Essential oils: Commiphora

Commiphora wildii

Also known as omumbiri and Namibian myrrh

Namibian myrrh is an essential oil. Essential oils are highly concentrated, volatile oils that can be extracted mainly from aromatic plants. A dictionary definition of an essential oil is ‘a natural’ oil typically obtained by distillation and having the characteristic odour of the plant or other source from which it is extracted’. Their use dates back to ancient times, and their wide variety of aromatic, medicinal and culinary uses has ensured their continued popularity. More than 700 plants worldwide are known to contain useful essential oils. There are several methods to extract them, the most common of which is distillation.

Essential oils are located in tiny secretory structures found in various parts of plants such as leaves, berries, petals or flowers, roots, bark and wood. A typical essential oil will contain more than 100 different chemical compounds and many essential oils possess antiseptic properties. Many of the aromatic compounds of plants are volatile and quickly dissipate into the air, even at room temperature. Each volatile oil is made up of a unique blend of aromatic compounds, which gives the plant the ability to form unique essential oils.

When distilled, essential oils are extremely concentrated. These oils constitute important active ingredients, flavour additives and fragrances in many kinds of everyday products – toothpastes, mouthwashes, cleaning products, syrups, sweets, skin creams, lip balms, shampoos, bath salts, and soaps. Because they are so concentrated, often only small quantities of essential oils are used in the production of foods or cosmetic products. Essential oils even give flavour and aroma to the spices that are used in cooking. Nutmeg, allspice, thyme, oregano, basil, and cinnamon all contain essential oils.

The commonly used essential oils such as lavender, orange or rose are distilled from raw material that is harvested from cultivated plants. Some of the rarer essential oils are produced from wild harvested materials, of which the most well-known are probably frankincense and (Arabian) myrrh. Other examples of these are the essential oil distilled from the wood of sandalwood trees or ambergris which is a solid, waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.

People in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have harvested and traded the resin from myrrh and frankincense trees for at least 5,000 years. Myrrh and frankincense were desired for personal, religious and medicinal use. The high demand for myrrh and frankincense created a booming trade in the Middle East lasting several hundred years. Today, demand for myrrh and frankincense has decreased, but are still used for the production of essential oils. Traditional collectors of myrrh in East Africa distinguish between two types of myrrh. The distinction is made by the method in which the resins are produced. The superior resin is usually naturally exuded by the plants. The resin that is harvested after the bark has been cut (or damaged) is thought to be inferior.

Unsustainable harvesting from myrrh and frankincense trees has been documented in several regions, namely the Horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula and India. China and Europe are the largest markets for both products, while the Middle East, the United States of America and North Africa import significant amounts.

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.

The Kunene Region has numerous species of commiphora, many of which are endemic or near endemic to Namibia, and several are endemic to that region alone. This genus, which consists of shrubs and trees, belongs to the Burseraceae, a family well known for its aromatic gums and resins, many of which have healing properties. Because of the low growth form of some of the endemic commiphora species, they are often collectively referred to as the dwarf commiphoras.

Commiphora wildii is usually a low growing shrub with thick, semi-succulent stems, branching near the ground. These dwarf trees can be found growing on the rocky slopes of hills and mountains in the arid western part of Kunene region adjacent to the Skeleton Coast Park. They are near endemic to Namibia, extending from Southern Angola to just south of the Ugab River. Most individuals tend to grow horizontally, close to the ground, with a few branches growing upward. This is to escape the cold south western winds. In areas that are protected from the winds, individual plants are more erect. The bark is grey to reddish brown, smooth and shiny. Leaves are deeply lobed, resembling the leaves of an oak tree, hence the English common name ‘oak-leaved corkwood’. The plant is deciduous, producing its first leaves in December and losing them again at the start of winter. Flowers are small, greenish yellow and borne on long stalks in the spring. The fruit are small, almost round, bright red berries.

Harvesting of the resin takes place in the Puros, Sanitatas, Orupembe, Marienfluss and Okondjombo conservancies and community forests. Between two and six tons are harvested each year, depending on demand. The resin is transported to Opuwo where the essential oil is extracted by steam distillation at the Opuwo Processing Facility. Raw resin is also sold to companies which have the technology to do the distillation themselves. The amount harvested is limited by demand and cash flow rather than the amount of resin available.

