Production of essential oils helps farmers in Burundi to develop
“Once upon a time, we began producing patchouli with fifteen families in Burundi. They were too poor to send their children to school. Now, one of the families has three children at private school and a fourth is studying medicine!” Chadrick Habonimana, General Manager of the Burundian farm Rugofarm makes the announcement with great pride. Together with a few thousand families, he is now producing essential oils for the European cosmetics market. And he has received support for his latest project – the production of eucalyptus and lemon grass oils – through the BPF.
Burundi has a high level of poverty. The population is increasing and agricultural land is rare. “However, we have an advantage. There are several climate zones and different plants grow in each. This creates opportunities to produce very diverse and precious agricultural products”, says Chadrick Habonimana.
From this natural wealth, the idea of producing essential oils was born. Chadrick explains, “My father purchased Rugofarm in 1991 and, together with the University of Burundi, he studied which plants he could use to produce oil. It was a means of making the economy less vulnerable at a time when the country only exported coffee, tea and a little cotton.”
However, in 1993 the civil war broke out. “We only really recovered after 2000. We became partners of the French company Astier Demarest, which specializes in essential oils.” Chadrick went off to France to study, explaining “I completed a master’s degree in agricultural development, but I had only one idea in mind, which was to develop Rugofarm.”
“We began with patchouli. The first plant cuttings came from Asia, but we now work with over 2,000 local producers. They grow the plants and sell us the leaves and we distil the oil. With great success. We make a profit and we bring prosperity to the families. ”
Now, the time has come to diversify, with lemon grass and eucalyptus oils. In order to begin with these two products, Rugofarm is being supported by the King Baudouin Foundation “Why lemon grass? Because there is a market for this and the locals are aware of this. People use it in their tea. We are selecting the families we want to work with and growing the plant cuttings to begin cultivation. Eucalyptus is even more interesting. People use the wood as charcoal to cook, but the leaves are not used. We shall soon be working with 1,500 families to extract the essential oil. So we are making use of waste material!”
A solid business
Rugofarm is a solid business, founded during the period of German colonialism. It currently has some 300 permanent employees and works with five thousand farming families. The company itself manages 500 hectares of agricultural land and rents out large areas of it to rice farmers. Rugofarm has a turnover of 300,000 dollars, without counting the added economic value to the farmers themselves. Rugofarm cooperates with the University of Burundi, the Belgian development agency Enabel and its French partner Astier Demarest.
As well as essential oils, Rugofarm also produces palm oil, bananas and rice. “Hunger is widespread in Burundi. Much of the land is not used as it ought to be and this is why we have irrigated vast stretches of land in the former colonial territory and shown people how to cultivate rice. And the results are good”, Chadrick tells us. “Production has now reached 5 to 6 tonnes per hectare.”
The main activity, however, remains the production of essential oils. “We control the entire chain of production, from cultivation and logistics to transformation into a finished product destined for the perfume industry” says Chadrick. “Astier Demarest takes care of the technical support and marketing, because the market for essential oils is concentrated in the town of Grasse, in southern France, and so you need to have a partner there.”
“People use the charcoal of eucalyptus to cook, we value the waste material. We shall extract the essential oil from the leaves.”
“We will, nevertheless, continue to diversify. We are searching for other interesting plants in the various climate zones. At the moment, for instance, we are experimenting with ginger. It’s the same story again, people use it and love it, so why not earn some money with it? But my main ambition is to improve our current business, through consistent quality and sustainable production, but whilst also respecting our people and the environment.”
Rugofarm works under the “Fair for life” label, which aims to ensure sustainable trade, particularly for local businesses in sensitive areas. Chadrick recognises that “Fair trade is very important in cosmetic markets and this is why our local producers work in cooperatives. In addition to their own income, we invest 2.5% of the revenues in the local community.”
“We also want to work as organically as possible. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides are expensive, but people still use them because they want to see rapid results. Now that they earn money with patchouli, it would be wrong to use it to purchase such products. Their fields are often close to their houses and if they use chemical products it’s bad for their health. Moreover, using an organic product creates greater value. So we encourage people to buy a goat or a cow and use their manure. We teach our people how to make compost and how to use potassium from their charcoal.”
“We should also like to make progress on social issues. We insist that all of our producers’ children – girls as well as boys – attend school. Primary school is free. There’s no reason to keep the children at home. Everyone also has to have health insurance. We show our people that this is not a project to make a quick buck. We are also here for future generations.”
“And we also focus on women. The farms often carry the name of the man, but it’s the women who do the work. When we introduced patchouli in the northern region of Cibitoke, the men weren’t very interested. They made banana wine. Patchouli was something for the women – until the women came home with the money! Women are often the catalyst for change. All of the money that comes into the community has an impact on this. That’s why, when we organize meetings, we always say “Bring your wife!”
“Our story has given people a certain attitude to business. They have seen that patchouli brings prosperity with it. They realise that they have to seize opportunities. And it’s the same thing with the local banks. They waited. They didn’t understand how to transform leaves into oils. But now they can see the results. This is why being recognised by the King Baudouin Foundation makes us so happy. It is a great financial injection, but it also underlines our story. This is important for our investors. ”