Poverty and disease gave birth to purpose and mission especially in my early life and career, producing within me the urgency and resilience to become an overcomer – Prof Chinsembu.  

DON: Prof Chinsembu honoured by former Namibian President and University of Namibia Chancellor Dr Hifikepunye Pohamba and First President Dr Sam Nujoma [middle].

NAIROBI, Kenya – According to Professor Kazhila Chinsembu, his life story is one of tragedy and triumph. His parents were resource-poor peasants that managed to eke out a living by farming vegetables. Then he was hit by childhood polio that left his right leg partially paralysed. Notwithstanding, he used the power of education to bring down the impervious walls of poverty and disease.

After graduating from the University of Zambia (UNZA) with merit, he was employed by the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). Later, he received a very competitive and prestigious scholarship to study Molecular Biology at the Free University of Brussels.

Upon graduation, he joined UNZA as a Lecturer. When conditions of service at UNZA begun to deteriorate, he left to join the University of Namibia (UNAM) where he has been working since 2002, rising through the ranks from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer to Associate Professor and finally to the zenith of his academic career, Full Professor of Molecular Biology and Drug Discovery.

Prof Chinsembu [Prof] recently held a candid conversation with Smart Africa Editor Elvis Mboya about his personal life, real value of education, his new book on medicinal plants, insights and solutions to HIV/AIDS, why he supports former Tanzania President John Pombe Magufuli’s persistence on use of African traditional herbs to curb COVID-19 pandemic against criticisms, and shares his solutions to Zambia’s cycle of challenges:

As a Full Professor of Molecular Biology and Drug Discovery, you have done an extensive research on medicinal plants, including authoring a 2016 book: Green Medicines: Pharmacy of Natural Products for HIV and Five AIDS-related Infections. Please, share with us a synopsis of your book and how effective has been both the message and practise?

Prof: The primary message in Green Medicines is that there are many indigenous medicinal plants that block HIV replication, and we can develop these into antiretroviral drugs. Secondly, leveraging the use of medicinal plants during HIV infection improves the body’s health status by circumventing attack from malaria, TB, oral diseases, skin diseases and STIs. For people living with HIV/AIDS, natural remedies build a protective fortress around the body, a fortress that keeps opportunistic infections at arm’s length. 

Sadly, in the management of HIV/AIDS, natural products have been misunderstood by patients, medical doctors and the general public.

So, the subtext of my book is to demystify the use of natural remedies, to bring to the fore hard scientific data that speak to the pharmacological efficacy and safety of natural products that inhibit HIV and AIDS-related infections such as skin, sexually transmitted, oral infections, TB and malaria.

My book provides a fresh quest to look at the critics of natural products in the eye, to tell them that the world has an incorrect view about the efficacy and safety of natural products for managing HIV/AIDS.

In a nutshell, the book is invaluable as it brings an utterly fresh opus of empirical evidence and perspective to help change the misplaced view that undermines the use of natural remedies in the management of HIV/AIDS.

COVID-19 should perhaps help us to decolonize the chemistry of indigenous medicinal plants, it should help us to give epistemological legitimacy to the importance of indigenous knowledge of African medicinal plants.

HARD WORK: Prof Chinsembu in his office at the University of Namibia [UNAM].

Your excellent work has also earned you the chairperson of the UNAM/NEPAD Steering committee on validation of traditional medicines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS opportunistic infections. How would you gauge the committee’s scorecard so far?

Prof: Through our collaborations with NEPAD Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBio), we have been doing bioprospecting and evaluation of indigenous medicinal plants for anti-HIV properties.

We have also evaluated indigenous medicinal plants for antimalarial functions. As you probably know, malaria is a very important illness during HIV infection.

Through this work, I have also successfully supervised and graduated doctoral students, as the main supervisor.

In the face of ‘dead medicines’ and the current challenges to the treatment of diseases, we can now reimagine a new future where indigenous African plants are the new frontier for more efficacious and low-cost herbal drugs.

We have created a strong bioprospecting pipeline from which local pharmaceutical companies can advance the discovery and repurposing of drugs from indigenous medicinal plants.

Since 22 per cent of Africa’s landmass is covered by forests, we are advancing the idea of Afrocentric drug discovery and development from African indigenous plants.

Many critics have decried that the pandemic has heavily strained Africa’s healthcare systems to an extent that other infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS that you chair its committee are overshadowed and partly ignored. How can this pertinent issue be resolved concurrently with the ongoing pandemic without necessarily overstretching the already weakening system?

Prof: This is an excellent question. But let me preface by saying that COVID-19 has just exposed what we have long-feared, that many countries in Africa have very fragile public healthcare delivery systems, out-dated clinical laboratory infrastructure, and inadequate home-grown biomedical research preparedness.

So, COVID-19 has just brought to the fore the African crisis of dependence, where HIV/AIDS management is left to the whims of imported drugs.

But we can kill two birds with one stone, and COVID-19 in Africa should become the new window of opportunity to develop novel drugs from indigenous African medicinal plants.

What we need in Africa is a drug discovery renaissance re-inspired by the potentials of the continent’s huge endowment of medicinal plants.

