The utilization of medicinal plants by industry

The British colonization of Malaya in the late nineteenth century saw a new stage in the use of Western (modern) medication as the modern medication system was established in government administration. Hospitals and clinics were built in both towns and villages. This resulted in a gradual decline in the use of traditional medicine, which remained popular among some elders and was used in certain health care aspects such as pregnancy, after childbirth, and in general health improvement.

This development did not result in the demise of traditional medication. Despite the popular use of modern medication, it was found that modern drugs are not the answer to all illnesses. Hence, after independence (1957) and the formation of Malaysia (1963), the Malaysian population re-examined the use of modern and traditional medicine. Thus, there has been resurgence in the wider use of traditional medication in primary health care, especially since the 1980s.

This phenomenon subsequently led to the growth of traditional medicine companies in Malaysia. In the meantime, a new approach was adopted in the production and marketing of traditional medicine products. This attracted more interest in using the products. With the modern approach of packaging into capsules, together with government control (the new move to register traditional medicinal products with the Ministry of Health), access to traditional medicine became more readily available. Most importantly, this inspired more confidence in users in the quality, safety and efficacy of the products. Furthermore, the medicinal plant products are believed to have no negative side effects on the human body. The overall consequence is the conspicuous increase in the number of registered traditional medicine companies. In 2006, there were 160 registered traditional medicine GMP manufacturers in Malaysia. This growth also indicates the number of wholesalers dealing with traditional medicine, constituting some103 companies and 107 importing companies.  As shown in Table 1,there was a total of 370 registered traditional medicine companies for  2006

Table 11. The total number of companies registered under traditional medicine categories for year 2006

Company Category

Number of traditional medicine companies registered

GMP Manufacturer








Source: NPCB, 2006

The role of the Malaysian government in encouraging and promoting the growth of the  traditional medicinal industry must be given credit. Government encouragement in developing Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and Good Storage Practice (GSP) among small- and medium-scale manufacturers of traditional medicine is a good sign for the industry. It is also noted that Malaysia’s implementation of GMP for the pharmaceutical industry has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) (Anon, 1996c). The conferring of GMP certificate on traditional medicine product manufacturers should increase the acceptance of the products on the international market and will indirectly boost the export value of traditional Malaysian medicine products as a whole. The GSP stresses the need for proper storage facilities with appropriate temperature control rooms conducive to maximizing the stored drugs’ life span, documentation of drugs and distribution. In 2006, the Drug Control Authority (DCA) and the National Pharmaceutical Control Bureau (NPCB) registered a total of 65,000 traditional medicinal products.

The growth of traditional medicine could also be observed from the number of licensed traditional medicine manufacturers, importers and wholesalers in Malaysia.  Mohamad Satefarzi and Mansor (2001) surveyed about 163 traditional medicine manufacturers in Peninsular Malaysia and found that 98% of the traditional medicine companies are categorized as small-scale industries with a yearly sales value of less than RM 10 million and a workforce of less than 50 permanent staff. About 1,000 herbs have been identified as the main raw materials for those companies. Out of 50 highly demanded medicinal plants, 30% can be found in the wild or from plantation areas while the other 70% were imported. Table 12 lists some selected local medicinal plants (by priority of usage) used by the companies surveyed.

Table 12. List of selected local medicinal plants used by the traditional medicine companies in Peninsular Malaysia





Local Names

Scientific Names

Local (ton/year)

Import (ton/year)



Tongkat ali


Serai wangi

Kacip fatimah



Hempedu bumi

Asam jawa


Halia putih/bara

Teja sarsi




Centella asiatica

Eurycoma longifolia

Ganoderma lucidum

Cymbopogon nardus

Labisia pumila

Kaempfera galanga

Myristica fragrans

Andrographis paniculata

Tamarindus indica

Curcuma domestica

Zingiber officinale

Cinnamomum sp.

