Okello: The herb specialist

Though his first love was teaching, Okello is a passionate herb gardener. Photo / George Katongole. 

What you need to know:

  • In the 1980s, he returned from Kenya and started administering drugs to HIV and Aids patients in Mbarara before settling in Lira where he runs an herbal treatment centre.

Gard Okello’s home Lira is a hub of medicinal and aromatic plants. Okello, 84, is a retired lecturer who taught industrial design at the University of Nairobi. He was a part-time instructor on the African Traditional Medicine and Healing programme at Marcus Garvey Pan African University in Mbale District.

In the 1980s, he returned from Kenya and started administering drugs to HIV and Aids patients in Mbarara before settling in Lira where he runs an herbal treatment centre.

He has a vast knowledge on herbal medicine and its use. He produces crop, human and animal medicines which his clients agree works on different conditions.

Okello, whose wife stays in Australia, had a microscope and research assistants at his home before they were stolen.


Herbs are Okello’s delight. He says they can be grown year-round and, depending on the variety and they can be grown indoors or outdoors.

He owns more than 30 acres of land outside Lira City where he harvests most of his herbs.

Technically, herbs are plant leaves used for flavoring food, as a medicine or to add fragrance. Okello has a broader definition that includes plants with woody stems such as rosemary or plant flowers such as lavender. He says that herbs are a perfect fit to grow in the compound.

Some common fresh herbs for cooking which he grows in his compound include lemongrass, mint, coriander, basil, and rosemary.

According to Okello, fresh herbs are easily substituted for dried herbs to give a fresh flavour to foods. He says that instead of buying processed herbs from the markets, homeowners can grow them in their backyard.

He explains that herbs such as basil are so useful in daily food consumption.

He explains that herbs can be grown from seed or from transplants. Transplants are the easiest way to grow herbs.

A healthy transplant, he says, will have with a well-developed root system.

His first love for plants led him to Arapai Agricultural College and Bukalasa to accumulate knowledge on plants. He now provides inspiring gardening and herb care information for gardeners of all interests.

Care for herbs

He has lots of flowers, fruits, shrubs and vegetables.

“This is a demonstration garden where I try out new plants and I can keep herbs and edibles conveniently for easy access,” Okello says.

He says that those with very limited access to land, culinary herbs can grow in containers.

“Any type of container can be used to grow herbs as long as: there is a drain hole to keep roots from sitting in water; the depth and width is sufficient for plant roots to spread; a good potting mix is used; and the plants are placed properly in a location based on the herb’s need for sunlight and water,” he explains.

Okello adds that one should plan on watering frequently as containers dry out more quickly than plants in the ground.

He says that harvesting of the herbs should be done after the plant has successfully added a few inches of new growth.

“This should be done when the plant begins to flower, preparing to produce seeds and die. Once your herbs begin to flower, you can simply remove the flowers and continue to harvest the herb,” he says.

Removing the flowers, Okello says, can prolong the herb growth, but after an herb begins to flower the herb leaves can become bitter. It is at this stage that Okello preserves the herbs.


He employs up to 20 people especially in the processing of herbs. The herbs are washed, pounded, cooked and distilled before storage.

He preserves them by drying and pureeing fresh herbs with water in a stainless steel container.

He says that herbs can be kept for a long time in containers after sterilising. He says they can then be placed in a refrigerator until one needs to use them.

Producing his herbs under the Medicine Africana Consortium, Okello has struggled with authorization despite his claims of herbal medicine being advantageous.

“Herbal medicine is the best all over the world but negative perceptions keep people away from using it. But still, one can grow herbs and use them at their convenience,”  Okello advises.


A 2012 report by the Ministry of Health estimated that about 60 per cent of Ugandans depend on traditional medicine.

Ugandans use herbs and plants to treat conditions from flu and malaria to infertility and gynecological issues. These treatments are sold in shops, clinics, on the streets, in markets and even in traditional healers’ homes.


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