5 August 2012

Ethiopia: Essential Oils Ooze into the Economy

Sitting behind an ordinary desk and shielding herself against the freezing July afternoon with a big scarf, it might be hard to imagine by a mere look that Bezawork Gebeyehu, gives serve as for both men and women 43, is a successful business woman with her own beauty salon and spa.

Her beauty salon and spa, located near Bole, has both a men's and women's beauty salon in opposite corners of the compound she rents. The spa in between offers massage, steam, sauna and Morocco bath services.

For Bezawork whose fascination lies in the possibility of relieving exhaustion, anxiety and stress, the focus is more on the spa than the salon, on which she claims she has no professional knowledge. The course she took six years ago on facial treatment and massage is the reason behind her inclination for spa services.

When she begin this, it all started as fun. A mother of three, Bezawork's main duty at that time was just taking care of her family. When she wanted a relief from stress, she used to visit massage parlours around town. Her experience with the relaxing effect of massages sparked her interest to know more about the area and she decided to take courses.

Just like the language and cooking courses she had taken before, the facial treatment and massage lessons were simply intended for a hobby. Her husband, however, encouraged her to make a business out of her training. With his support she opened a beauty salon and spa and named it after the feeling she always felt after a massage service: Relief.

Relief Beauty Salon and Spa is one of the 62 massage houses in Bole District. Currently, there are around 208 registered massage service providers in Addis Ababa. Though the modern massage service flourishes in the capital quite recently, the history of spa dated back to the time of Emperor Iyasu II. Not to be considered in the modern sense, the first sauna was built by Emperor Iyasu's mother, Etege Mentiwab around the beginning of 18th century.

Despite the early start, spa service was only available in large hotels such as the Hilton Addis and at Felweha around two decades ago. Now the trend has changed. There are many of them today, with some open 24/7 and offering home service.

The art of massage, which is Bezawork's profession, is instinctive to human beings as can be demonstrated from everyday activities like taking a bath or rubbing our neck when we are tired. The professional training goes deeper, studying physiology, psychology, classes on physical fitness and what most trainings in Ethiopia lack, chemistry, according to, a massage professional and instructor.

Although there are different types of massages, all require contact thereby creating friction and necessitating the use of oils for lubrication. The oils used for massage are categorized as base and essential oils. The base oils, also called carrier oils, are odourless and can be applied for anyone. Essential oils, which are blended with the carrier oil, have a distinctive scent of the particular plant they are extracted from. These oils can be distilled from leaves, stems, flowers, bark, roots or other parts of plants.

Out of the many kinds of essential oils, some are served for a specific massage type called aroma therapy. Bezawork describes aroma therapy with a spark in her eyes. Her spa carries essential oils made from lemon grass, cinnamon and eucalyptus for such massage service.

"Imagine yourself in a candle lit room, decorated with flowers and a professional giving a light massage using oils with a natural aroma," she describes passionately about the mood and benefit one can get from aroma therapy.

Addis Ababeans seem accustomed to such services. Bezawork's spa alone entertains 11 to 12 people a day. The increasing number of customers and expansion of such service providers also caused a growth in the demand for essential oils.

Ethiopia imported 28, 598 kg of essential oil worth 408, 441 dollars in 2011. The main origins of the imports were Spain, China, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, Iran and Israel. Although few companies are engaged in the extraction of essential oils in Ethiopia, they are penetrating the market.

A pioneer to enter the market was Ariti Herbal, a small private business established in 1999, by Ermias Dagne (Prof), who is Director of African Laboratory of Natural Products and his wife Tadelech Tadesse, a chemist. It produces, distributes and exports herbal products including pure and blended essential oils, herbal teas and seedlings.

The company cultivate aromatic herbs and other medicinal plants in its gardens in Addis Ababa, Sebeta and Wendo Genet, according to its official website. Using ingredients like eucalyptus, lemon grass, rosemary, peppermint and orange the company produces pure fragrant essential oils and blends for use in aromatherapy, bath and sauna.

