INP tab Commiphora Historical overview

Until recently, no essential oils were produced in Namibia. However, several researchershad previously documented that commiphora species in Kunene Region have long been used by Himba women as the major ingredient of their perfumes. The species, the part of the plant and how it was used, were not clear. In the early 1990s, IRDNC had been considering investigating this genus as a potential source of income for Himba communities, but was reluctant to do so until appropriate institutional arrangements were in place for the sustainable management of the resource, should it be harvested. With the change in legislation in 1996 and the subsequent registration of conservancies, the necessary community management structures now existed and the research was launched at the end of 2004. At that time, most conservancies derived their income from wildlife and wildlife-based tourism. A need to diversify sources of income for the conservancy members was identified, especially in areas with limited wildlife resources.

During 2005 and 2006, documenting of traditional knowledge, vegetation mapping, vegetation transects, a questionnaire survey, and trial harvests, indicated that omumbiri (Commiphora wildii) was the most important resin-producing plant used by Himba women for perfume. This work also indicated that the resin was harvested sustainably, since only resin that is naturally exuded from the tree is harvested. Further work in the 2006 / 2007 harvest season, estimated that about 50 tons of resin is produced every year in the five conservancies involved in this investigation – Puros, Orupembe, Marienfluss, Sanitatas and Okondjombo.

The first commercial harvesting of resin was started in October 2007. A total of five tons, worth US$50,000, was harvested by 319 conservancy members, of whom 206 were women, between October 2007 and early February 2008. The harvesters earned just over N$250,000. Between April and June 2008, harvesters and conservancy staff and committees were interviewed to review the first commercial harvest season and identify issues that needed attention before the start of the next harvesting season.

In Himba communities, the women are the managers of the plant resources and are responsible for harvesting the commiphora resins. For these reasons, this work initially focused on the women in the Orupembe and Sanitatas conservancies. All women interviewed rated omumbiri as the most important perfume plant used. Omumbiri resin is harvested in the dry summer months, when temperatures are high. The trees stop producing resin when it starts raining. There was unanimous agreement that the resin was easy to find and that there is more of the resource than is harvested. Resin is harvested by picking it up from the ground below the plant, or by picking it off the branches. Everyone interviewed confirmed that non-destructive methods of harvesting were used and that naturally exuded resin was collected.

Traditionally, a stone or piece of bark is often used to place the harvested resin on and to carry it back to the homestead, where it is sometimes placed in a cloth or bag for storage. It is used by placing it at the bottom of a container made from cattle horn. Animal fat and ochre are then added. The fragrance of the resin permeates the ochre and animal fat mixture so that when it is rubbed on the skin, it has a pleasant smell. Himba women rub their skins with this mixture on a daily basis. They mostly harvest what they need for a year, but the resin can be kept for several years without losing its fragrance.

Harvesting of omumbiri resin in the Kunene Region by the Himba people seems to have been for own use only, or for sharing with friends and family members who may not be able to collect it for themselves. Although several people interviewed in 2005 said that they had sold omumbiri resin or bartered with it, no evidence could be found for regular trade and no price could be established.

Several studies were done to find out how long it takes to harvest one kilogram of resin in the Kunene Region. There are many factors that affect this – the distance that the harvester needs to walk to reach the harvesting area, the density of the trees, the production by the trees, and so on. Results show that, under good conditions, a harvester can collect about two kilograms of resin in one day.

The start of the commercialisation process was marked by the signing of a handwritten Prior Informed Consent document by conservancy representatives in January 2005. Marketing of commiphora resin was initiated in 2008 when samples of the resin and the essential oil were taken to the In-cosmetics Trade Fair in Paris. The commercialisation process was pioneered by the IRDNC with support from many partner organisations along the way.

  • The initial study undertaken in Orupembe and Sanitatas conservancies was funded by WWF-UK, NNF and a grant from the People and Plants initiative with technical input from Tony Cunningham.
  • The IRDNC team led by Karen Nott throughout this period. She assisted by various team members including Action Hambo, Fran Siebrits, Bonnie Galloway, Mathilde Brassine, Henry Tjambiru and Alu Uararavi. This was made possible through funding from IRDNC, WWF-UK, EED, WWF in Namibia, MCA-N and Big Lottery.
  • Permission for this research to be undertaken was granted by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism through the granting of a research permit to the IRDNC.
  • Komukandjero Tjambiru harvesters during the development of the supply chain and the setting up of the enterprise.
  • The IRDNC set up a revolving Fund to ensure that harvesters receive payment immediately when they deliver material to the conservancy buying points. The money for this fund was donated by Anders Johansson and Stefan Encratz, the ICEMA project and WWF in Namibia.
  • Bonnie Galloway, with help from Jess Lavelle, supported six conservancies to register as community forests with funding from IRDNC, WWF-UK, The Big Lottery Fund and a grant from FAO.
  • The Opuwo Processing Facility was started with funding from the ICEMA project and FFEM, with technical support provided by Pierre du Plessis. MCA-N supported the operationalisation and upgrading of OPF by providing equipment and technical support through the INP PPO Support Activity as well as through two Innovation Fund grants.
  • The Visitor’s Centre at OPF was funded by an SME grant from MCA-N through CDSS.
  • The establishment of the Kunene Conservancies Indigenous Natural Products Trust was supported by IRDNC and MCA-N. The Trust was registered in 2013 and is the owner of the Scents of Namibia enterprise, the Visitor’s Centre and OPF.
  • Funding from MCA-N supported the product and market development of Commiphora wildii by contracting the services of PhytoTrade Africa.
  • A grant from PhytoTrade Africa contributed to resource inventory work done on C.tenuipetiolata.