Growing an essential oils industry

31 August 2007

The Department of Science and Technology has established an essential oils plant in Onseepkans in the Northern Cape, part of a wider initiative to take advantage of the province’s suitability for cultivating aromatic plants and the growing global market for the essential oils distilled from them.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has been placed in charge of the distillation plant for rose geranium essential oils, which has created jobs for 34 community members.

Essential oils are volatile components of aromatic plants, usually extracted from the leaves and flowers through steam distillation. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics and household fragrances, as well as in food and drink flavourants.

According to the department, the major consumers in the multi-billion dollar global essential oils market are the United States (40%), western Europe (30%) and Japan (7%), with trade in essential oils and related products increasing at roughly 10% per year.

Engeli Beukman, project manager at the CSIR’s technology transfer for social impact office, said the well-drained soil, abundant sunlight and constant availability of irrigation water from the Orange River made Onseepkans an ideal site for cultivating rose geranium.

The Onseepkans community have since established a section 21 company, Sidasoas, to run the business.

Funding from the department has been used to build an irrigation dam and pump house, an irrigation system, a distillation plant, and an office and related buildings.

Thirty hectares of rose geranium have been planted, while workers have been trained in all aspects of running an agro-business. This includes technical procedures relating to steam distillation, which allows the isolation of essential oils from the leaves and flowers of plants.

South Africa’s various microclimates are well suited for growing essential oils such as lemon grass, lavender, peppermint and rose geranium, as well as indigenous plants such as buchu and Lippia javanica. Rose geranium, with its earthy-sweet, smooth and dry aroma and varying citrus undertones, is especially popular in cosmetics and perfumes.

A similar project is being implemented in Pella, not far from Onseepkans, as part of the second phase of the Northern Cape essential oils initiative. reporter

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