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September 03, 2007

South Africa to foster essential oils industry

South Africa's Department of Science and Technology has established an essential oils plant in Onseepkans in the Northern Cape, in an effort to reduce poverty and create employment in the geographically isolated town.

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 previously unemployed community members.

Opening the plant in early August, Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena said the department has undertaken to transfer technologies regarding essential oil extraction, small, medium and micro enterprise establishment and wealth management to the local community.

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

According to the department, the global market for essential oils of more than R6-billion ($840 million), with the major consumers being the United States (40%), western Europe (30%) and Japan (7%), and that trade in essential oils and related products is 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 make Onseepkans an ideal site to cultivate rose geranium. 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 usually from the leaves and flowers of plants.

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

South Africa's various micro climates are well suited for growing essential oils such as lemon grass, lavender, peppermint, rose geranium and indigenous plants such as buchu and Lippia javanica. Rose geranium with its earthy-sweet, smooth and dry aroma and varying citrus undertones is 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 cluster. The plantation and distillation plant will be of a similar size to that of the Onseepkans project and will be constructed in the near future.

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