Zainab Ujudad Shariff, a Pharmacist and Deputy Director in the Federal Ministry of Health ,is an expert on local medicinal plants. In this chat with ENE OSANG, the former MD of the Nigeria Medicinal Plant under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development stresses the need for full utilisation of medicinal herbs and other natural resources in Nigeria.
You are a trained pharmacist; how did you get into herbal medicine?
Yes, I am a pharmacist by profession and deputy director in the federal ministry of health. I was also the managing director of the Nigeria Medicinal Plant under the ministry of agriculture and I was into the commercialisation of medicinal plants. I have held many positions including former chairman, Nigerian Pharmaceutical Society, Abuja branch, for three years. Currently; I am the national chairperson of the National Association of Lady Pharmacist in Nigeria.
My story is philosophical, when I finished my secondary school and wanted to go to university, my very good friend wanted to study medicine but I didn’t because I don’t like seeing blood. So, we made inquiries and I decided to read chemistry so I would become a teacher but the registrar of my school saw my result and advised me to study pharmacy.
I asked what pharmacy was because it was the first time I heard the word, and he said drugs and I accepted immediately. I don’t regret studying pharmacy. I liked the course not knowing that I had an inheritance from my grandmother, who was into medicinal plants and used it to manage people especially those that have fertility issues and children.
In the course of my career that aspect of me came out and since then I have never turned back. I dream plants, I see plants and talk plants. I can formulate plants in the way they do art work, I can combine plants for a particular ailment in line with the saying: Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. I can formulate these plants to produce products that are supportive therapy either for diabetics or hypertension because it is in me and what I call natural immunity.
When something acquired and something natural is put side by side the natural instincts will surpass the acquired immunity but with the professors’ knowledge and natural instincts a super deeper result can be achieved.
Would you say Nigeria explores the potential of medicinal plants?
Nigeria is yet to explore the plants because we have refused to see the right direction, a country can only grow when you look inward. What God has given to you is what you will use to prosper.
Let me emphasise more on this; we have over 8,000 species of medicinal plants, and over 79 per cent hectares of arable land in this country but we have not utilised even 15 per cent of that land.
The world’s global market for medicinal plants generates billions of dollars and the figure keeps growing yet, Nigeria is not benefiting. We have arable land we can cultivate medicinal plants and have a great, vibrant, potential job creation there.
Job creation for women, youths and everybody, that alone signifies the importance of agriculture not only in the aspect of food sufficiency but agriculture in the area of producing raw materials for pharmaceutical products, agriculture in the area of promoting medicinal plants that can generate revenue for the country.
How do you think medicinal drugs can be better utilised in Nigeria?
Those of us who have the knowledge and believe in it should be given the opportunity and supported because if we think until the white man tells us this is the best drug then we don’t appreciate God. Let me come a bit religious; in Revelations 22:2 God said ‘In the midst of the street and on either side of the river was there a tree of life, which bore 12 manners of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of nations’. Or the holy Quoran which says ‘because of lack of knowledge you have been so perished’ if you look at that aspect in the olden days they used roots and herbs for healing and God also said once there is disease the remedy must come but man must seek to find and we are not seeking in our land rather we are waiting for whites.
If we look more we will see that there is a remedy for every disease that God has allowed to inflict humanity. Even the anti-biotics we take the whites did not get ready for it, it was discovered accidentally because God has put in them the knowledge so when the professors thinks it is their professorial knowledge that will heal man how many professors do we have in Nigeria and what have we discovered.
I want us to realise that with the professorship which is good and the people who are naturally gifted should come as a team and exhibit expertise, Nigeria will be great.
I want the authorities, minister of health to see into this because even the issue of bitter cola who said it can’t cure sickness because it has anti-viral properties and anti-microbial properties and anti-viral properties which means it can be used as raw material for drugs just like we have many other anti-viral plants.
What has the experience been and have there been challenges?
I tell you, my life has been full of challenges but I am the very first director in the federal ministry of health to be given a division to head, out of merit.
Again, as an assistant director I was appointed to head a new institution under the ministry of agriculture and I am the first pharmacist in Nigeria to go to ministry of agriculture out of my passion for natural plants cultivation.
I finished my tenure and I am back to the ministry of health which is my parent ministry as a deputy director and I am passionate about medicinal plants.
God has blessed me with knowledge that is not common; I am a happily married woman with five children even though with some challenges because I was taking care of the home front and office work.
I thank God for the opportunities I have been given in life and I love Nigeria so much that is why I say Africans must believe in Africa by talking Africa, practising and selling Africa, in line with being Nigeria and selling, believing in Nigeria and practising Nigerianism.
I want to leave a legacy whereby as a lady, for your beauty for instance you can use natural plants; for small ailments you can use what you have as kitchen spice like ginger, garlic to heal yourself and I will not rest until I educate Nigerians on the importance of these plants because that is what God has given us freely.
