the presence of over 1 million Chinese citizens, working as expatriates or investors in Africa. Or perhaps, it is a sign of Africa’s adaptations of facets of Chinese-based technology, and the penchant for cheaper, quality health products which China seems to have in abundance.

Anyang Nyong’o, Kenya’s former Minister of health, and now a Governor, contends that Africa is literally riding on Chinese medicine. He says too, that Chinese medicine is not just about the products themselves. In his perspective, the “most worthy part of Chinese health exports to Africa is the personnel, and to some extent, the Traditional Chinese Medicine” and quickly adds “Products from Chinese Pharmaceutical companies” to the list.

The Price of Pharmaceutical products from China

Maintaining the health of a population of 1.25 billion is an uphill task, especially when some parts of the continent remain unconnected to the grid. The point of concern too is the fact that the population growth rate in Africa is by far the largest in the world.

In 2012, China took the title in the race to export the largest amount of medicine to Africa, with the USA coming in way behind. The trade volume has never gone back since. As of 2018, China remains the single largest exporter of medicine to the whole of Africa, and the biggest provider of health aid to Africa too.

The main reason why Chinese medicine resonates with African countries rests in their availability, and the price the medicine comes at. Providing affordable healthcare remains one of the biggest obstacles to governments in Africa. Health in Africa is an expensive affair, accounting for an average of 20 percent of most government budgets. Yet, even with the amounts given to the health sector, the services and medicine provided are never enough.

Chinese Health Personnel and training for medical Students in Africa

Chinese health personnel is not new to Africa. So old is this relationship that when Algeria gained independence in 1963, China sent 100 doctors to help build up its fragile health sector. The number has kept growing ever since.

China has sent doctors to help in practically every major epidemic that occurred anywhere in the continent. This is done through small teams known as CMTs that are deployed to countries when the need arises. Since 1963, the number of health practitioners sent by China to Africa is at least 40,000.

Alousi Ndiaye, a Malian citizen who works at a Chinese medicine shop calls the presence of Chinese doctors in the country “a revolution of sorts.” In retrospect, Mali accounts for the largest number of Chinese medical aid, and the largest number of Chinese doctors in any country in Africa. The number of practicing Chinese doctors in the country is at least 1000, according to Ndiaye. On request, the Malian health ministry easily agrees to this estimation and says that “China has been of immense help in the development of the country’s fragile health system that has been plagued by Ebola recently.

Dr. Wang Weimin, a cardiologist at one of Nairobi’s top hospitals has seen it all. He is a Chinese citizen himself. The first time he came to Africa, he had been sent to Zambia to perform check-ups and other medical procedures on patients at the Levy Mwanawasa hospital in Zambia. He seems to have found a footing in African health. As a cardiologist, he says “just like his country China, he is happy to be part of the change in the health sector in Africa.”

However, the effect of the presence of Chinese health professionals is not in their immediate presence. Anyang’ Nyong’o, the former health minister who readily offered his knowledge for this article says “the amount of knowledge that China has imparted on African health professionals is the best form of aid that any African country could ask for.

The silent export: Traditional Medicine

The Sarit Center is one of Nairobi’s iconic malls. It is situated in the West of the City’s CBD, a part of town that is constantly growing. Just opposite this mall, I was informed of the presence of a Chinese clinic, run by a doctor who boasts of many accolades in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The clinic is just among one of many in Africa. In Nairobi alone, registration statistics show that there are 15 such registered clinics, all boasting of “ Traditional Chinese Healing”.

While seeking perspective for this article, I paid a visit to the clinic near the Sarit Center, first to see what traditional Chinese healing involves, and talk with Dr. Zhao Shi, the proprietor of the clinic and “traditional doctor” of the clinic.

First, I am amazed at the number of clients she has. Her client list boasts of at least 200 new patients a month. On the waiting list for the day are 15 people, predominantly coming from the middle class and the upper middle class of the city. While a large chunk of the clients comprises Chinese citizens working in Africa, it is still worthy to note that she gets a sizable chunk of locals visiting her clinic.

She tells me she runs two clinics, the one we are seated in, and another one in Muthaiga, a community that hosts the rich, upper-class, bourgeois in Kenya’s society. That seems incredulous, but we pay a visit to the second clinic which also acts as her headquarters during the day.

Dr. Zhao says Traditional Chinese Medicine has an increasingly growing popularity in Africa’s middle-and-upper classes. In fact, so good is the foothold that Tu Youyou, a TCM practitioner and researcher won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for her efforts towards discovering an Antimalarial agent known as artemin.

The growth of TCM in Africa has informed two moves by Chinese-based companies specializing in the medicine used in the procedures. One, China’s largest producer of TCM products has set up shop in Johannesburg, South Africa. Two, a few countries, key among them Tunisia have adopted TCM into their basic health systems, even going forward to set up legislation to facilitate the same.

What informs this growth?

Zhao has a theory. She thinks Traditional Chinese Medicine is a replica of traditional African healing. In her opinion, the use of traditional methods, some which have survived millennia, is healthy for human beings. It is perhaps better than modern medicine because modern medicine seems to come with a raft of side-effects.

In the process of treatment, she uses products available in the natural environment. Yes, most of her medicinal products are flown 6000 miles from China, but they are not manufactured. They are collected from nature.

She says that she comes from a line of healers, spawning almost five generations. Her grandfather wrote the handwritten books in the late 1960s, which she occasionally reads from when she wants something to refer to.

While I am seated in the clinic, I have a chat with one of her clients, a woman, who did not want to be named, on how she finds Traditional Chinese medicine. She says that acupuncture, perhaps the best-known form of TCM practice world over, prescribed together with other Chinese ointments by Zhao, relieved her of hip pains she had sustained after a road accident. Just to prove this, she shows me photos of her using crutches to walk, only two years ago.

On the upper floor of her clinic, there are a good number of people doing Tai Chi, the Chinese meditation movements. To my surprise, this also is part of the therapy given to her patients, and the number of Tai Chi subscribers keeps increasing too. Clients to such TCM clinics generally get a dose of everything. There is tea for the kidneys, acupuncture for body pains and other illnesses, creams, and ointments for aches and a multitude of other drugs.

Anyang Nyong’o says “the dragon will continue to heal in African hospitals.” His statements echo closely, what China’s president Xi Jinping stated at the last China-Africa conference held in Ethiopia. “China’s will continue exporting health to Africa, so long as Africa needs it.”

Featured photo credit to xinhuanet.com