Bulawayo — When froth starts to bubble in the glass vial, it's the cue for John Doro and his colleagues to glue their eyes on the thin layer floating at the top.
Doro and his business partners have struck oil - distilled from rose geraniums. And at their makeshift factory on a small farm on the outskirts of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, the former maize farmers hope their product will make others healthy, and themselves wealthy.
Unlike the black stuff that comes out of the ground, the oil derived from rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) is clean and smells good, and it is bringing income to Zimbabwe's Matabeleland region, where traditional maize farming has been unsettled by erratic weather patterns.
The rose geranium is native to southern Africa. Prized for the aroma of its oil, the drought-tolerant plant has become Doro's cash crop - one he can rely on regardless of the natural or economic climate - since he and his partners started growing and processing it six years ago. He doesn't regret the switch.
"When the rains (were) good, I had something to eat and a bit to sell, but that has been changing fast, and to the worse. The economic situation made it hard to survive on maize or vegetable farming," Doro explained as he walked around the rose geranium plot of the Medicinal Aromatic Herbal Plants Project Woodville (MAHPPW), in Woodville Park, northwest of Bulawayo's city centre.
Despite government predictions of a bumper maize harvest this year, thanks to decent rains and an increase in the area planted, Doro prefers to stick with rose geraniums. From these, he gets three harvests a year, compared with maize, which is dependent on rainfall and yields just one crop annually.
The rose geranium is extremely resistant to drought because of its semi-succulent, water-conserving stems and leaves. The oil distilled from the wilted leaves is much sought after for use in perfumes, aromatherapy and other health products.
According to Essential Oils, a leading South Africa-based distribution company, an 11ml bottle of rose geranium oil sells for $21 in that country.
South Africa, itself a major grower of rose geraniums, processes the oil through its facility at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria before it is sold locally and internationally.
SHIFT TO HERBAL PRODUCTS
MAHPPW chairman and production manager, David Watson, said that in developing the project he and his colleagues sought an indigenous plant with healing properties that was easily adaptable and beneficial to Zimbabweans, who have used herbal remedies and nutritional supplements for centuries.
The group manufactures and sells a range of products derived from rose geranium oil including soaps, lotions and atomisers. Members have invested more than $30,000 of their own money in growing, gathering and processing the plants.
The project has also brought benefits for suppliers of ingredients such as marula oil, beeswax and lavender oils for use in the final products.
"The world is turning to natural herbal medicine. We have tested the products on the local market and customers are happy," said Gabi Watson, another member of the project who looks after marketing and new product lines.
Agronomist Dave Masendeke believes alternative cash crops for farmers in semi-arid areas like Matabeleland are important for those who are experiencing weather changes, often affecting crop yields.
"In semi-arid areas, any crop herb that thrives and gives farmers an income is a very good option," Masendeke said. "Markets must, however, be guaranteed."
Global demand for geranium oils is estimated at 400 tonnes per year, with rose geranium oil accounting for about a quarter of that, according to 2013 figures from the Centre for the Promotion of Imports, a Netherlands government agency.
The centre estimates the world fragrance market is growing by 10 percent a year, and is forecast to generate over $33 billion by 2015.
Doro, who also works as the MAHPPW's accountant, said profits have grown from $800 in 2011 to more than $5,000 annually.
"Now we are able to meet the costs for workers' wages, raw materials, containers, stickers and some of the marketing material from the profits," he added.
"The full scale of the opportunity from rose geranium oil is yet to be explored," said project chairman David Watson. "This is an opportunity for even the most marginalised communities since natural products grow in abundance in the wild."
THE FUTURE SMELLS SWEET
Rose geraniums are now grown on 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares) of land, but there are plans to plant on 30 acres (12 acres) and double the number of employees from five, as well as to build separate production and training rooms and buy a larger machine for distilling.
"We have demand that we cannot fulfil as we can only make so much oil in a day with the 5 kg distiller we have," said Gabi Watson. "We now need to engage more people willing to learn so that we can fulfil the orders we have within a week instead of the month it takes us now."
According to Vusumuzi Dube of Enviro-Quest, a manufacturing company for environmentally friendly chemicals, cosmetics and repellent products in South Africa, the project has greater commercialisation potential in offering niche products from the essential oil.
He is doing research to help characterise the properties of the oil to identify specific applications for the African market in cosmetic or health products.
"Upscaling of distillation units will ensure higher volumes," Dube said.
"It is only in its early stages, but such a project can have major implications in Africa. A fierce move away from chemical compounds in cosmetic products is currently underway in Europe and the United States," Dube said. "Natural products are being sought after."
Doro also takes the long view. "The project has provided jobs, income and is empowering our community," he said. "It has taken (a) long (time) to see the result, but the wait has been worth it."
Busani Bafana is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, based in Zimbabwe and covering climate change issues.