Do you think women mentor each other?
From the bottom of my heart I have truly realised that women are their own enemies because it has happened to me whereby I am working hard and expect fellow woman to support me but I was shocked to know that it is the woman who was causing problems for me because of envy.
We need to realise that as women if we don’t support women we will have serious problems because we say it but we don’t practice it, but I believe some women do a lot to support and I hope we will stop the envy, backbiting, gossiping so we can grow because God has given women many attributes so we need to support ourselves. God has given women spiritual leadership qualities even to lead the men.
What does the Association of Lady Pharmacists do?
Specifically, the association is an interest group that started in the late 80’s. We saw the need to support our parent organisation which is the pharmaceutical society of Nigeria achieve the mandate or facilitate certain mandate that has to do with health issues, drug production and whatever that has to do with drugs led to the setting up of the association by three individuals. We are almost 30 years of existence.
What are the association’s specific achievements?
Some progress has been made since its inception, firstly, the fact that the group was set up. The then late First Lady Mariam Babangida supported the lady pharmacists to set up project 91 to encourage Nigerian women cultivate Nigerian plants in different ways. For example, Kaduna has ginger and they told the women to cultivated ginger, while Lagos was chilli pepper, we identified all these plants because those crops can even be source of raw materials for pharmaceutical products.
We have also been able to sensitize women in the six geopolitical zones through seminars and workshops where we bring resource persons to sensitise people and I can tell you that they are improving.
In Delta and Edo states they have a garden in the name of late Dora Akunyili and they are cultivating medicinal plants. We, have also been able to support the building of a rehabilitation centre in Minna, Niger state and we hope to build more rehab centres for drug addicts because there are so many of them all over the country.
What is the association’s target?
There are no well-defined rehabilitation centres and we hope the association will support the relevant bodies, for example we want to see how we can collaborate with various women organisations to stimulate, create the awareness, invite school and give the topic for drug abuse because there are many addicts today including women.
We hope to collaborate with the first lady and government though we are not politicians but politicians and technocrats can combine with policies and make things better because they have the political will and we have the technical know-how.
When these two comes together it facilitates development and implementation of desired programmes and projects. We have had meetings with banks and they have programmes whereby they can support women with loans so that women can set up pharmacy shops, go into production and anything concerning drugs under the association of Lady Pharmacist and the bank is ready to support us and give us loans at a preferable and subsidised rate.
Drug abuse is a huge problem especially in the north where children are taking codeine, bennyline, snuff amongst other drugs. So, if we can catch them young and tell them the dangers of drug abuse it will be better for us all.
Do female pharmacists face any peculiar challenge?
There is the challenge of trying to get the ladies actively involved because some of them feel like ‘what will the association do for them’. But associations are not just created for nothing. Together you are stronger than a single individual, so I believe if we come together as a group we can fight the course of the girl-child.
I am appealing to lady pharmacists because we are over 7,000 and if we, in different state chapters, stand to do something even if it is drug awareness, a lot will be achieved.
What would say is responsible for recent increase in the rate of drug abuse youths and women?
The greatest factor that promotes drug abuse among youth is peer group influence. They are always curious and want to try everything and from trial they get hooked. Bennyline and codeine are drugs for cough but now even married women take it when they have problems with their husbands, and when you open their fridges you see it and they gurgle it like water, I think that it is a serious problem which must be stopped.
Internationally, there are organisations that have indicated interest to collaborate with us and we are trying to see how far we can go, and I know we will achieve a lot. We have been able to train some students to university level and in Benue the Lady Pharmacists have been able to support the girl child education. In very active states like Lagos and Port Harcourt the Lady Pharmacists do a lot of health programmes for the aged and youths and we could do better with support from government and relevant agencies.
Do you have any regrets?
If you have regrets and you believe in God, it can help you restructure, redefine and renew your ways. But whatever regrets one may have, God is in control.
What are your hobbies?
I like to go to the bush and see plants, look and talk to them. I love mixing herbs for people and sensitising them. I can mix from 10am to 6pm without getting tired.
Right now, I do local production and I meet experts who know the local names then I seek the scientific names and with my knowledge I have been doing well because I have gone to study and acquire more knowledge from China and Japan.
Nigeria may not have much technology but God has blessed us with natural things like tourism, agriculture, medicinal plants and so many others.
The Chinese were not so 50 years back but when they realised their potential they became a country to be reckoned with.
Do you think Nigeria can get to that level?
Yes, but with political will, believe in God, good leadership, good followership and determination we will get there.
What advice do you have for Nigerians especially women?
I say women be steadfast in all your dealings, be determined and work hard and with God on your side you will make it.
Be sincere and do not blackmail others to achieve your goals, follow your path, learn from those who had been on that path and God will bless you.