AGRICOLLEGES International Alumnus & Founder of Like Mountains Organic Rose Geranium Essential Oil Farm & Distillery
Founded in 2019 by Anri Manderson, Like Mountains is nestled in the South African Lowveld where organic rose geranium is grown and distilled by women. Endemic to South Africa, the evergreen leaves and stalks yield a heavenly essential oil that is emerald green in colour.
Geranium Oil is one of the most important oils in perfumery. Rosy, floral, and sweet with minty green nuances. It is essential in building rose accords, and painting depth and leafy aspects in floral compositions.
Having both anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties, rose geranium essential oil is also wonderful in skin care.
Anri started Like Mountains in 2015 as a boutique consultancy firm, which focused on project management for international development agencies that were working with organic smallholder farmers in South Africa. The name comes from a song by David O’ Dowda, called Mountains. After five years supporting smallholder farmers to produce and market their organic vegetables, she realised the organic demand in South Africa was never going to absorb sufficient produce to enable smallholders to really grow their businesses. As a result she started investigating value-adding opportunities.
In 2018, the South African government started promoting industry from natural products in a sustainable manner that preserves our cultural and natural heritage. One sub-sector is essential oils. We’re still small and unknown, but due to our rich biodiversity there is a lot of potential to become something truly unique. There are so many indigenous flora with incredible fragrance, flavour, and medicinal properties that are still unknown to the rest of the world. At the moment Rose Geranium, Buchu, and Cape Camomile are the most common, but there are so many more.
In 2019 Anri thus decided to start the distillery and up skill young female farmers from impoverished rural areas in Limpopo, South Africa to grow and distil indigenous essential oils, which has a much more established market and higher value than vegetables. This initiative turned one year old at the beginning of June 2020.Rose geranium oil is grown and distilled by women.
Tell us more about how your farm operates and what is so unique about the way you are producing rose geranium essential oil?
South Africa has a very unjust colonial and apartheid past. An unimaginable number of people have been forcibly removed from their lands. To attempt to rectify this, the government has put in place a land reform programme. It hasn’t enjoyed much success, as those people receiving land lack the skill, experience, and resources to farm it.
In this context Like Mountains rents a piece of land from a community, the Moleteles, who received land from the government through the land reform programme. Over the next three years we will train six young female farmers to grow essential oil plants and give them a secured market for their produce. They will also have shares in the marketing company selling the oil, which is called Wilde Natural Oils.
I obviously chose to work with women as I am a woman and it is no small feat to be a female farmer in this country, or probably the world. I’ve had a lot of support from my family, who happen to all be farmers, and I feel the only way other female farmers could have a chance to enter the sector is if they received the same kind of guidance and support.
The farm we’re renting has very bad soil, or in actual fact, I think it would be appropriate to call it dirt. We’ve embarked on an extensive restoration programme to build up our soils and leave healthy and living soils to our children and theirs. Needless to say we are passionate about organic farming and were certified as organic by EcoCert in our first year of production. We intend to keep that up!
You have done some really interesting research surrounding sustainability, food systems, and supporting organic smallholder farms. How would you say your experience as a researcher has influenced your decisions with Like Mountains?
I’ve always felt that I made a mistake in my career, or many mistakes if you look at all the different directions my studies and work experiences took me. It would have been simpler to study medicine and become a doctor and follow a clear career path. It was only when I decided to pursue this expansion into organic essential oil production and processing, with a strong focus on women empowerment that it all clicked into place for me.
I often stand and look at all the energy we put into these few drops of essential oil and wonder if it is all worth it. Naturally I’m drawn to food production and wanting to improve food security. I don’t know if you’re aware, but it takes about 600kg of raw material to make 1L of rose geranium oil. But then I’m reminded of how impossible it was to sell organic produce in an impactful way and so to support women to earn more than just a buffer income that keeps them off the poverty edge, we push on.
What are some of the challenges Like Mountains has faced or is perhaps looking at into the future?
Our lifeless soil is currently my biggest challenge and not something that can be easily fixed. Nevertheless, we just need to keep going and with love, sufficient organic inputs, and time, it will become our biggest asset in the end.
I’m currently also struggling to secure sufficient funding for formal training for the outgrowers, as all our funding applications have been suspended to deal with the more immediate requirements of the Corona pandemic. Our government made some questionable and serious cuts to agriculture. We’ve thus embarked on a new strategy to raise sponsorships for each woman, which is going to slow down our progress and potentially delay the programme.
Tell us a little bit the process of distilling rose geranium essential oil?
We have a half-ton unit and a steam boiler. We’ve decided to use macadamia shells instead of charcoal, as we’re located near macadamia farms and this waste product burns a lot cleaner than coal. The steam generated from the boiler runs through pipes to the bottom of the half-ton pot and then steams the plants for an hour. It’s almost like the steam invites the oil to let go of the leaves and join its upward journey to the top of the pot, where it is collected in a pipe that runs through a condenser. The steam then turns into a distillate that is captured in a separator. The oil floats on top of the hydrosol, so it’s really easy to draw it off through a tap. We spray the hydrosol on the little cuttings we make for new fields and give it to the guest house across the road to use as a room spray.
What are some of your favourite ways to use rose geranium essential oil?
When my husband and I met in 2010, I was wearing it directly on my skin as a perfume. I would not have believed then that only 10 years later I would be farming and making it myself. We’re even selling most of it to the brand I used to wear, which was the first certified organic essential oil company in South Africa, called SOiL.
These days I also use the hydrosol as a toner due to its perfectly low pH, and love adding it to our family bath water. My dad recently suffered from shingles, and when researching natural remedies to ease the nerve pain, I discovered that rose geranium worked. He swears by it and collects it in bulk as part of his consultancy fee!