Essential Oils Project – funded by Old Mutual South Africa

The Essential Oils (EO) project is one of several Sustainable Livelihoods projects run by the Bulungula Incubator, with generous support from Old Mutual South Africa. The EO project began in February this year, with the establishment of one project plot of lemongrass (about 50mx50m). This plot enabled us to grow sufficient lemongrass to supply root stock to our first 5 community farmers. It also allowed us to test various land preparation techniques to ensure maximum yield.

We have been anxiously watching the horizon for the arrival of the first summer rains so that we could plant our first five community farmers. The rains have arrived very late this year, but some good downpours meant that we were finally able to get the first of our volunteer farmers crops planted in late October.

Out initial aim was to start with 3 farmers but we had such a positive response from community members to participate in the program that we have had to limit our first batch of farmers to eight volunteers. The first five farmers are planting now, with an additional three scheduled to plant in January after the Christmas and New Years break.


Planning meeting to work out practicalities of planting

Each farmer is responsible for farming their own private plot of land. The size of each of these plots may vary, and are referred to as either family of homestead plots, but are generally around a quarter of a hectare in size.

The project farmers are responsible for ploughing and preparing their own land, as well as ensuring that their plot is fenced in such a way that the crops are protected from sheep, goats, donkeys and cattle.
They are not paid in any way for these efforts, their only financial reward will come when their crops are sold, at which stage they will earn all money raised through the sale of their crops.

During discussions about planting, the initial eight volunteer farmers decided independently to work as a collective. This was a heart-warming decision to observe. They all arrived at one homestead and planted that one plot before moving onto the next site the following day. This has made the planting process very fast and has its own intrinsic checks.

Because the majority of the farmers are volunteering their time helping the owner of the plot, they work in a very efficient way and the speed with which each plot is planted has been quite astounding. We have then carefully shown the owner of the plot how to ensure that a good job is being done, so he, or she, generally moves behind the others to ensure that the group is doing a good job, and not sacrificing quality for speed.


Working as a team has proven very effective


Many hands make light work

Other benefits to this team approach include the advantages of establishing a collective skill set and knowledge base.

By acting as a collective, and electing a committee, the group has also taken the first steps to establishing a functioning co-operative. This will be important for the growth and sustainability of the project.


A team photo to mark the occassion

The project is very closely linked to food security and each of the project farmers has been supplied with a good amount of vegetable seeds.


Discussing the distribution of vegetable seeds

One of the conditions of participating is that they plant the vegetables as well as the essential oil crop to compliment their family diet. We have actively discouraged planting essential oil crops at the expense of subsistence crops, and it is pleasing to note that the essential oil crops are being planted alongside mielies (corn).A few of the project farmers have divided their fields and are planting half with mielies (corn) and half with essential oil crops.

In addition to the vegetable seeds, each project farmer has also been supplied with half a dozen fruit trees and a variety of herbs. The project farmers have been shown haw to plant these to achieve their maximum potential.


There was much interest in the tree-planting lesson!

Between now and February 2011, the project will grow to include at least 20 families from Nqileni and surrounding villages.

  1. Ezekiel Njoroge

    hi. Am Ezekiel from Kenya am intrested to know more about lemon grass. I have few lemon grass plant in my garden and am propagating them focussing to have about an acre an above of lemon grass. Can i get funding to support the project? Still i have crude distiller i use to extract essential oil from eucalptus globulus i want to improve it to a more proffessional distiller. Can i get funding to imrove my distiller. Still am propagating sage, thyme, mint and rosemary and are doing well.

    • Bulungula Incubator

      Hi Ezekiel. Unfortunately, we are not a funding organisation, we also rely on raising funding through grant applications. Good luck with your project!

  2. Karen Swanepoel

    Iam the co-ordinator of the Southern African Essential Oil Producers Association (SAEOPA)
    We would like to see you making a success of your project. If you need professional assistance, mail me.
    Kind regards

  3. Dave –

    I’m glad you wrote this about collectives and cooperatives. As an American I wouldn’t have dared to. Having been involved in this kind of stuff for 40 some years, I can only echo your comments. From the hippie communes of the sixties to the urban co-ops of today, the problem is always – without fail – the same. Some people in every culture, apparently, seem to feel that they are entitled to share in the food produced without sharing in the work. I think that you have exactly the right formula, which is why I got so excited when I heard how the BI ag/hort project was organized. The American government, and, I would wager, the SA government would totally screw up a project like this

    I am deeply involved in a Community Gardening project here, and we’ve gone from 18 to 260 families (the majority immigrants) since spring 2007. Like the BI, we do our “heavy work” together, which fortunately occurs in the Spring, when everyone is all charged up. However – like BI – each family is responsible for its own 10 m x 10 m plot until Fall, when we have a big cleanup weekend. Everyone is supposed to participate in the clean-up and if they don’t show up, their plot is given to another family the following spring. We have a waiting list of 300 families, so finding a replacement isn’t difficult. (We occasionally grant waivers – this last fall, a woman had had a difficult childbirth in August, so we gave her a pass on the cleanup.)

