An oil is “essential” in the sense that it carries a distinctive scent, or essence, of the plant.

Essential oils do not, as a group, need to have any specific chemical properties in common, beyond conveying characteristic aromas. They are extracted from flowers, grasses, stems, seeds, leaves, roots, bark, fruit, moss and tree secretions using various means including distillation, expression, extraction, enfleurage, maceration and head space technology. They are used by the flavour and fragrance industry to create, and then manufacture, flavourings for food and beverages, and perfume compounds for cosmetics, household products and fine fragrances, amongst other items.

Source: Michael Gristwood, SAAFFI;; NEDLAC / Fridge report (details under "Websites & publications" heading)


International business environment

  • Brazil, China, the USA, Egypt, India, Mexico, Guatemala, Morocco and Indonesia are the major producers of essential oils.
  • The EU dominates world trade but no single country here is a major producer.
  • About 65% of world production comes from developing countries.
  • There are approximately 160 essential oils traded globally.
  • The top 10 oils make up some 80% of world trade.
  • Therefore world trade in essential oils is divided into two components, referred to as the major and minor oils. Major oils are those oils traded in large quantities (but often lower prices).

Further reference:

  • The global essential oils market size is estimated to be valued USD 8.8 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach a value of USD 15.3 billion by 2027 (Reportlinker, 2022).
  • International Organisation of the Flavour Industry (IOFI)
  • The International Fragrance Association (IFRA)
  • International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades (IFEAT)
  • National Association of Flavours & Food-ingredient Systems (based in the USA) –
  • HealthWorld Online: “healthy people, healthy planet” –

South Africa: exports and imports

Imported products dominate South Africa’s sales. Most of the imports come from India, USA, eSwatini, UK and China. South Africa exports mainly to the USA, UK, Germany and France. Statistics up to 2018 are provided at

Local business environment

  • South Africa has the potential to be a major supplier of certain essential oils, such as rosemary, lemon grass, lavender, lemon balm and rose geranium. The eucalyptus oil sector is some 80 years old and is largely self-sufficient and established. Others, like geranium, lavender and chamomile are relatively new.
  • The essential oil industry is driven by two main factors: commercial farmers seeking alternative high value crops to diversify risk and increase profitability; and rural communities, Government and NGO’s seeking high value crops that can be produced on a co-operative basis thereby creating jobs in economically depressed rural areas.
  • The South African essential oils industry comprises over 80 small commercial producers of which fewer than 20% are regular producers. Most oil production is Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.
  • Since South Africa does not produce enough essential oils for its own needs the future for this sector looks promising, theoretically. Producers have found marketing their products to be difficult.
  • SAEOPA offers to present information on essential oil farming to interested farmer study groups.
Source: and a previous version of A Profile of the South African Essential Oils Market Value Chain (see heading 10). Refer to the Directorate Marketing web pages at to see if an updated version of the publication has been published

Indigenous essential oils

  • Rural communities often wild harvest indigenous plants, either on their own land or that of a commercial farmer.
  • The exploitation of this indigenous plant material holds some interest for rural development, and a number of new cultivation projects are underway, with the aim of ensuring long term sustainability of these industries and enabling rural communities to create wealth from indigenous knowledge. The Western Cape, for example, is promoting the cultivation of Buchu (Agathosma sp.)
  • Other promising indigenous oils are: Artemisia afra. Leonotis leonurus, Eriocephalus sp., Lippia sp., Salvia sp., Helichrysum sp., Cymbopogon validus, Coleonema sp., Tarchonanthus camphoratus, Arthrixia sp.

For more information on the market trends contact the Southern African Essential Oil Producers Association (SAEOPA) (see “Associations involved” heading). The Indigenous Plant Use Forum (IPUF) is a useful place to engage with what research is happening on plants and their properties.

For the newcomer

Various essential oils have been used medicinally at different periods in history. Medical applications proposed by those who sell medicinal oils range from skin treatments to remedies for cancer, and are often based on historical use of the oils for these purposes. Such claims are now subject to regulation in most countries, and have grown correspondingly more vague, to stay within these regulations.

Interest in essential oils has revived in recent decades, with the popularity of aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine which claims that the specific aromas carried by essential oils have curative effects. Oils are volatilised or diluted in a carrier oil and used in massage, or burned as incense, for example.