Following the path of Ariti Herbal, other local companies joined the market including Abyssinia Essential Oils. Just like the founders of Ariti, the persons behind Abyssinia are married couples who had studied related subject with the business. The couples, Hiwot Workagegnehu and Behailu Kebede, both have degrees in Forestry. Hiwot even teaches at Wondo Genet College of Forestry.

Hiwot's close contact with Wondo Genet Agricultural Research Centre enabled her to see the gap in the commercialization of essential oils. The centre, established in 2009, administers 1.6ht of Medicinal Plants Field Gene Bank.

Hiwot entered her project for a competition hosted by the Engineering Capacity Building Program (ecbp), an Ethiopian integrated industrialization program supported by the German government. She won a 31 million dollars grant from a German donor to implement her business idea. Securing the finance about three years ago, Abyssinia began extracting essential oils from its distillery in Wondo Genet with a production capacity of two litres a day.

Most of their products are named after the plant from which they are extracted from. The eucalyptus and the nardos grass oils are the cheapest at 700 Br a litre while rosemary and lemon grass oils sell for 2,200 and 2,500 Br, respectively.

The ingredient plants are grown by farmers around Wondo Genet in line with the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) they have with farmer associations in the area. The Wondo Genet Agriculture Research Centre provides seeds to the farmers.

A large quantity of plant is needed to produce one litre of essential oil. Cheaper products, however, require relatively low amount of ingredient. For instance to produce a litre of eucalyptus oil, it only needs 100kg of the plant. For the expensive items like Rosemary it may require 400kgs to produce a litre.

An essential oil produced after such a process is highly concentrated; so that only a small amount is needed per use. Experts of the field say that to avoid the negative consequences, one should know how to use oils properly. If handled by a person who is not trained, the oils could cause a lot of harm and could even lead up to making a customer lose consciousness, according to Zemi Yenus, a veteran in the beauty industry and the founder of Niana Modeling & Talent Development Center.

"We use two to three drops of essential oil in 350ml of base oil," Bezawork explains.

Understanding the need of small use, Ariti Herbal bottled its products in small packages of 10, 30, 50, 100 and 200 millilitres. The company sells these products from 10 to 75 Br in its shops located on Mickey Leland St, Hilton Addis and Natural Science Faculty, located around Arat Kilo. Since Abyssinia is based in Wondo Genet, Southern Regional State, 275km south of Addis Ababa, does not have sales outlets anywhere, Behailu himself accepts the orders from clients and delivers door to door during his monthly trips to Addis Abeba.

The latest addition to the market, Herbal World Essential Oil Processing PLC, a producer of seven kinds of essential oils, rather prefers to make business with bigger establishments like hotels and soap factories. Established in June 2011 by two partners, the company has the capacity to produce six litres daily.

Using a steam- distillery unit, the company extracts essential oils, from eucalyptus, citronella, lemon oil, lemon grass, rosemary and sweet orange, with prices ranging from 900 to 1,200 Br a litre. The company employs four people at its essential oil distillation plant in Wondo Genet.

In the same way as Abyssinia, Herbal World also has a MoU with a farmers association in the area of Wondo Genet. In addition to the domestic market, Herbal World is in the process of developing an export line with trials to China, Germany and France, according to Rahel Hiruy, one of the founders. Abyssinia had also tried to export its products but failed to be price competitive.

"The technology gap makes our prices higher than that of other countries because they have high capacity distillation plants," Behailu told Fortune.

The owner of the companies believe that though at the moment the sector is not much developed still needing with the introduction of better technology and involvement of investors, the production can grow towards export competitiveness. Wondo Genet Agricultural Research Centre is helping them to achieve their plans by providing technical and technological support for the companies.

"Now we are focusing on import substitution and meeting the local demand," Behailu said.

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