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Nkomati:

Rose Geranium

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From Mpumalanga to the French perfumes

The Rose Geranium is indigenous to southern Africa. It has a delicate purple, pink and white flower which looks more like an orchid than a typical geranium but the whole plant is extremely important, not for the way it looks but for the way it smells.

The Rose Geranium – or Pelargonium graveolens to give it its full name – is prized by perfumers for the oils that can be distilled from it, oils that yield an astonishing variety of fragrances but, especially, a strong and distinctive rose fragrance.

A litre of rose geranium oil will yield its producer an income of roughly R900. This is the price agents will pay for the precious fluid. An established grower who has proven his product and reliability over a number of years can deal directly with the fragrance buyers of Europe and command higher prices.

This is the market South Africa’s Department of Agriculture advised a co-operative group of farmers in Mpumalanga to pursue. After being awarded land following a successful claim, the Sukuma Mswati Communal Property Association lacked the resources and skills to farm the land awarded, outside the town of Badplaas.

A group of 20 new landowners – four men and 16 women – formed themselves into the Sinqaba iNdlala Co-operative and set to work part of their 553 hectares of high-potential agricultural land.

The department helped the co-operative by planting four hectares of rose geraniums in 2007. Later another 6 hectares were planted. Meanwhile the co-operative formed a joint venture with the Siyaphambili Trust, a trust associated with the Mpumalanga Department of Rural Development. The trust’s Charl Kotze is an experienced farmer and rural development expert who has taken a personal interest in the trust and its activities. “I really believe in this work,” says Kotze. “We look at the potential of the land and the potential of the people. Here, both are excellent. The people are determined, they are focused on the long-term and not short-term gain. They’ve suffered setbacks but they are carrying on.”

The setbacks Kotze refers to, include once-in-30-year freak weather conditions, including a hailstorm with hailstones as big as tennis balls and a black frost which struck early in 2011. This put the project back a good four years but the co-op members keep struggling on.

Co-op treasurer Patrick Ngobeni says the project has borrowed money to pay for wages, and operating expenses. Those who work the geranium fields (the short-term goal is to plant 20 hectares) earn R1 500 to R2 000. When the black frost struck their fields the co-operative should already have done its first commercially viable harvest but they were unable to gain access to a nearby distillation plant. It was the kind of bad luck that would have disheartened all but the most determined.

The whole plants can be harvested three times a year and are then fed into large vats inside a distillation plant where the oil is extracted by steam.

Nkomati paid for the erection and equipping of a sophisticated – Kotze calls it “top-class” – distillation plant at a cost of R2.4 million and also spent R500 000 on pricey rose geranium seedlings and soil preparation. By August 2011, the distillation plant was finally almost ready to go into operation after being connected to the project’s water supply – two years after it was erected.

Ngobeni says Nkomati Mine has been a great partner. “They have really helped us get going and to get to the next level,” he says. “We are very fortunate to have partners like Nkomati and Siyaphambili.”

The Sinqaba iNdlala Co-operative has already successfully grown cash crops on its land but rose geraniums are the future, Ngobeni says. In the longer term, the aim is to have at least 120 hectares producing oil. (The plants are grown from cuttings, plants last for two years and producing cuttings is a critical component of the overall operation. A hectare should produce 120 litres of oil a year, resulting in a gross income of almost R13 million a year. That is the prize the co-operative and Siyaphambili are chasing.

But Ngobeni insists there is a broader aim, a dream of sustainability and local empowerment. “What I want, in my heart and soul, is to inculcate the spirit of farming in young people,” says Ngobeni. “My dream is that we will have enough profit to pay for a member of our community to go to university and study agriculture. Then, they will come back and share their learning with us and help us to work better. And so we will go on, getting better and stronger, and empowering more young people.”

Kotze shares this dream: “I want to see this project establish itself and flourish. Then I want to retire. I want to see this land being used as a distribution centre, not only for Sinqaba iNdlala but for all the farmers in this area, a place they can source fertilisers, seed and inputs without having to pay all the money to drive to Nelspruit, a real co-operative that will benefit this area for generations to come.”

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