The supply chain within Namibia is well organised. Harvesters register with the conservancy or community forest and receive training from IRDNC. Buying points are established within the conservancies/community forests and staff members are trained to check the quality of resin, weigh it and record the data. Money from the IRDNC Revolving Fund provides funding for the harvester to be paid on the same day that she/ he delivers it to the buying point. At the beginning of each harvest season, each conservancy is allocated a quota depending on the amount of cash available for purchase and orders received. The buckets or drums of resin are transported to Opuwo and stored at processing facility until they are sold or processed.

During the first few years of harvesting, the resin was stored until it could be sold to companies with the ability to extract the essential oil. Since the resin contains only about 6% essential oil, this meant that much of the material shipped to France was discarded as waste once the oil was extracted. In 2009 the Opuwo Processing Facility was built and equipped with a hydro-still. It took almost two years to make necessary changes to the equipment, sort out water quality problems and get OPF operational. Selling the essential oil instead of the raw resin has broadened the potential customer base. Several local and Southern African cosmetics manufacturers are now including omumbiri essential oil in their product formulations. The Opuwo Processing Facility is owned by the Kunene Conservancies Indigenous Natural Products Trust, which represents the harvesters from the five conservancies.

The number of people becoming involved and registering as harvesters in each of the conservancies/community forests is steadily increasing as residents realise that the opportunity to earn income from high value plants is a reality. This was particularly evident during the drought conditions that existed in Kunene during 2012 and 2013. The income earned from harvesting helped many families buy food during this time. Almost all the members of these conservancies are also registered harvesters, although the female harvesters are the most active participants.Currently, 630 harvesters are registered in the five conservancies.

While omumbiri or Namibian myrrh is similar to traditional myrrh, its chemical profile and properties are different, and the market considers it to be a different product. The essential oils are sold to companies in Namibia, South Africa, France and Germany. The requirements for trading an essential oil in the EU are rigorous and a French company, V. Mane Fils which is based in Grasse, has been the commercial partner which has supported this process and assisted with the safety and other regulatory requirements.

The natural resources and the harvesters that manage this resource could easily increase the amount of resin sustainably harvested each season. Not only could the conservancies and community forests that are currently involved harvest more resin, but other community groups who also have the resource, could become involved in harvesting. The Opuwo Processing Facility has the capacity to produce more than 700 litres of omumbiri essential oil each year. The research and development phase of product development, as well as getting the product known in the market place, takes time but demand is growing steadily, especially within the Southern Africa market. Over the next few years, most of the focus will be on marketing this product locally and internationally.

Most of the commiphora species in Kunene Region are strongly aromatic. Three species of commiphora are considered to have an unpleasant smell and are known as omumbungu, tree of the hyaena. These are C. kraeuseliana, C. dinteri and C. oblanceolata. The resin from C. kraeuseliana is similar in colour and consistency to that of C. wildii and it is possible to extract an essential oil from this resin.

C. virgata exudes a thick, golden-coloured resin when an incision is made a few centimeters deep into the bark of the trees. C. virgata resin is said to have been used in the past by ‘the old people’ for perfume. This species does not exude resin unless it is damaged or tapped. While it has a pleasant smell similar to that of traditional myrrh, harvesting this species and the production of essential oils has not been promoted because of potential issues of the sustainability of use of the resource.

The gum from omumgorwa (C. tenuipetiolata) is used traditionally for soap. The trees exude a gum (not a resin), which is water soluble. The gum is collected and can be used as soap in two ways. It can be ground into a powder, which is then rubbed into the item (a blanket or a cloth) that needs to be washed. Once the powder is rubbed in, the item is then placed into water and rubbed until clean. Alternatively, the gum is collected and heated so that it forms a big lump. This lump is then rubbed against the item to be cleaned in a similar way as to using a cake of soap.

