Spotlight on an Indigenous African Ingredient: Namibian Myrrh

We chat to Karen Nott, plant ecologist and sustainability advisor to the Kunene Conservancies Indigenous Natural Products Trust, a critical champion of this remarkable plant and the people who hold its traditional knowledge.

by Hailey Gaunt

12 July 2021

The golden resin of the Commiphora wildii plant is collected drop by drop in a painstaking process Himba women have been practicing for centuries. Credit: KCINP Trust

This is the second 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.

The northernmost reaches of Namibia contain some of Earth’s most intense environments. You’ll find red-orange dune fields and desolate coastlines – a severe beauty borne of extremes. This is where the semi-nomadic Himba have lived for centuries, herding livestock. Included in their traditional lifestyle is the harvesting of resin from the Commiphora wildii tree, called Namibian myrrh. Highly prized as an essential oil, Namibian myrrh is increasingly sought after in perfumery and cosmetics. Commercialisation may be a means of supporting the Himba, but issues of ownership, environmental sustainability and exploitation are sources of concern. 

Some of us might have heard of myrrh, but what is Namibian myrrh?

Like traditional myrrh, it’s from the Commiphora plant, but it’s a different species called Commiphora wildii, which has a very small distribution. But within that limited distribution there are a lot of trees.

The trees spontaneously produce the resin during the hot, dry season – tiny droplets that sit on the bark, or fall onto the ground. We don’t tap the trees,  whereas with traditional myrrh, cuts are made into the bark and the stem of the tree. Our harvesters collect the naturally exuded resin, so the harvesting methods are completely sustainable.

How does Namibian myrrh differ from traditional myrrh?

The chemical composition is different. The fragrance is closer to frankincense. If you do a chemical analysis on traditional myrrh you will see a very marked difference.

Plus, the Namibian myrrh is naturally exuded. The exuded resin is considered to be of a higher calibre.

Give us some background on the resin. How has it traditionally been used?

The Himba women are still using it to perfume the butterfat mixture they spread on their skin every day. For the butterfat, they’ll separate the fat from the milk – normally in April, when the cattle are well fed and there’s a lot of fat in the milk. Then they’ll store the fat in a cow horn, and because there’s no refrigeration and the temperatures are rather high, the butterfat gets smelly and sour. So they perfume the butterfat with the Commiphora resin so it has a pleasant fragrance.

Dressed in the traditional perfumed butterfat and ochre mixture, a Himba woman collects droplets from a Commiphora wildii shrub. Credit: KCINP Trust.

How rare and precious is this resource?

It’s locally abundant, but in a very remote area. Within that area, the trees grow on very high, steep mountains with loose rocks. It’s very difficult to access. Somebody may walk for three or four hours to get to the top of the mountains to harvest, and then have to walk all the way back to their village.

The northwestern areas where these trees occur have a very low population density. If you take one of the areas like the Orupembe Community Forest, it’s about 400 000 ha, and there are only about 200 people who live in that area. The people who live there are semi-nomadic, so they move around with their cattle and goat herds. Accessing the resin and bringing it to a point it can be collected and transported is a huge challenge.

What happens next for the myrrh to become an ingredient that can be used in commercial products?

Once we’ve got the resin collected and the ladies have been paid, it’s about an eight hour journey on a very bad road just to get the myrrh to Opuwo where it’s processed. When you’re extracting an essential oil, you’re getting about five per cent yield: so a lot of what you’ve collected and transported actually becomes waste product – you get just a couple of drops of very precious essential oil from a bucket of resin. 

How have you ensured that the people instrumental in the production of this resource get to share in its profits?

We did a lot of research initially. We did a resource inventory and we looked at the distribution among the communities living within that area. Then we did surveys, interviewing people about traditional use and traditional knowledge. Access and benefit-sharing legislation requires that you acknowledge the traditional knowledge holders. We found that in five of the conservancies, which just had Himba people living in them, the resin was being used as [traditional] perfume. Everybody was still collecting it, still using it, knew about it and we got very clear information.

We then went further afield and did surveys in another five communities where the resource exists. When we interviewed those communities, we found that it wasn’t being used as a traditional perfume – some people kind of thought they heard about it, but there wasn’t active practice or active traditional knowledge. With the harvesting, we’ve kept it to the five community forests where the people are the traditional knowledge holders. If the demand exceeds what those five community forests can produce, then we will extend it to the other areas. But we’ve given the advantage to the people who are the traditional knowledge holders.

The harsh climate, the difficult terrain, the distance required to travel to harvest, the time it takes to fill a single bucket - many challenges exist in the making of Namibian myrrh. Credit: KCINP Trust.

You’ve talked about how the myrrh is harvested without tapping the trees. Since its commercialisation, have you seen any threat to the Commiphora wildii population?

Even if you tap the trees, it doesn’t produce resin. There are other Commiphora species in the area, for example a species that is very similar to Commiphoa wildii, which doesn’t naturally exude a resin but if you cut the stem it immediately exudes a very lovely-smelling gold resin. But because sustainability could be a challenge [for that species] in the future, we haven’t promoted that commercially.

In 2005, before we did our first commercial harvest, we set up monitoring sites. Since then, the only trees we found showing any adverse effects have all been accompanied by large amounts of elephant dung. So the elephants, we picked up, like to eat the trees sometimes - but we’ve not seen any adverse effects from the harvest.

Describe the economic landscape. What other kinds of work is available to the people here?

Most of the people in the region are semi-nomadic pastoralists: their main security is in their cattle and goat herds. Last year we did not have any rain – not one millimetre. It is a desert anyway, and then we had absolutely no rain. So we had a huge die-off of cattle and people have lost their security.