    Each family has total control over what it grows, and can eat it, sell it, barter it, whatever. Since I provide most of the seeds and plants from my greenhouses at no charge to the families, each family agrees to provide me with 1% of the produce. Some do, some don’t, and whatever I receive in “payment” I donate to the Community Food Bank. (1560 kg of fresh produce this summer!!!)

    I am willing to wager that you will discover, if you haven’t already, that some of your farmers are natural entrepreneurs who will make a deal with a lazy neighbor to take over the neighbor’s plot in return for Rands or a bottle of booze or a cell phone. The “entrepreneur” will have not quite twice as much work to do, but will have figured out what to do with the extra produce she now grows. You will also discover that some of the farmers are simply “better farmers” and will produce considerably more food than their next door neighbor, on the same land and with the same plants and seeds to start with. Some of the farmers will be able to get their kids to work more effectively than others, etc., etc.

    I have no doubt that if the political leaders of Nquelini don’t interfere you will quite quickly see 10-20% of the farmers emerge as leaders – at least as far as the farming is concerned. Yeh, I know, that is not very egalitarian, but if your goal is to develop a high degree of self-sufficiency, those “leaders” are exactly the people you need. Sure, they will be perceived as a threat by some, as crooked by others, but they will be seen as a “model” by the majority.

    In my case here, the farmers are theoretically supposed to “buy” their seeds and plants from me. But already in Year One, there was one Guatemalan man and one Vietnamese woman who showed an extraordinary interest in what I did and how I did it. I kind of adopted them and took them into the greenhouse and showed them how to do the tasks needed to grow veggies. Showed them how to build cheap cold frames, where to get cheap or free materials, how to compost, how to make and use organic fertilizers, etc., etc. Next Spring (2010) I fully expect them to be able to start enough seedlings to supply at least 20 families, maybe more. And I have two more “interns” signed up to spend a month or two in the greenhouse with me. (At age 65, I’ve got to worry a little about who will do this when I die or have to quit.)

    I am 95% confident that in 2-3 more years, we will have 400-500 active families with a waiting list, 5-6 people doing what I am doing now so that I can withdraw to some kind of godfather status and help out only when absolutely necessary. I’d like to be able to devote some serious time to persuading other ordinary Nebraska corn and pig farmers around here to set aside 5 or 10 hectares for 5-10 years, so that we can get more families involved.

    Oh, by the way, our crops are 100% organically grown, and bring a premium at the markets. Each farmer has to commit to not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. So far, I’ve given the co-op a few tons of well composted dairy cow manure each spring, but I need to get a crew trained up to do that. (There is no shortage of manure around here! My next door neighbor has 1800 dairy cows, each of which produces about 150 pounds (68 kilos) of manure and urine every day!!! the dairy is itself an organic farm that uses no antibiotics or growth hormones.)

    Sorry, this is way more than I intended to write. I’m just a senile old geezer who is hard to stop once he gets going.

    Best to you and Rejane!

  4. Dave (BI)

    @Paul: Co-operatives in this part of the world have had mixed success. It is the cultural norm here that people do farming work like this (as well as grave digging, ploughing, ceremony catering, etc) co-operatively. However the downfall of most co-operatives here and worldwide seems to be if the fruits of the labour are distributed equally between the co-operative irrespective of the amount of effort put in.

    There have been hundreds of community gardens created in South Africa where people farm one piece of land together and then share the profits on harvesting. These invariably fail as initially everyone helps out, then over time only a few hard-core members are left working and then suddenly everyone arrives again at harvest time to get “their equal share”, which inevitably causes conflict and collapse of the garden.

    I think the key to success of the above project and other BI projects is that while we may co-operate on planting, weeding, etc – it is clear that each farmer gets all the produce from her/his land. Thus if one farmer fails to help on the others’ land, she cannot expect their help on her’s. Either way s/he will only get/harvest what his/her own land produces…

    This also means that should future conflict weaken/break the co-operative, the farmers can easily continue individually to grow and sell their crop.