Carrier oil, also known as base oil or vegetable oil, is used to dilute essential oils before they are applied to the skin. They are so named because they carry the essential oil onto the skin. Carrier oils do not contain a concentrated aroma, unlike essential oils, nor do they evaporate like them. There are a range of different carrier oils each with their own individual properties and suitability towards different treatments in aromatherapy. Infused oils are a combination of a carrier oil and various herbs. True carrier oils are generally cold-pressed vegetable oils such as: Sweet almond, grape seed, avocado, olive oil, sesame, evening primrose, sunflower and Jojoba oil.

Source: Michael Gristwood, SAAFFI;; NEDLAC / Fridge report (details under "Websites & publications" heading)
Sector Segments Essential oils
Cosmetic Personal care

Soap and detergent

Dental care








Eucalyptus and derivatives

Food industry Soft drink




Processed and canned products

Chewing gum


Spice oleoresins


Flavour and floral oils



 Pharmaceutical industry Homeopathy

Health-care products







Source: Southern African Essential Oil Producers Association (SAEOPA) as cited by DALRRD in its A Profile of the South African Essential Oils Market Value Chain (see "Websites & publications" heading)


  • A wide range of producers grow essential oil crops – farmers both commercial and emerging, farmers looking for alternative crops, co-operative farmers and community projects, as well as the cottage industry. The technologies for extracting and distilling the oils are reasonably easy to access and operate.
  • One of the most important aspects is marketing intelligence – before planting, find out what the buyer wants in terms of quality and quantity. This determines what to plant, how much and also what type of distillation is going to be used. This is a growing market, but it can be a risky business if all aspects of the market requirement are not taken into account.
  • Also important is weed control and management. Your essential oil product will be compromised if weeds are harvested and distilled with the crop.
  • Use essential oils to create products such as creams, bath salts, candles, potpourri and gifts. Attracting tourists is a further form of income.

Find the publications available from DALRRD under the last heading.

Role players specific to newcomers

  • BioAfrica works with farmers and communities who have sufficient land to grow, harvest and produce sufficient essential oil.
  • The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has been involved in projects, especially when this involves rural development projects. Refer to Dr Marthinus Horak’s presentation under the “Websites & publications” heading.
  • Find details for the Southern African Essential Oil Producers Association (SAEOPA) under the “Associations involved” heading.
  • Scatters Oils works “from grassroots levels with our farmers and we work hand-in-hand to develop sustainable commercial supply of high quality essential oils. With years of experience we are able to help new and existing farmers with prospective and existing crops”.
  • SEOBI – South African Essential oils Business Incubator is a company not-for-gain that establishes and supports sustainable SMMEs in the essential oils industry

Various municipalities and provincial development agencies have supported essential oil crop interventions to encourage economic activity in rural communities. The Sarah Baartman District Community and Amathole Economic Development Agency are examples.




National strategy and government contact

Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic)

Representatives of SAEOPA have attended various trade missions sponsored by the dtic. These trade missions are largely considered to have been successful with the prospect of orders being placed. However, in the process, SAEOPA identified several issues that need to be addressed in order to secure market access: (i) The need to consolidate production in order to supply sufficient quantities with consistency. The volumes are required in order to get serious international attention. (ii) The need to have basic testing facilities (e.g. Gas Chromatograph) in order to test oils and to be able to give assurances with regards to quality and characteristics.

Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)

The DSI is periodically involved in essential oil production. Its interest in the industry is largely channelled through initiatives like the work of the CSIR (in particularly community projects); the SA Essential Oils Business Incubator; the work of the Institute for Natural Resources (at the University of KwaZulu-Natal University); and the chemical sector incubator (Chemin) situated in Port Elizabeth.

The Department of Health is the governmental body that has ultimate responsibility for this country’s food laws. Visit

Western Cape Department of Agriculture Directorate: Farmer Support Services

Role players


Note: Click to expand the headings below.  To get a free listing on our website like the ones below, visit here for more information or place your order here. Disclaimer: The role player listings are not vetted by this website.

