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Rwanda essential oils boost profits from limited land

Inside a metal shed in southeastern Rwanda, Nicholas Hitimana brandished a plastic container holding a green liquid: geranium essential oil, freshly distilled and ready for export at more than US$200 per kilo.

The pioneer of essential oils in Rwanda, Hitimana said he understood more than a decade ago “the need to develop high-value crops” in his hilly nation of just 2.6 million hectares.

Agriculture accounts for nearly one-third of GDP and employs four-fifths of the population and, as a result, there is “little arable land” remaining, he said.

“On a hectare, if we grow beans, we earn about US$2,000 a year, whereas on the same land, if we grow geranium, the income can reach US$6,000 or even US$8,000,” Hitimana said.

The trained agronomist embodies Rwanda’s ambition of diversifying its agriculture and increasing the value of exports by getting into the lucrative global market for essential oils. To this end, Hitimana has been importing geraniums from South Africa since 2004.

At the time, the flower was virtually unknown in Rwanda, but Hitimana was convinced of the “great potential” of the essential oil sector.

“In South Africa there can only be two harvests a year, but here, as there is no winter, it is possible to get up to four crops a year,” said Hitimana, whose company Ikirezi Natural Products has since grown and diversified.

With 25 hectares of plantations, it produces 1,000kg of essential oils derived from patchouli, lemongrass and eucalyptus, as well as geraniums. The oils are exported to Canada, South Africa, the US and elsewhere for use in the perfume industry.

The company employs 70 farmers.

“At first, it was not easy to convince them to abandon subsistence for commercial agriculture,” he said, adding that the work is more precise than growing beans.

“We need to plant on time, manure on time, hoe, turn the soil, irrigate and harvest on time,” or risk a “drastically” reduced yield, Hitimana said, adding that it takes between 600kg and 1,000kg of geraniums to produce a single kilogram of oil.

A few years on, and the employees seem convinced.

“Since I’ve been working here, I’ve been able to build a house with a tin roof, I can pay for my son’s schooling and buy everything I need,” 55-year-old Stephanie Mukamana said, busily weeding around a geranium plant.

Last year, Rwanda exported about 14 tonnes of essential oils — geranium, moringa, patchouli and tagetes — bringing in US$473,000, the National Agricultural Export Development Board said.

Rwanda is also cultivating pyrethrum, used in natural insecticides.

According to India-based Market Research Future, essential oils are increasingly in demand in richer countries for use in cosmetics, food and pharmaceuticals.

The world market is forecast to grow by 7 percent between this year and 2022, it said.
To get its share of the cake, Rwanda opened an essential oil laboratory three years ago, the first of its kind in the region, allowing quality control.

“One of the main challenges facing Rwanda is a growing trade deficit and a limited number of competitive companies that can meet regional and international export standards,” said Patience Mutesi, Rwanda director for TradeMark East Africa, which promotes regional trade and helped fund the lab project.

The laboratory is to “enable Rwandan companies to access new and lucrative markets ... by strengthening consumer confidence in the quality of Rwandan products,” she said.

Sitting in front of a brand new chromatograph in the Kigali laboratory, Rwanda Standards Authority official Antoine Mukunzi expressed satisfaction with his small country’s progress, saying: “We cannot compete in terms of exported volumes, but we can in terms of quality.”

Jimirasire

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