In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina has emerged as one of biggest cheerleaders for a herbal tea called Covid-Organics, touted as an "African cure" for Covid-19. The race to cultivate the medicinal artemisia plant used in the tea has revealed a complex web of international commercial interests with much at stake.
Covid-Organics herbal tea was based on work by the Malagasy Institute of Applied Research (IMRA) which developed this traditional remedy using the Artemisia annua plant and other undisclosed ingredients.
This played to Madagascar's burgeoning artemisia industry, which started in 2005 with a company called Bionexx set up by Frenchman Charles Giblain.
Giblain has been based in Madagascar for some time, where he had worked as managing director for Malagasy textile firm Cotona, and learnt about artemisia's medicinal properties during a chance encounter. The plant was becoming more important as a source of artemisinin in the pharmaceutical industry.
Artemisia annua has long been used for the treatment of malaria and research was carried out to identify the exact compound exhibiting antimalarial effects. Researchers identified the molecular structure of artemisinin, found within the plant, and this eventually led to the first artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) for malaria, known as Coartem.
"We've become one of the most significant actors in this sector," Giblain, originally from La Flèche in France's north west Sarthe department, told RFI during an interview with Antananarivo correspondent Laetitia Bezain.
Could Madagascar be a leader in artemisinin?
The World Health Organisation recommended the use of artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACT) for the treatment of malaria since April 2001, prompting demand by pharmaceutical companies for this derivative compound of the artemisia plant, which requires further processing after harvest.
Bionexx sees its main competition as producers of artemisinin in China, with most of their product destined to be used in the manufacture of ACT drugs.
Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, some of the company's artemisia cultivation is being diverted into the production of Covid-Organics.
The firm has its headquarters in the capital Antananarivo and a factory in Fianarantsoa, in the south-central part of the country, and is generally focused on selling artemisinin to big pharmaceutical companies such as Paris-based Sanofi for use in malaria ACT treatments.
Giblain is well connected within Madagascar and married to Lamia Barday, whose family runs Groupe Basan, a long-standing company involved in leather production, agriculture and food. A well-known expat, Giblain's connections are vital to his company's work with local landowners.
Land is particularly sensitive in Madagascar and foreigners cannot easily control agricultural production. He also maintains connections with French government officials, regularly meeting visiting senators on trips to Madagascar supporting French expats and business interests.
Dominating the market for artemisia
The company contracts the cultivation of the artemisia plant with local Malagasy farmers and acquired a local natural products extraction unit, renamed Innovexx, that carries out the extraction and purification to produce the artemisinin compound from the raw plant.
During its 15-year history, Bionexx has developed a network of 16,000 smallholder farmers who grow the Artemisia annua plant, producing between 2,000 to 2,500 tonnes of dried artemisia leaf per year, according to Giblain, with the aim of ramping up the harvest to 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes per year.
It takes approximately 100 kilograms of artemisia, which takes six months to harvest, to produce one kilogram of artemisinin. The artemisinin produced by Bionexx is sold as a commodity on a spot market rather than sold under contract.
Prices for artemisinin have dropped to a historic low in recent years, said 60-year-old Giblain, with the cost of malaria treatments falling in line with the cost of the combination therapy's most important ingredient.
"At the start of the industry, we had prices of $2.40 per treatment, and now we're around $0.60 - a drastic fall, a price that's been made possible by the fall in price of artemisinin," said Giblain, who received an MBA at Wharton Business School, Pennsylvania, United States.
Bionexx originally received support from the French Development Agency in 2006. The company took part in a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation run by the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) at the University of York in the UK.
Bill Gates himself has received some considerable flak on social media, with conspiracies about his alleged responsibility for the Covid-19 outbreak, or his supposed ulterior motive in helping to develop a vaccine.
Ironically, artemisia or the idea of a herbal cure is generally seen in a positive light by some of those same conspiracy theorists who smear Bill Gates, yet promote the use of a natural, medicinal plant like artemisia, and the Covid-Organics herbal tea pushed by Madagascar's Rajoelina.
Bionexx received support through Gates' Foundation and CNAP, which is focused on using science to develop plant-derived products - highlighting a considerable contradiction. A herbal "cure" for Covid-19 that was created using a strain of Artemisia annua that Gates' Foundation helped develop, while, at the same time, Bill Gates is supposedly in cahoots with the pharmaceutical industry to profit from the coronavirus pandemic.
The CNAP Artemisia Research Project worked with Bionexx on field trials to increase the yield of artemisinin from artemisia plants through breeding the best varieties, with the aim of making malaria drugs more affordable.
Who owns Bionexx?
Bionexx has a variety of shareholders who have provided capital to the company with the promise of a cut of the profits in the future, demonstrating that such a product based on medicinal plants produced on a large-scale will need regular cash injections to get started. Those involved also demonstrate the international nature of the enterprise - artemisia is not just a home-grown African remedy.
Mauritius Commercial Bank took an equity stake worth $2.5m in 2012 via its MCB Equity Fund. The artemisia producer also received $3.4m in debt financing through the Common Fund for Commodities, a financial institution established within a UN framework.
Investment has been made by Berlin-based HERi Africa, run by Dutchman Junte Wasman, described as an impact venture fund. Wasman, who is involved in solar energy company Devergy, has a seat on Bionexx's board of directors.
