Spotlight on a Producer of African Indigenous Ingredients: Like Mountains Essential Oils
Like Mountains' rose geranium essential oil is derived from a hybrid of three Pelargonium species endemic to southern Africa. For centuries the plant has been cultivated abroad for classic perfumery, but this indigenous distillate is something else. Its green colour varies in intensity with the seasons, permeated by a verdant, floral sweetness - but the story of production behind the oil is as exceptional as the product. Like Mountains’ owner-founder Anri Manderson is dedicated to creating a beautiful product while enriching the environment and community around her.
by Hailey Gaunt and Jenny Willis
9 August 2021
Anri Manderson, owner and founder of Like Mountains, onsite in the South African Lowveld. Credit: Anri Manderson
This is the third blog in our Transparency Series, where we take a closer look at different facets of Grounded Ingredients. Unlike traditional value chains, we are focused on traceability and transparency, working to create a system where everyone involved – from harvester or farmer to brand and customer – understands each step of the journey.
AAnri Manderson wants to get more from her fields of rose geranium than essential oil. She hopes to use Like Mountains’ organic farm and distillery to transform a marginal landscape into a thriving ecosystem, sustain South Africa’s natural heritage by cultivating indigenous plants, and support local women to become successful, independent small-scale farmers. And Anri wants to do all this her own way: through a commitment to regenerative agriculture.
If you ask her how she wound up on her twelve-hectare plot of land, Anri will tell you, “I didn’t choose this spot, this spot chose me.” Two years ago, she began planting rose geranium at the windswept tail end of South Africa’s easternmost escarpment, on a farm rented by her father. This was her first foray into farming for her own livelihood, and while proximity to her family’s farming activities provided extensive support in terms of farming implements, it was by no means an ideal scenario. “This particular hill that I found myself on is a hill where nothing wanted to grow. The soil is completely marginal here, and the wind blows.”
But despite shallow, poor-draining soils, the first harvest was good. The land had lain fallow for three years, time to restore itself naturally. Following harvests were less successful. A combination of heavy rains and poor soil structure caused productivity to drop precipitously. Even applying free-range and organic manures -- expensive and hard to source in South Africa -- couldn’t remedy the problem. If she was going to continue farming, she knew she needed to build up the soils more substantially.
Sustainability and profitability
Growing up, Anri watched her father raise cattle and cultivate crops from avocados to cotton. She always wanted to farm, but her family encouraged her to pursue other options. For nearly a decade she explored everything but: first she studied graphic design and psychology, then sustainable development and African food security policy. After earning her doctorate in the latter and working in the sector for a few years, she supported the development of a training centre for farm workers and small-scale organic farmers. Gradually, she saw herself gravitating back to agriculture.
When it comes to restoring her farm and soils, Anri says she doesn’t have a choice. Her experience in sustainable development and small-scale organic farming primed her to pursue a regenerative approach. But her father made a successful career farming conventionally, and this was a radical departure from the family way.
“He comes from a hardcore business background that favours profit, and I always say to him, You know, my definition of success is not the bottom line. Walking into a field where the weeds were higher than our heads, my dad looked at me and was like, So you want to tell me that you'd rather not make money, than spray Roundup or something that can get this grass under control? And I was like, Correct. It has been a bitter pill for him to swallow, but he keeps supporting me on this journey.”
Farming regeneratively has, at times, seemed foolhardy. But Anri knows that its rewards are many and more lasting than narrowly pushing for seasonal yields. Credit: Anri Manderson
From a mainstream farming perspective, emphasising anything but yield might seem naïve or even self-destructive, but Anri understands that poor yields are only symptomatic of larger issues. The only way to address the root problem of marginal soil is through a commitment to regenerating the soil’s health.
In a conventional approach, a farmer would run tests to determine the nutrients needed for particular crops, developing a nutrition programme of inputs to make sure their soils could meet these short-term needs. This is where Anri started, overwhelmed by the scale of remediation needed on her marginal twelve hectares. Though she used only organic inputs, she concluded that this approach ultimately does nothing for the soil: “You’re just trying to feed the plant, at unsustainable costs.”
Regenerative processes, on the other hand, seek to rebuild structure and encourage the right combination of microbes. Adding complimentary cover crops and organic materials can help address nutrition deficiencies, but every remediation requires extensive experimentation. Many of the bulk organic fertilizers Anri applied did nothing, which meant she was putting more and more into the soil and getting less and less out of it.
Although the farm’s soil has been the biggest burden to bear, Anri knows it’s also her best ally. Credit: Anri Manderson
The reality is, restoring soil health takes years. And even for a twelve-hectare farm, this can be an extremely costly exercise. Each hectare of Anri's farm translates into 50,000 rose geranium plants. If a soil intervention isn’t working it means massive loss, so before working at scale, it’s crucial to get the soil right.
This is where the support of Grounded’s expertise comes in. Our soil scientist, Daniel Fourie, is piloting a regenerative agriculture support service with Anri, helping her grapple with what her farm needs on a small scale before tackling the whole. This support service is a work in progress, but it was rewarding to hear Anri’s feedback: “If I have to speak to my hopes with regards to Daniel’s help, it’s that it feels like I have someone that is on my side, that really wants to solve this problem with me and not make money off of me. He’s passionate about identifying what the problem is, and then finding a solution to it that fits within my context and my budget.”
