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Namibian myrrh travels afar

Trade and Marketing

Essential oils

Semi-nomadic pastoralists from Namibia’s arid west are earning valuable income from harvesting myrrh resin, which they process and sell to international perfume companies.

During November and December each year, up to 600 members of Namibia’s indigenous Himba community are earning between €80 and €400 harvesting myrrh resin from Omumbiri trees (Commiphora wildii) and seeds from Mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane). Unlike trees from which resins must be tapped, the thorny Omumbiri trees naturally exude their aromatic gum in small droplets during the hot and dry months, or before the onset of rains. The droplets are then collected by the Himba harvesters, mostly women, who are semi-nomadic pastoralists from Namibia’s arid western area of Kunene.

According to Karen Nott, a technical advisor on indigenous natural products, this has increased their cash incomes by 100%. The community has also had support from the government, which has registered the harvesters and given them the right to harvest.

Traditionally, Himba women have blended Omumbiri resins with ochre and butterfat to use daily as a perfumed body cream. However, in 2007, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation, a local NGO, established the economic potential of Omumbiri and sensitised the Himba on its importance. This led to the establishment of the Opuwo Processing Factory, owned by a trust whose members come from among the harvesters. Essential oils extracted at the factory are sold to perfume and cosmetic producers in Namibia, Southern Africa and the EU, and used to fragrance perfumes and cosmetics. The community also earn some income from visitors, who pay a fee to tour the processing factory.

Through the income earned, the Himba are buying foods to supplement their traditional dry season diet of milk and meat. “Between 40 to 50% of the income is used to buy food,” says Nott. For the semi-nomadic Himba, she says, selling resin may be the only opportunity to access cash since the remoteness of their territory severely limits their opportunities to sell their livestock. Most of the harvesters are also illiterate, and other job opportunities in Kunene are scarce.

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