When it comes to sources of essential rose oil, countries such as Turkey, Bulgaria, Iran and Afghanistan come to mind – but Ethiopia? As it turns out, the Ethiopian highlands, which are known for their coffee, provide the ideal conditions for growing the very fragrant Damask rose, and this "Rosa damascena" yields an exceptionally precious essential oil. Seven years ago, Ethiopian farmer Fekade Lakew joined forces with WALA Heilmittel GmbH and began cultivating Damask roses in keeping with the principles of biodynamic agriculture. This year he distilled the first batch of essential rose oil. This is the first rose oil production in sub-Saharan Africa that is transitioning to organic standards. which was also the very first in Africa to achieve organic quality.
The rose farm Terra PLC is located in Debre Birhan, some 125 kilometres north of Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Abeba, at an altitude of 2900 metres. This high mountainous landscape is ideal for growing Damask roses. Everything began at the farm in 2002, when vegetables were planted there. After that came a brief phase of cultivating cut roses, but they did not tolerate the late frosts which can occur in the Ethiopian highlands. Fekade Lakew subsequently switched to Damask roses. He was soon in contact with WALA, which showed great interest in his efforts. "We had long been considering an attempt at growing roses near the Equator," said Ralf Kunert, head of raw-material purchasing at WALA. The prospects are especially promising because the closer plants grow to the Equator, the longer they blossom. In the countries known for cultivating roses such as Bulgaria, Turkey and Iran roses bloom within four weeks and have to be harvested in this time, whereas it takes eight weeks in Debre Birhan. "This is a huge advantage," Ralf Kunert explains. "It means that we have twice the amount of time to harvest the same amount of rose blossoms." In other words, there is less pressure on the farmers to finish the harvest quickly; fewer rose pickers are needed, and what's more, they can be often be employed beyond the season itself. Furthermore, the quality of the roses can be monitored more closely during picking, and the output of the distillation unit is more consistent. Last but not least, Ethiopian highland roses offer yet another benefit: at four grammes per blossom, they are nearly twice as heavy as the rose blossoms from other countries, which typically weigh 2 - 2.5 grammes.
WALA accepts social responsibility
WALA provided motivation for the project by donating the rose cuttings. After seven years' time, the plants had turned into hearty rose bushes. To make sure that the roses received the proper care from the very beginning and to create the best possible conditions, WALA provided Fekade Lakew and his employees a consultant in the field of biodynamic agriculture. The expert visits the rose farm at regular intervals several times a year to train and advise employees there about how to cultivate roses properly. As a means of ensuring compliance with the high standards WALA fundamentally upholds for the raw materials it processes, the first certification audit was held this year in keeping with Demeter guidelines and the fair-trade standard "fair for life." WALA financed the costs of the audit. Recently, a distillation unit was installed as well. It was made in Ethiopia under the guidance of a Bulgarian distillery builder whom WALA had recommended. Funding came from WALA and the German aid organisation Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) , which was acting under contract with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). "It is important to us that knowledge is generated in the country itself and amongst our project partners. Helping people to help themselves is WALA's maxim," Ralf Kunert states. The objective of every WALA raw-material project is to expand biological agriculture across the globe. Partners are supported on site with funding and technical expertise. WALA signs a contract to purchase the raw materials yielded by the project. This gives the project partners security in planning, and their employees can be paid their wages on a regular basis. In its supplier relations, WALA pays special attention to decent working conditions, fair wages, and conscientious and responsible use of environmental resources.
One hectare of roses for a kilogramme of essential rose oil
WALA pays Fekade Lakew and his company Terra PLC €7000 for a kilogramme of essential rose oil. Approximately one hectare of roses is needed to obtain a kilogramme of the precious oil which is used in nearly all Dr.Hauschka Skin Care products and in many WALA medicines. WALA has agreed to purchase all of the rose oil produced at the farm for a period of ten years. "After that, we want it to be no more than 60-70% of his output," Ralf Kunert says. "We don't want a project partner to be dependent on us; instead, they need to have several customers so they can stand on their own two feet." In the meantime, Fekade Lakew has leased another 14 hectares of land in Angolela, some ten kilometres away. The state currently does not permit private land ownership with the exception of a very small lot for personal use. Several rose bushes grow in Angolela, and soon there will be many more if farmers in the region follow Fekade Lakew's example. This may happen rapidly, since people in a neighbouring village have expressed interest. If all goes well, they too will start growing roses and have essential rose oil produced in the new distillation unit at Terra PLC. The roses are blooming in Ethiopia, and as they do, the economic and social situation of some families there can slowly but steadily improve.