  5. Chris – The seeds would be shipped from either Western Iowa or Eastern Nebraska, and the cost is totally dependent on how many seed packets are involved. But it ain’t cheap any more. I’ll check with the U.S. Post Office tomorrow and get latest rates for South Africa, and then try to translate the weight of the seed packets into some kind of $$$$ data.

    • Chris – It will cost as much to ship the seeds as they are worth. Example: 50 packets will cost nearly $50.00 (US) to get to Nquelini. There has got to be a better way. When I visited garden centers in Capetown, they had excellent selections of (presumably) SA-produced seeds on the racks. I think you would get a bigger bang for your buck if someone were to get an SA seed company to donate seeds. It would cost relatively little to get them from Capetown or Joberg to Nquelini village.

      I also called a contact in the American State Department and asked if I could get the seeds transported free via diplomatic pouch, but she said that I should work through one of the U.S. international aid projects, which I am loathe to do. Those guys would screw up a wet dream.

      My offer still holds though – I will provide as many seeds as they need free of charge if someone will pay for the shipping. Why don’t you contact me off line at if you want to proceed with this? I will need to coordinate the selection of varieties with someone “on the ground” in Bulungula, so I don’t send a bunch of stuff that no one will eat.

  6. Charles, Dave, Rejeane, Liesl, whomever –

    Thanks much for the update on the lemongrass project. I was beginning to wonder. Would love to see those plots about April 1, and wish I could figure out how to get a few thousand starter plants to you. (I checked at the SA Embassy here and the South African ag authorities would definitely erect some obstacles.) And I am sooooo glad that you made basic nutrition an integral part of the plantings. Were any of the veggie seeds I left with you particularly well accepted? I can get an almost unlimited supply of those gratis every July/August, if you can get someone to pay the shipping.

    It’s the beginning of winter here and my few thousand lemongrass plants are safely tucked into the greenhouse.

    Best wishes to everyone I worked with. I think of you all and Nquelini Village in general often.

    Wish I were there to see the project in person.

    • HI Gene

      So nice to hear from you and get all your best wishes.
      Thanks so much to you for all your help getting us this far.
      Our project farmers are up to 13 at the moment.

      Some of these have been planted and others are in the process of being planted.

      Each of these is a family or homestead plot.

      The family still plants their corn as usual, but they also plant an essential oil plant, either on the same plot, or on another piece of land if they have it.

      At the moment we are still only planting lemongrass, but in February hope to plant Rose Geranium.

      Each participating family has also been given a selection of store bought vegetable seeds and half a dozen fruit trees.

      Having access to seeds will be incredible, we will get every seed out into the community and monitor to ensure that they are planted correctly and help with training.

      By the way, last week I planted our first small experimental plot of “Three Sisters”

      I am hoping to get another three or four experimental plots planted before Christmas.

      We have our nursery up and running and have had reasonable success with cuttings of Rose geranium, Rosemary, Origanum, Marjorum and Thyme.

      We are also growing seeds of Roselle and Tea Tree.

      We even have a small bed of bamboo which somebody asked us to see if we can propagate as they might have a commercial demand.

      I am going to try and get my hands on half a dozen pelargonium zedoides over the next week to send up so that we can start cuttings and beds of these.

      We will have our first harvest of Lemongrass in March and will let you know how the drying and processing of that goes.

      On the seed front, over the next 12 months we want to get 20 project families established in another five additional villages.

      As a way of moving forward we will distribute vegetable seeds and knowledge about planting to these additional 100 families.

      I will also try and get fruit trees from the government to each family as well.

      All the very best, and we will need to get some funding to get your expertise out here, especially on the Perargonium front.



  7. Paul

    I just love how they immediately formed a collective. Western society has a lot to learn from rural African communities.

    • HI Paul

      Yes. Completely.
      I have been competely amazed by how much more democratic the village is. Although their system seems autocratic with a chief, headmen, and sub-headmen, this system is far more democratic and fair from what I am used to.
      All big decisions are taken at community meetings and from my personal experiences the Headman is more a facilitator than a CEO. He really echoes the needs of the collective and facilitates reaching fair conclusions.
      I have never been more aware of how misrepresented this system of governance has been by colonials.
      What I have seen is definitely not a case of dictatorships. Left alone, the system that I have observed is far more fair and just than anything I have been used to.
      We can all learn a lot, and re-learn a lot as well for that matter.
      All the best


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