As a continent, we need to invest in multi-functional indigenous natural agents that inhibit both the replication of HIV and SARS-COV-2.

Some of the plants we have worked on have these broad spectrum properties, giving us the simultaneous potential to develop them into drugs for COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and cancer.

To answer your question, Africa should reset, change direction, and forge a new path of public health reforms. COVID-19 is the new turning point, the game-changer to deconstruct the African crisis characterised by dead medicines.

There were widespread criticisms when former Tanzanian President, the late John Pombe Magufuli [RIP] encouraged traditional herbal methods to treat COVID-19. As a green medicine Professor, away from theories, populism and conspiracies, what’s your scientific stand?

PUBLISHED: Prof Chinsembu’s book on green medicine.

Prof: Since I work on the intersections of indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and diseases, I will be very frank with you. But let me first refer you to my recent paper: Coronaviruses and nature’s pharmacy for the relief of coronavirus disease 2019, published last year in the renowned Springer journal, Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia, Brazilian Journal of Pharmacognosy, in English.

This paper provides a snapshot of medicinal plants that inhibit human coronavirus entry into cells, traditional herbs that block general replication, and natural products that impede specific chymotrypsin-like protease-mediated replication of SARS-COV-2.

Medicinal plants as remedies for human coronaviruses in China, Lebanon, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Africa are described in my paper.

Neem, turmeric, eucalyptus oil, garlic, cinnamon plant, and Ganoderma mushroom are being used to offset the effects of COVID-19 in many parts of the world.

Plant active compounds such as glycyrrhizin, iguesterin, resveratrol, homoharringtonine, tomentins A-E, sinigrin, silvestrol, and cinnamaldehyde have anti-COVID-19 actions. Due to current obstacles in the clinical management of COVID-19 in Africa, we are advocating for the use of indigenous natural medicines to roll-back the pandemic.

Of course, medicinal plants are not a silver-bullet solution to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Medicinal plants are not a substitute for the global push to develop pharmaceutical drugs and vaccines for COVID-19.

However, natural products are complementary and alternative medicines that increase the options available to COVID-19 patients especially those in low-income settings in Africa.

So, without being misunderstood, magufulification in the sense of steaming using indigenous plants should help us to create a self-understanding of the current lack of effective synthetic drugs for COVID-19.

Magufulification should also help to deconstruct our health beliefs, self-medication choices, and self-efficacy practices.

The idea is that Africans should look inwards, to themselves, in order to manage COVID-19 in a self-reliant manner.

Magufuli was a good student of Nyerere, the founder of the ideology of Ujamaa, an ideology that espoused self-reliance.

Also, bear in mind that 75 per cent of all the approved anti-infective drugs are derived from medicinal plants.

Data on anti-human coronavirus inhibitors from medicinal plants are no longer anecdotal, and natural products form a repertoire of promising leads that may be repurposed into novel drugs, nutraceuticals and supplements for COVID-19.

I have always said if there is a long-term remedy for COVID-19, it must lie in Mother Nature’s pharmacy of SARS-CoV-2 inhibitors and immunomodulators from indigenous medicinal plants.

As COVID-19 reformats the classical norms of pharmaceutical and clinical interventions, the pandemic should serve as a poignant reminder that repurposing of indigenous African medicinal plants to treat COVID-19 should become part of the new African health vernacular.

This is the prism through which I would like to understand former Tanzanian President, the late John Pombe Magufuli. COVID-19 should perhaps help us to decolonize the chemistry of indigenous medicinal plants, it should help us to give epistemological legitimacy to the importance of indigenous knowledge of African medicinal plants.

I was very lucky to have great mentors that precast my early scientific mind, notably [Kenya’s] Prof Suleiman Okech who was my first mentor at ICIPE, Prof Thomas Odhiambo, the founder of ICIPE, and Prof Lameck Goma, the first Zambian Vice-Chancellor of UNZA.

FAMILY FIRST: Prof Chinsembu with his wife Grace.

Your work has further earned you the 2012 UNAM meritorious award for best academic staff member and ResearchGate in 2016 ranked you as the most cited researcher in Namibia. What does it take to reach that academic height?

Prof: I get a lot of support from my family, my wife Grace and daughters Wana and Lusa. They encourage me a lot, and my promotion to the rank of Full Professor, the highest academic rank in our university, is a function of their support and love. They believe in me, in my efforts.

Academic life is very lonely, writing papers is lonely. To rise from the rank of Lecturer to the final rank of Full Professor requires devotion; it requires a lot of mental fermentation.

You need the staying power, and I get that from my family. So, hard work, one must burn the candle at both ends; doing research and writing scientific papers in internationally-recognized peer-reviewed journals. My h-index is now 19, my i10- index is 24, the academic optics look good.

That being said, I was very lucky to have great mentors that precast my early scientific mind, notably Professor Suleiman Okech who was my first mentor at ICIPE [Kenya].

I was also inspired by Professor Thomas Odhiambo, the founder of ICIPE, and Professor Lameck Goma, the first Zambian Vice-Chancellor of UNZA.

