Project MGU - the Useful Plants Project

Enhancing the ex situ conservation of native useful plants for human wellbeing across Africa and Mexico by building the capacity of local communities to successfully conserve and use these species sustainably.

Collecting Kalahari truffles in Botswana, RBG Kew/A. Hudson

Useful plants and threats to them

Many inhabitants in developing countries depend directly on natural vegetation for everyday needs such as food, medicine, fuel and building materials. At the same time, these plants face a range of threats that include climate change, over-exploitation, droughts, habitat loss and invasion of exotic species.

Since 2007, the Project MGU - the Useful Plants Project (UPP) has been working with partners in Botswana, Kenya, Mali, Mexico and South Africa to conserve and sustainably use indigenous plants which are important to local communities. This has been achieved through their conservation in seedbanks, propagation in community nurseries and planting in community gardens, woodlots and forests, supported by research.

Expanding activities

The first phase of the UPP ran from 2007 to 2010 and given that the ambitious targets were exceeded, during the second phase (2011-2017) the project was expanded. The current work has been enhancing the propagation of native useful plants in the communities to support income generation through the sustainable use of plants or their products.

The project was also scaled up by increasing the number of communities involved and by the inclusion of additional useful plants on the target list. Existing species reintroduction and reforestation programmes have been supported through the establishment of restoration plots using species from the project.

Useful plants for the future

Seed collections of useful plants have been made and seed lots stored in-country with duplicates tested in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB).

The capacity of communities to conserve and use sustainably a wide range of plant species has been enhanced through training workshops and the improvement of local facilities: useful plant gardens have been established and plant nurseries enhanced with the provision of materials and seeds. As a result, species have been propagated in partner countries and planted in local community and school gardens involving farmers and students.

Information generated

Research including ethnobotanical, phytochemical, plant physiological and plant population studies, DNA profiling and in vitro propagation has been carried out on priority species. Information about the uses, conservation and propagation of the species has been compiled in leaflets, booklets, technical information sheets and posters that have been disseminated within the country in order to conserve and safeguard the associated traditional knowledge. In addition, the project has been successfully working with village schools which has led to the establishment of environmental clubs, school plant nurseries and gardens.


The main components of the project include:

  • Targeting and prioritising useful plants with local communities
  • Ex situ conservation of useful plants through seed banking
  • Propagation and conservation of useful plants in local communities
  • Research to enable conservation and sustainable use of plants
  • Sustainable use and income generation from useful plants
  • Supporting in situ conservation of useful plants
  • 1,566 important useful taxa identified by communities and partner organisations
  • 622 useful plant species conserved in seedbanks in partner countries and the MSB
  • 263 species propagated in local community and partner organisation nurseries
  • 289 species researched
  • Priority species promoted within communities given their potential to enhance income generation


  • Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (BUAN; formerly The Botswana College of Agriculture - BCA)
  • Communities of Tsetseng (south west), Pilikwe (north east Botswana) and Shaikarawe (north west Botswana)


  • Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI)
  • The National Museums of Kenya (NMK)
  • The Genebank of Kenya at the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO)
  • Community groups from the Tharaka (north east Kenya), Siaya and Nyamira districts (west Kenya)


  • Institut d’Economie Rurale (Rural Economics Institute, IER) in the Regional Centre in Sikasso
  • Département de la Médecine Traditionnelle (Traditional medicine department, DMT) of the Institut National de Recherche en Santé Publique (National Public Health Research Institute, INRSP)
  • Université de Bamako (University of Bamako)
  • Communities of Bla, Kadiolo, Katélé, Koutiala, Kokélé, Sesso, Sikasso (south east of Mali), Yanfolila, Bougouni (central of Mali), Bandiangara and Bankass (central east of Mali).


  • Facultad de Estudios Superiores Iztacala, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (FESI-UNAM)
  • Facultad de Ciencias, UNAM
  • Universidad de Alicante, Madrid, Spain
  • Communities of San Rafael Coxcatlán, San José Tilapa and Guadalupe Victoria (central-southern Mexico)

South Africa

  • Lowveld National Botanical Garden (LNBG, Nelspruit) - South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).
  • The Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA)
  • Mpumalanga Department of Education
  • Community groups/schools from the Lowveld region (Mpumalanga Province)

The name MGU reflects the generous support provided by the philanthropist who funds the work of the Useful Plants Project. Additional funds were provided by the Wiet Pot Family Foundation.

Ulian, T., Flores, C., Lira, R., Mamatsharaga, A., Mogotsi, K. K., Muthoka, P., Ngwako, S., Nyamongo, D.O., Omondi, W., Sanogo, A. K., Sanogo, S., Mattana, E. (eds) (2019).

Wild Plants for a Sustainable Future: 110 multipurpose species

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Kew Publishing, London.

Ulian, T., Sacande, M., Hudson, A.Mattana, E. (2016)

The MGU – Useful Plants Project: Conservation of indigenous plants to support community livelihoods

Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2016.1166101

Rodríguez-Arévalo, I., Mattana, E., García, L., Liu, U., Lira, R., Dávila, P., Hudson, A.Pritchard, H.W.Ulian, T. (2016)

Conserving seeds of useful wild plants in Mexico: main issues and recommendations

Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. Vol. 63 No 6: 1-50

Ordoñez-Salanueva, C.A., Seal, C.E., Pritchard, H.W., Orozco-Segovia, A., Canales-Martínez, M., Flores Ortiz, C.M. (2015)

Cardinal temperatures and thermal time in Polaskia species: effect of projected soil temperature increase and nurse interaction on germination timing

Journal of Arid Environments. 115: 73-80

Moreno-Rodriguez, A., Vázquez-Medrano, J., Hernandez-Portilla, L.B., Peñalosa-Castro, I., Canales-Martinez, M., Orozco-Segovia, A., Jimenez-Estrada, M., Colville, L., Pritchard, H.W., Flores-Ortiz, C.M. (2014)

The effect of light and soil moisture on the accumulation of three flavonoids in the leaves of Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens Kunth)

Journal of Food, Agriculture & Environment. 12: 1272-1279

Ulian T. (2014)

‘Project MGU: The Useful Plants Project at the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB)’ in Curating Biocultural Collections: A Handbook ed. J. Salick, K. Konchar, M. Nesbitt.

Kew Publishing Richmond, pp. 118