The South African Bureau of Standards should engage in an effort to speed up the standardisation of traditional African medicines, as studies have shown most South Africans use these remedies, President Jacob Zuma said on Thursday.

In a keynote address delivered at the opening of the quality-assurance body's new laboratories in Pretoria, Mr Zuma said the government needed to ensure the development of standards for the growing and preparation of traditional medicinal herbs, and improve the quality of products manufactured from these herbs.

"We also need to establish a national standard traditional medicinal materials bank, improve the quality control of traditional medicines, and relentlessly promote and implement quality-control standards in different areas and raise the standardisation level of the entire sector," he said.

"We will do this, because studies show that about 70% of our total population depends on traditional medicine for primary healthcare," the president said.

According to studies conducted by the South African Traditional Medicines Research Group, which is funded by the South African Medical Research Council, an estimated 70% of South Africans regularly use traditional medicines, most of which are derived from plant species. These can be obtained on prescription from traditional healers, purchased from herb sellers or gathered in the wild for self-medication.

A study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) also found that traditional medicines, including herbal medicines, continued to be used in every country around the world in some capacity.

"In much of the developing world, 70% to 95% of the population relies on these traditional medicines for primary care," the United Nations public health body said.

The WHO estimated the global market for traditional medicines at $83bn a year in 2008, with sales growth in recent years of between 5% and 18% a year.

But it warned that the costs of standardising traditional medicines could not be recuperated through sales of the product, arguing that patenting these would be impossible because no one could have proprietary rights over a tree or flower.

Mr Zuma said the government was committed to bringing traditional medicine into the mainstream of healthcare - "appropriately, effectively and, above all, safely".

maakem@bdfm.co.za