Nicola-J Flavours & Fragrances Flavours, fragrances and food colours
MT Global Traders The sourcing and supply of oils
Claman Marketing of Robertet Fragrances to the cosmetic, toiletry and household industries
Representative Bodies
South African Association of the Flavour & Fragrance Industry (SAAFFI) SAAFFI is a Member of the International Organisation of the Flavour Industry (IOFI) and the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), the two international organisations that deal with many aspects of Flavours and Fragrances respectively on a global level.
Southern African Essential Oil Producers Association (SAEOPA) SAEOPA is an advisor on new, medicinal plant crops and essential oils for market trends, production, packaging, quality control and value adding. SAEOPA offers networking and a data base for plant material, nurseries, distillation and marketing. Mobile distillation units for the extraction of essential oils from herbaceous materials are researched, especially for where electricity and water are not available. These are sized for supporting ‘small’ commercial growers.
Training, Consulting & Research Service Providers
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Historically, the CSIR has had the most experience (out of all role players) with the essential oils sector in South Africa. It retains an interest where essential oil production is undertaken by rural communities. Work has been done on a wide range of oils, including geranium, chamomile, lavender, peppermint and lemongrass.
Community, NGO and NPO Service Providers
South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) For information regarding South African flora and biomes.
SEOBI – South African Essential Oils Business Incubator Seobi is a company not-for-gain that establishes and supports sustainable SMMEs in the essential oils industry.
CapeNature Authorities in “Indigenous Essential oils” activities (see earlier heading on this page).

Further reference:

See also the “Herbs and spices” page.

Training and research

  • Research done by companies (like Biomix, Scatters Oils and Buchumoon) is company-specific. Training and agricultural advice is also provided for farmers who will be growing alternative and industrial crops for them.

Companies involved

  • Find the list of SAAFFI members on, some of whom are included above.
  • Chain stores like Clicks and Diskem stock essential oils.

Websites and publications

See also this heading on the “Herbs and Spices” page.



Visit the websites mentioned earlier on this page.



  • Call 012 842 4017 or email iaeinfo [at] for the following publications, available from ARC-Agricultural Engineering: (i) Oil processing in South Africa (ii) Oil seed processing using the ram press (iii) The extraction of essential oils from herbaceous materials by steam distillation.
  • The Food & Beverage Reporter often has articles of relevance for this sector: news or articles e.g. adding value to products with flavours and fragrances. Visit
  • Weiss, E.A. 1996. Essential Oil Crops. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. ISBN 0851991378
  • Wilson, R. 2002. Aromatherapy: Essential Oils for Vibrant Health and Beauty. This book covers the extraction of Essential oils.
  • Lawless, J. 2013. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils: The Complete Guide to the Use of Aromatic Oils in Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health and Well Being. San Francisco: Conari Press.
  • At find publications like Oil Processing (Practical Action Publishing) and The Manual Screw Press for Small-Scale Oil Extraction (Potts, K.H. & MacHell, K.)



Bizsolutions has an excellent set of interactive computer-based programmes dealing with various aspects of essential oils. These are available from ‘bizsolutions’ by contacting them by email (bizsolutions [at] or telephone (011 447 2757).

  • The Encyclopaedia of Natural Raw Materials programme covers 282 Essential Oils, giving a description of each, the history, cultivation details, different names and photographs.
  • The Universal Aromatherapy Encyclopaedia covers 262 Essential Oils, giving a description of each, the history, different names and photographs. The programme gives indications for the use of the essential oil in aromatherapy as well as its properties and precautions before use. For each Essential Oil, details of the composition are given. The programme has the facility to record personal notes, add photographs and to print off personalised Safety Data Sheets. The search criteria include: Botanical name, Vernacular, Synonyms, Chemotypes, Properties, Indications, Precautions and Molecules.
  • The Encyclopaedia of Natural Raw Materials for Cosmetology covers over 200 Botanicals, giving a description of each, the history, different names and photographs. The programme gives indications for the use of the botanical as well as its properties and precautions before use. For each Botanical, details of its composition are given. The programme has the facility to record personal notes, add photographs and to print off personalised Safety Data Sheets. There is a complete section on formulating cosmetic products, in which one’s own formulation can be captured. The search criteria include: Botanical name, Vernacular, Synonyms, Chemotypes, Properties, Indications, Precautions and Molecules.


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