You are a Zambian born expatriate living and working in Namibia for many years now. Back in Zambia, you were once quoted by a local newspaper disputing the word ‘brain drain’, instead you coined it – ‘brain circulation’. Please explain.

Prof: Let me answer it this way. Kofi Annan was not President of Ghana, but he made enormous contributions to humanity, his service was to the world as much as it was to Ghana. This is not to downplay the fact that the tragedy of Africa is that many of her best brains are not working in Africa.

But Zambia and Namibia are neighbours, I am just in the hood, so to speak. I want to believe that one day I will return to Zambia and make a contribution, if and when they decide to be inclusive of highly qualified people from my region and tribe, like myself.

For now, I am part of the Zambian academic diaspora, and we thank Namibia for hosting us.

In your opinion, how effective is your country Zambia in handling the pandemic compared to its SADC neighbours, including your host country Namibia?

Prof: Since December 2020, both countries have experienced downward trends in the number of cases. In Namibia, a strong government national response including the daily curfew has helped lower infections.

In Zambia, good management of COVID-19 patients by hardworking Zambian doctors has helped lower mortality, this after the dismissal of the Minister of Health.

Given the circumstances, our governments have been quite efficient in controlling the pandemic. I am now being patriotic.

Last year, you had planned to go back home to contest for a political seat during this year’s general elections to be held on 12 August 2021. Why and what changed and are you still harbouring such ambitions in future?

Prof: Your question is both simple and complex, because the significance to return, to me, is emotional as much as political.

Yes, I had planned to return to my hometown, Zambezi District, in Zambia, to contest elections as a member of parliament.

Up to now, I still argue that Zambezi District is underdeveloped because of mediocre leadership, a leadership with pale vision.

I want to become the active ingredient and catalyst for progress, and my rare skills are sine qua non of the urgent quest for economic development in Zambezi, Zambia.

As a horizontal and vertical thinker, I am the missing link.

On the other hand, there is voter’s visceral fear of change, and joining politics, especially in Zambia, can be a poisoned chalice, so my family was against the idea.

When my promotion to Full Professor was announced, it made my plans to return somewhat remote.

The persuasion for politics is based on my missionary zeal to serve the people back home, and my interest in being a member of parliament should be seen as part of the wider rethink to retool and re-attach special full professorial merit to national leadership.

My skills portfolio is of a higher order, I want to change the jaundiced view that our people have about political leadership.

Zambia is a potentially rich country with abundant natural resources such as land, water, minerals, forests and their biodiversity.

RICH COUNTRY: An aerial view of a Zambian mineral site. Image: Zambia Chamber of mines.

Critics blame African electorates for their poor choice when electing their representatives. Do you think the answer to problems facing Zambia, as in many countries in Africa, can be solved better by educated elite as opposed to current politicians?

Prof: In my opinion, the main problem in Zambia as in many African countries is regional and tribal voting.

Since voters rarely vote for merit, many highly qualified people like myself find it very difficult to enter politics.

Of course, educated people are better placed for leadership, and Zambia has now set Grade 12 as the minimum qualification for elections.

May be the minimum should now be a university degree, from a recognised university, not these corner-shop universities.

Political stability, taxes and ease of starting and doing business are some of the enabling environments that Zambia continues to work on to attract domestic and foreign investments. In your view, what are the existing impediments and how best can they be resolved to grow the economy in tandem with Covid-19 realities?

Prof: Zambia is facing a debt problem. Manufacturing is down. Imports are more than exports– the country is one big supermarket. Inflation is rising.

Youth unemployment is high. Cost of living is high. Spending on education and health is shrinking.

Poverty and hunger now characterise most households, the population is in despair. These are the major socioeconomic challenges facing Zambia today.

Zambia is a potentially rich country with abundant natural resources such as land, water, minerals, forests and their biodiversity. 

Zambia has a mixed economy, but the economy is now mixed up. Incoherence in economic policy especially in the mining sector has created uncertainty among foreign investors.

On top of this, graft is rife, and the rule of law is under threat due to violent political party vigilantes.

Given this scenario, the economy is now under severe strain; in fact the economy was already strained even before COVID-19. A pro-poor economic development strategy is urgently needed.

You must be a role model to many, both in Zambia, Namibia, and Africa. How do you shoulder such an immense responsibility? 

Prof: I strive to remain simple, to focus on service before self. At the same time, I submit to Chinua Achebe when he says a man who pays respect to the great paves the way for his own greatness. [Laughs].

You seem to play by the rule: work hard, play hard. Professor, what do you love doing the most during your free time and outside work? 

Prof: I am of sober character, no alcohol. I love drinking tea, coffee, reading political and self-improvement books, going for holidays with my family.

My favourite holiday destinations are Cape Town [South Africa] and Swakopmund [Namibia]. I do not like camping, because growing up in the village, my early life was all about camping, sleeping on the floor, and so on and so forth.

So I now love hotel holidays, beach hotels and their nice food, especially sea food.  A bit of social mobility, if you want to say so.

PAYING RESPECT TO THE GREATS: Prof Chinsembu next to the burst of Nobel Peace Prize winner
Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town, South Africa.

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