South Africa… a regional resource for essential oils?

The South African essential oils industry, which has experienced many failures over the past few decades, may be reaching a point where it will become a resource of skill and equipment supply for the rest of the continent.
South African food industry doyen Dr Aubrey Parsons says there is now a far greater understanding among producers of what it takes to produce good quality oils than a few years ago. More growers are now producing quality oils from botanically-correct species, he says.
Other postive developments are:

  • Better locally-manufactured equipment and improved distillation techniques. More growers are installing their own equipment, making them totally independent and maintaining confidentiality.
  • Many more indigenous botanics are now being grown and processed, in an endeavour to meet global demand for new and exciting flavours and perfumes.
  • Some producers have achieved a stage where they are isolating individual aromatics from a variety of essential oils. This is an expensive process but has huge application.
  • There is now a considerable corps of South African and international consultants experienced in the challenges related to African essential oils production.

Throughout the African continent, essential oils have been seen as a tantalising way of bringing small farmers into the modern economy with high-value crops and local value-adding.
However, essential oils generally remains a difficult – though potentially lucrative – business.
Community development-type projects for small, emerging farmers have become fairly common throughout Africa, but so has their failure rate.
A consultant to a large project in South Africa estimates that only about 15% of emerging farmers succeed in essential oils.
Sandor Koesis, a South African equipment supplier, says a problem he often encounters among “funded” emerging farmers is that they are given access to money and land, but no skills for growing and producing.
Also, those who fail generally lack business and “life” skills. These need to be supplied together with money and land.
Essential oils are seen as an appropriate crop for emerging farmers because they can be grown on small, individual pieces of land and with shared equipment. Also, high prices can be achieved on a growing global market.
Africa has a vast natural resource, yet it is a net importer of essential oils.
Information is much more readily available than in the past, says prominent essential oils dealer Clive Teubes. “In the past, wrong species were planted. There are now a number of nurseries which will advise on species, and industry players will impart information and knowledge if approached,” he says.
However, essential oils production is neither a “weekend” business or a “third crop”, says Teubes. It is also not suited to “making a quick buck”.
Farmers need to be dedicated to growing to produce sustainable volumes. They need to know the market they are entering and should not enter a market unless they can export, as the local market is not big enough to sustain production, he says.
A concern in the industry is the slow entry rate of large, commercial farmers. Both big and small growers are needed – the essential oils business is dictated by markets abroad. and for SA to be a succesful player there, it has to produce sustainable volumes and quality. This cannot be left to small producers alone.
Jonathan Bradfield, an Eastern Cape pineapple and game farmer who has recently converted 30ha to rose geranium and buchu, says growing herbs is intensive both in finance and labour, and difficult to get off the ground. For instance, a distillery costs around $100,000 (ex factory). A new grower will not invest this amount unless he is sure that the business will be successful.
Parsons comments that huge strides have been achieved in distillation techniques and equipment manufacture. Much of the South African-manufactured equipment is even being exported.
Depending on the size of their plantings, growers either install their own stills or share fixed or mobile stills. Test stills, used for trial plantings, generally have a 5kg capacity and cost about $1,240.
Community developments sometimes use mobile stills which are transported on a bakkie or a trailer among member-growers. Koesis says a good-size still for sharing among farmers would have a 75kg gas burner which six people can lift onto bakkie. The cost is about $8,000 ex factory.
Greg Rowe, a Pietermaritzburg equipment supplier, makes trailer-transported stills with capacities of 100-500kg. Boilers can be diesel-fired.
A fixed unit with a 1,500kg capacity costs $57,000-$72,000 ex factory.
IFEAT: Tel +44 20 7729 5904; fax: +44 20 7814 8383; ; website:
Equipment suppliers:
Sandor Koesis: Tel +27224481387;; Greg Rowe: Tel +27 21 876-3119;; Komar Associates: +27-11-7602718