Morinda citrifolia

Rafflesia hasseltii

Languas conchigera














































Source: Mohamad Satefarzi and Mansor (2001)


Although the medicinal plant species such as pegaga, tongkat ali, cekur/kecur, kunyit and mengkudu can be found locally, the manufacturers also import the resources from other countries (Table 12). This shows that the supply of local resources is not consistent and cannot meet the demand of the industry. The consumption local medicinal plants that are high in demand was also found to be higher than for the imported species which shows that the high dependency of the medicinal plant industry on  the local resources (forest or plantation).

This situation would lead to the problem of inconsistent supply of raw materials especially from local sources due to keen competition between companies if no measures are taken on the management of the resources. Inadequate raw material supply is already being experienced. It has been learnt that the practitioners in Kedah collected about 80 kg to 2,187 kg of medicinal plants (about 740 kg, on average) per trip (during their harvesting session) from the forest for utilization by the industry in Kedah (Mohd Azmi & Ahmad Fauzi, 1998). The major problem faced by the local herbal product manufacturers is the insufficient supply of quality raw materials from the forest area.

Importing raw materials has been a solution to meet local demand for traditional medicine. The University of Malaya (UM) found that about 50% of the raw materials used by the local herbal industry are imported (Anon, 1999c). Another study by Mohamad Setefarzi & Mansor (2001) found that 70% of 50 herbs utilized by companies were imported while the other 30% came from local sources.  Azizol & Nurhanan Murni (2001) further stated that more than 90% of raw materials currently used in the herbal industry depend on imported raw materials. Another observation by the Department of Agriculture found that local raw materials only accounted for 10% of herbal preparation products compared with 42% of imports (Anon 2001c). These figures highlighted above may differ from each other as the sources of data also differ based on the researcher. Imports are likely to continue for some time in the future. The common medicinal plant species such as tongkat ali (Eurycoma longifolia), rancang besi (Artaboltrys sp), hempedu bumi (Andrographis paniculata) and other highly demanded medicinal plants will become scarce  in the future as the demand for the medicinal products increases but little effort is made to domesticate them.

Unless assisted by the government, the traditional medicinal industry is not likely to grow medicinal plants on a large scale. Generally, the medicinal plant industry in Malaysia is dominated by small and medium-sized companies/enterprises that have low technical know-how and managerial skills. Some challenges faced by the industry are skills upgrading, obtaining loans to improve their businesses and marketing the products. Other constraints include inconsistency in the local supply of quality medicinal plants, insufficient cost-effective and labor saving technologies, lack of domestic grading and accreditation schemes for products and poor packaging and handling technologies (Anon, 2001d).

The increasing demand for medicinal plant-based products has resulted in the shortage of supply of raw materials. One of the major difficulties being experienced by the industry and entrepreneurs is that of obtaining a sufficient quantity of raw materials of the desired quality for internal consumption as well as for export. There is also an urgent need to improve post harvest processing, storage, effective quality control and to regulate commerce in order to earn a significant share of the world market. Substitution by a different species with the same constituents can take pressure off a vulnerable species. However, much of the market relies on unsustainable sourcing by underpaid collectors, a precarious foundation for any industry. The sustainable supply of raw materials is really an important issue that influences the security of product supply to consumers.

Some of the constraints associated with the processing of medicinal plants which may result in reducing their competitiveness in global markets and which have to be remedied are (De Silva, 1997):

  • Indiscriminate harvesting and poor harvest treatment practices
  • Lack of research on the development of high-yielding varieties, domestication etc.
  • Poor agriculture and propagation methods
  • Inefficient processing techniques leading to low yields and poor quality products
  • Poor quality control procedures
  • High-energy losses during processing
  • Lack of current good manufacturing practices
  • Lack of R&D on product and process development
  • Difficulties in marketing
  • Lack of trained personnel and equipment
  • Lack of facilities to fabricate equipment locally
  • Lack of access to latest technological and market information