An aromatic extract can be obtained from this gum through the process of solvent extraction. Currently, the possibility of commercialising this indigenous natural product is being investigated. C. tenuipetiolata has a much wider distribution than that of C. wildii and the amount of resin produced by each tree is also greater. Resource inventories have been done in nine conservancies to determine the extent of the resource. A trial harvest was done during the 2012/2013 harvest season in four conservancies. The quotas allocated to each were reached, with harvesters reporting that there was still a lot of gum available for harvesting. Work on developing C. tenuipetiolata as a commercial product is underway.

There are four broad sectors in which essential oils are used: food and flavours, pharmaceutical, fragrance and cosmetic, and industrial. The majority of essential oils are obtained from agricultural plants. However a number are collected from wild sources, including trees. Most of the trade in essential oils takes place in Europe, America and East Asia with very little, or insignificant, trade in Africa and, in particular, the SADC Region. Consumption by Asia, America and Europe are roughly equal and about one third of the global market. SADC’s trade in essential oils is about 1% overall. In 2005 exports and imports amounted to US$15.4m and US$25.8m, respectively. However, there are many opportunities for the region to increase its share in the world trade.

It is unlikely that C. wildii essential oil will become as commonplace in the essential oil markets as the globally well-known oils such as lavender, because the latter have been used globally for generations, and their properties and uses are common knowledge to many people. Previously unexplored oils, such as C. wildii, still need to be extensively researched and used to uncover their benefits and enhance exposure. It will appeal to a small sector of the market, and is more likely to appeal to perfume makers for blending, and to professional aromatherapists who specialise in indigenous oils for their unique properties.

C. wildii has a fragrance that is very light; meaning that a lot of oil will need to be used in products for its scent to come through. Production of C. wildii oil is localised and it is produced in relatively small quantities, limiting the supply available to the market place.

Along with the product development activities, brand development of these Namibian products has been initiated. The first step was to settle on a name for the brand – something that could succinctly capture the mystical, ancient feeling of the desert and the Himba culture. A logo has been developed and the trademark Scents of Namibia registered.

Omumbiri oil has several unique selling points that will contribute to the successful marketing of the oils. This essential oil is a true myrrh, generating interest in it from the outset. The story behind the essential oil – its traditional use, how it is harvested, produced and branded, and the harvesters who directly benefit from this also promotes sales.

The supply will always remain limited, and this makes it an exclusive product. The products under the brand name of ‘Scents of Namibia’ will become synonymous with products that are empowering local communities, are 100% natural and botanical, organic, ecologically sustainable and a completely Namibian product.

Harvesters are paid N$50/kg of resin or gum when it is delivered to the conservancy buying point. During the three to four months harvesting season, individual harvesters can earn between N$1000 and N$5000, although the average earned is around N$1500 per season.

C. wildii resin is sold at N$100/kg while, after value adding, the essential oil is sold for N$5,000/kg. Harvesters benefit from the sale of the raw material to OPF. Companies in Namibia and South Africa are using the essential oil to fragrance their cosmetic products.

An opportunity to make truly Namibian products exists, not just from C. wildii and mopane, but also in combining other locally manufactured products and raw materials. Namibia has a considerable and growing tourist sector, which has the potential to provide a market for this kind of indigenous product. The next step is to create awareness that buying Namibian is the right thing to do.

One recommendation is for the OPF to sell their own oils direct to the end user as far as possible, without having to partner with agents, traders and other third parties, which will drive up the price of the product, but not directly benefit the Namibians producing the oil.

The challenges presently facing successful marketing of the oils are to make them known to relevant buyers. But, until the analysis of the components of the oils are uncovered, it is unknown whether they have any specific properties that will help target which markets the oils should be aimed at.

The fragrance industry and creators of perfumes will have to experiment extensively to see if the oils exhibit those specific properties they are looking for. Then there is the issue of competition and guarding one’s products. Mopane, for example is a very common species in the SADC Region, which means that other producers of the oil, their products and output will have to be taken into account.

The sustainable harvesting of gums and resins and the production and successful marketing of Namibian essential oils has the potential to make a significant impact on the livelihoods of many Namibians living in remote rural areas. Over the past ten years, much research has been done and this has laid the foundation for the successful establishment of sustainable supply chains. The development of sustainable markets for these products is the next challenge for the Namibian organisations supporting INP development.