Developing a support program with a feasible cost structure is a challenge we are determined to crack. Anri says she has high hopes, and we do too. “If we could nail it,” she says, “I could create a soil support system program from what I learn through Grounded.” This could keep costs to a minimum for the women outgrowers Anri works with, who have little capital to put towards farming inputs. “I’m hoping we could do some good here. Restore these soils with a program that doesn’t cost the earth, but also share that knowledge with the women outgrowers, share the skills, so they have higher profit margins.”
Nurturing a future for women
Conscious of land-related injustice in South Africa, Anri is determined to pursue restoration more broadly. The Like Mountains farm is leased by her father’s company from the Moletele community, the largest land-owning community in the area. But ownership is only an aspect of South Africa’s troubled land equation. A combination of apartheid-era displacement and subsequent land reform policies that have inadequately addressed losses of access and generational farming knowledge mean that education, support and access to markets are essential to reaching a more equitable balance.
To this end, Anri wants Like Mountains to be part of building more robust livelihoods on the land. She’s committed to training and employing rural women – one of the most marginalised demographics in South Africa – partnering with Zingela Ulwagi, an NGO focused on women’s empowerment. Zingela Ulwazi works from the premise that for a woman to be independent, she needs three things: food security, financial security, and personal security. Independence is found where these three circles overlap. The Like Mountains outgrower programme, co-created with Zingela Ulwagi, contributes to the financial security circle.
Through the training programme, women learn permaculture and regenerative farming principles, business skills and numeracy, earning a qualification. The first cohort is in process: when training is complete, these women will then be contracted as formal outgrowers cultivating rose geranium, which Like Mountains will purchase and distill into essential oil for their direct-to-consumer brand, Wilde Natural Oils. The women are beneficiaries of the Wilde Women Trust, which owns shares in Wilde Natural Oils, giving them a stake in its success and the possibility to generate additional income.
Anri is passionate about developing female farmers as a means of creating lasting change and resilience. Credit: Anri Manderson
Essential oils are low volume and nonperishable. Compared to other organic products, they have potential to generate better profit margins for small-scale farmers, but markets are far from guaranteed. The deck is stacked against even the best producers. Big buyers and big brands wield concentrated power, tending to set the terms of agreement -- sometimes landing small producers with expensive transport and packaging costs -- and can work together to push prices down. Some can be protective to the point of secrecy, and extractive despite their best intentions. Market specifications, too, arbitrarily assign certain chemical compositions higher value, leaving small producers extremely vulnerable.
“Specifications for essential oils are such a weird animal,” says Anri, “because it means absolutely nothing. And then people just get so obsessed with them, and they use this to drive down price.” The same hybrid of rose geranium -- the source of the plant material distilled into essential oil -- responds differently depending on soil, seasons, weather and irrigation, resulting in chemical composition differentiation unrelated to any appreciable advantages. “Each oil is actually such a beautiful representation of that plant over that specific time,” says Anri. “It captures the story of that plant, you know, and everything that happened to it.” But uniform specifications are considered necessary by many large brands relying on consistency in their product formulations, creating a web of strictures that bedevil regenerative producers.
Every crop is marked with the unique stamp of soil and season. Part of regenerative farming is accepting the whimsies nature has to offer. Credit: Anri Manderson
Anri wants variation in oil to be celebrated – rather than further cause for marginalisation. In the meantime, however, while conventional wisdom lags, she’s hanging on to what’s really driving her ambition: “If I made a lot of money, I would not be happy. I need to solve a problem, be useful to the environment and the people around me.” But these bigger-picture intentions bring their own challenges, as big brands and middlemen become adept at co-opting origin narratives and ethics.
“It’s important that you know this,” prefaced Anri, before relating her experience with a middleman who required a non-disclosure agreement to introduce her to an interested brand. When the brand wanted to visit and take photographs, Anri told them they were welcome to celebrate Like Mountains’ story, “but we need to see something for it.” After rounds of negotiation, the brand turned down every opportunity to support Like Mountains, sticking instead to the unsustainably-low price brokered by the middleman.
It is important to hear these stories, especially while we’re piloting our vision for alternative supply chains. We built this platform for Like Mountains and independent producers like Anri, but it’s also these producers who will help us hold Grounded Ingredients accountable. “What Grounded Ingredients is doing is the opposite of [that brand]. It’s complete transparency, actually putting the story out there and linking the products all the way back to the farmers, with credibility. Because Grounded is an organisation that comes with a lot of research and experience and integrity, if Grounded says, This product is legit, then it really is. Like an organic certification, but it goes a step beyond because an organic certification in many ways can also be very impersonal.”
We’re working hard to stay true to the integrity it takes to maintain transparency in these value chains. We hope that this transparency will help support producers like Like Mountains to continue their work producing ethical and regenerative ingredients, while regenerating soils and rebuilding livelihoods.
We will follow this blog with an update on our Regen Ag Support Pilot in the coming months.
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