Africa Center of Excellence ACE2

My search for herbal contraceptives

A few years ago after I had my second born, I decided to look for a contraceptive plan that would help me and my husband to space our children. I opted for an implant but it came with unpleasant side effects including unexpected bleeding, dizziness, over sweating, weight gain and low sex drive. I tried other alternatives but the side effects were not any different.

Many women suffer similar or even worse side effects from synthetic contraceptives (Das et al., 2014). This prompted me to start thinking of a safer contraceptive without unpleasant side effects. I found out that a herbal contraceptive would be the best option. That is how I took it up as a topic for my PhD where Dioscorea bulbifera L, a medicinal plant emerged as the best plant for my study.

Dioscorea bulbifera L. has contraceptive and abortifacient properties (Banani et al.,2014) since it is the leading source of diosgenin, a precursor for synthesis of steroidal drugs, estrogen and progesterone (Obidiegwu et al.,2020). In addition, this plant increases breast milk, relieves painful menstruation and peri-and postmenopausal symptoms (Sanjeet et al., 2017). This plant was also selected because it ranks highly among the antifertility medicinal plants used in India (Wu et al., 2005). In Africa, this plant is used as a contraceptive in South Africa (Maurin et al., 2016) and Nigeria (Atsukwei, 2014).. In Uganda it has attracted limited attention with respect to antifertility but is heavily used as food (Byarugaba et al., 2006), consumed by HIV patients to boost their immunity (Nabatanzi, 2016) and as herbal medicine to treat sore throats and cough. This has threatened the existence of this plant from its natural habitat and warrants understanding of its conservation methods so that D.bulbifera can be sustained in its natural habitat.

My study therefore aimed at 1. determining the morphological and genetic diversity of Dioscorea bulbifera germplasm. 2. determining the phytochemicals & quantify diosgenin in D. bulbifera germplasm. 3. developing a protocol for in vitro propagation of selected Dioscorea bulbifera accession.

This research made a substantial contribution to the knowledge base of conservationists by revealing the morphologic and genetic diversity of Dioscorea bulbifera in Uganda. The accessions of Dioscorea bulbifera from low altitude forest reserves have the highest quantities of diosgenin. The highest results were recorded in Mabira central forest reserve. The best protocol for invitro propagation of Dioscorea bulbifera germplasm was also optimized.

From the study findings, I have made a prototype of a product called ‘hil-pill’ from Dioscorea bulbifera tubers in combination with two other medicinal plants to increase efficacy.  I intend to go commercial on production of the natural contraceptive. However, for now I am financially incapacitated. With some financing I would immediately go into production and clinical trials.

Story by Dr. Hilda Ikiriza

Dr. Hilda Ikiriza studied BSc Education (Biology/Chemistry) majoring in Biology at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST) and afterwards taught in high school for 10 years. She later enrolled for Msc Biotechnology at Osmania University, Hyderabad-India and immediately thereafter started her PhD in Pharmbiotechnology at MUST which she completed successfully in 2022 with the financial support of PHARMBIOTRAC. She is now a research scientist at PHARMBIOTRAC and a part time lecturer in the Biology department at MUST. Ikiriza has won many awards including the Muljibhai Madhvani Foundation in 2004 scholarship, Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) scholarship in 2013, PHARMBIOTRAC 2017, Mwalimu Nyerere African Union scholarship 2017. She is the National Co-ordinator, Young East African Research Scientist (YEARS) Uganda under the East African Health Research Commission (EAHRC). Hilda is married with three children.