Normally the goats provide the day-to-day food – the milk and the meat – and the cattle are sort of the bank balance. By last year this time, most of the households that I worked with had lost just about all of their cattle in the drought. The myrrh harvesting money has been a life-saver, particularly this season. We really noticed it in the harvesters who were coming to register; before you had 30 or 40 harvesters in an area, but this year literally everybody – all 200 members of Orupembe Conservancy – went out harvesting in desperation.

The drought hit hard, and then those communities who would typically supplement through tourism – doing crafts, or working as a game guard, or working in one of the campsites, or doing laundry for visitors – with Covid, all of those supplementary sources of income that are tourist linked have disappeared. People have really been hit hard. They’ve been very thankful for the resin harvesting; it’s really filled a much needed gap. A lot of the money from the harvesting goes to food and to accessing healthcare.

How does Kunene Conservancies Indigenous Natural Products Trust (KCINP Trust) fit into the picture and how does it work?

We’ve got five registered Community Forests where the Himba communities are living. We’ve assisted them to register as a Community Forest [with the Namibian government], which means that the government grants management rights to them, and it also means that they legally have the right to benefit. But, even though these are very big areas and they are producing the resin, there’s no communication – there’s not high levels of literacy, so for them to market the product is difficult.

So the KCINP Trust was organised to facilitate the practicalities and legalities of Commiphora wildii becoming a financially viable commercial product?

Initially we started by selling the resin, but resin is notoriously complicated to distill because it clogs up the inside of machines. After about five years we realised that the best way to go was to process it ourselves. To send drums of resin to France, where you’re only getting five per cent extraction, there’s a huge cost. So we started the Opuwo Processing Facility, and it had to be collectively owned by these groups, so we set it up as a trust. The five community groups, as a legal entity, own the forest; they own the processing machines. And that legal entity can then enter into a contract with a cosmetic company to sell their products. 

Processing the resin is a challenge the KCINP Trust has taken years to perfect. Photo: KCINP Trust.

What is the gender breakdown between harvesters and trustees? Who is doing what? Do all community members benefit equally, does everybody get involved?

Traditionally the perfume harvesting is done by women, and traditionally women make all the decisions about plant resources. When we were doing the initial research and speaking to people and discussing the opportunity for commercialisation, we asked who should be allowed to harvest. We had many long discussions and meetings. At the end of the day, they decided that everybody could harvest.

The moment we started talking about the scale [needed for producing essential oil] - these are literal tiny droplets [of myrrh] - people really struggled to imagine harvesting for that scale.

During the first couple years of commercial harvesting, the men were convinced that the scales were biased towards the women. The men and women would go out together, would harvest for the same amount of time, and they would come back and the women would get more money. The women were selective: they would walk past several trees and stop at one, and harvest where there was a lot of resin. The men would try to harvest a little from lots of trees. Our most consistent harvesters are the women. Men will also come and harvest, but they have other opportunities; they will work as a game guard or get a job in road construction. Women, who are in traditional dress and who are not literate, have fewer options.

What is the gender breakdown of the KCINP trustees?

At the moment all the trustees are male, and part of the reason for that is the women find it difficult to travel. They’re covered from head to toe in the ochre and butterfat mixture, so they can’t hop into any car and get a lift to the meetings. For the trustees meetings, we’re bringing trustees from maybe two or three hundred kilometres apart. It involves traveling in vehicles, staying over somewhere, and women have a lot of household responsibilities, like goats.

In reality, most of the significant meetings are all done at a village level, not at trustee level. The trustee level is just to meet the legal compliance issues, all the other stuff is done at village level where women participate. Women are very confident. It’s a matriarchal society, so the money’s theirs – their husbands don’t get to take their money off of them. And they’re also very confident about voicing their opinions. They’re not easily intimidated.

It’s important to have this picture in mind of a Himba woman when you’re thinking about the harvesting process. Understanding this also reinforces their connection with this resource, and their pride in it.

They’re very proud of the fact that they are selling something that is based on their traditional knowledge. Also, it’s a way of earning additional income that supports the traditional lifestyle. A lot of the other economic opportunities take them away from that lifestyle. This allows them to live traditionally, look after their goats, their children; and while they’re out they can do some harvesting as well.

It really does enable the traditional lifestyle to continue, but to also give them the benefits that they want: they want to be able to send their children to school and access healthcare, and to buy food during the drought.

Thinking about where the resin originates, has it been difficult to access markets?

It’s been almost impossible. You need lots of customers because everybody is only buying small quantities. We had to target the international markets to be able to sell volume, and it’s something we’re still struggling with. To get into the EU, or into the American markets, people all want a dossier [of detailed analysis on the ingredient, including background research, chemical composition, processing, and compliance standards]. Only just recently did we manage to raise funds and pay to develop the full dossier.

The more resin we can buy from the harvesters, the greater livelihood benefit there is to them - but to buy more resin we’ve got to sell more essential oil. Now, finally, we have a complete dossier which helps us to access international markets.

Finally, give us a good example of a product that is using your myrrh.

The myrrh in the Jo Malone perfume is sourced from us, and then some of the other Estée Lauder products source our myrrh. We sell to several small Namibian companies, and some of them have grown over the years. When we started we ran a competition to encourage Namibian companies to buy from us and the two winners of that competition have now developed brands which they are exporting. The one is Desert Secrets, a Namibian brand of cosmetics; the other is called Mbiri. 

Shop Namibian myrrh >>