Fabrice Boullé, managing partner of Compass Venture Capital, is also listed on the board of directors, according to the company's incorporation in Madagascar as BioAgri. Mauritius-based Compass provides venture capital funding as part of ENL group, a business involved in several different areas including agro-industry.
How Rajoelina got involved
Bionexx became involved in the production of Covid-Organics following the intervention of Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina, according to Giblain.
Rajoelina was solicited by Lucile Cornet-Verder, an orthodontist based in Paris, who runs a French association called La Maison de l'Artemisia, promoting the use of artemisia for treating malaria in herbal tea form, a so-called monotherapy that is not recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Cornet-Verder's association, established in 2012, developed a network of affiliates across the African continent, promoting local cultivation of the medicinal plant for inexpensive treatment of malaria and other parasites.
With the onset of Covid-19, the Frenchwoman saw the potential for a treatment based on artemisia and sent a letter to the Malagasy president, whose office then got in touch with Bionexx, according to Giblain.
Artemisia had previously shown some promise in research exploring its use against other viruses. Chinese researchers in 2005 published a study looking at Artemisia annua and its antiviral properties in treatment of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus.
Le Monde newspaper, in a profile of Cornet-Verder, described how President Rajoelina "immediately seized the opportunity", launching the production of Covid-Organics products, which he characterised as an African remedy to the coronavirus.
There was no question of contributing to the fight against Covid-19, Giblain told Madagascar correspondent Bezain. He did not say specifically how much artemisia Bionexx earmarked for use in Covid-Organics, but that the company set a price accordingly.
"We made an effort on the price - we established a price that didn't penalise us too much, indeed we were aware of the fact that the raw materials were going to be used to produce herbal tea and be freely distributed by the Malagasy state," said Giblain.
Bottling and packaging Covid-Organics
Bionexx was not the only company involved in bringing Covid-Organics to market. TAF, a company specialising in food, in particular coffee, helped produce Covid-Organics tea bags, while the herbal tea was bottled by Groupe Vidzar, known for their Dzama rum.
TAF is run by successful businessman and landowner Panayiotis Taloumis, who also acts as an honorary consul of Cyprus to Madagascar. "Pana", as he is known to his friends, arrived in Madagascar from Greece at a young age with not a penny to his name, but worked hard, trading agricultural produce, according to a source who knows him, but spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Taloumis developed a number of interests across Madagascar - packaging, adding value and exporting commodities. He revived a number of ailing businesses, becoming very successful, thanks in part to his energy and dynamism, according to the source. And by navigating Madagascar's changing political landscape over the years, he managed to manoeuvre amongst the country's powerful families and business interests.
Groupe Vidzar was created in 1981 by Lucien Fohine, half-Chinese, half Malagasy, who passed on management of the family firm to his son Franck Fohine. The company owns Dzama, a brand of several varieties of rum produced in Madagascar and exported abroad.
Franck Fohine has been part of Madagascar trade missions to the UK alongside top-ranking members of the government, moving in high-level political circles. He is also a keen rally driver and his company has sponsored motorsport events in Madagascar.
RFI was in contact with Groupe Vidzar about its involvement in Covid-Organics, but the company did not wish to comment.
Business and politics hand in hand
The business interests behind Covid-Organics are in many ways emblematic of the way things are done in Madagascar, with established business leaders who have strong connections to powerful families on the island. President Rajoelina had already developed a number of contacts with private interests during his time as mayor of Antananarivo, and in Madagascar, business and politics go hand in hand.
Rajoelina's opportunism in seizing the chance to use Covid-Organics to promote Madagascar in a positive light is typical of way he operates, said a source who followed his career. The country also prides itself on its knowledge of endemic species and protection of its flora and fauna.
Yet Covid-Organics is an unproven treatment for the coronavirus, despite demonstrating some promise in recent lab tests by the Max Planck Institute. The World Health Organisation had erred on the side of caution, saying they were yet to receive any evidence on the herbal tea's effectiveness, as Rajoelina promotes Covid-Organics to several African countries.
"He's just a populist to the tips of his fingers, that's what really drives him, Madagascar is an incredibly nationalist place," a former foreign diplomat, who spent several years in Madagascar, told RFI, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I don't think he's too concerned about facts."
Use of Covid funds in question
Regardless of Rajoelina's fervent promotion of Covid-Organics and initiatives promoting the consumption of the artemisia herbal tea, the number of cases in Madagascar has reached 12,222, according to statistics from the health ministry published on 5 August. The authorities were forced to put a lockdown on the capital back in place in early July, over concerns about a spike of infections.
Malagasy civil society groups have questioned the government's management of funds destined for the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and what money was being spent on. And the defence ministry has put out a call for volunteer doctors and nurses to help fight the pandemic.
The reality of Covid-19 did not seem to deter Rajoelina as the outbreak progressed, especially if he could he gain some political capital through the promotion of artemisia herbal tea, according to the diplomat.
"He's a very slick operator, he's attractive, well spoken - so to have him out there on the world stage, saying that Madagascar has created this product that the world needs...it doesn't matter if it's true or not, but it will certainly resonate with the Malagasy," said the former foreign diplomat.