As the first certified organic essential oil supplier in South Africa, SOiL Aromatherapy is arguably the most recognised aromatic local brand on store shelves today. With a grassroots story of organic farming unique to the country, today, SOiL celebrates a prominent position as a homegrown brand leader within an international network of accredited sustainable farmers, producers, suppliers, and local and global retailers.
Through its early adoption in 2004 of sustainable organic agricultural practices, which focus on environmental health and social and economic equity, now achieved through good practices for long-term economic development, SOil Aromatherapy’s growth strategy is set to expand even further into established international supply markets.
Located in the lush green Zululand foothills of KwaZulu-Natal and founded by husband-and-wife team Grant and Natalie McMurray, the SOiL farm team manage the complete supply chain of organic aromatherapy products. Here, essential oil herbs and plant seedlings are nurtured by hand to full growth, harvested to extract their aromatic oils, packaged, marketed, and delivered to retail shelves. Proudly displayed on its packaging is SOiL’s guarantee of globally certified organic, Fair for Life, Beauty Without Cruelty and Vegan endorsed and its global GMP ISO accreditation.
“From those early days, it was our ethos to operate sustainably and eco-ethically in all aspects of our business, which is what I believe has grown the brand to international export quality,” confirm Grant and Natalie.
Nurturing the Soil
The SOiL farm story began in 2000 when Grant’s father, McMurray Senior, was looking for an alternative crop for his forestry plantation in Melmoth, first began to research the viability of essential oil production with the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), testing 18 different crops with the conclusion that six of the crops would be viable for producing oils. It was then that he asked Grant to step into the farming business.
“Natalie and I were working in London in the banking industry at the time,” explains Grant. “In 2002, we visited South Africa on holiday, and I was intrigued. I had a rudimentary knowledge of farming and had never heard of organic farming at the time. The idea of growing, harvesting, and taking the product to market appealed to me. Once I put tangible numbers into the computer, tangible results came back. We decided to take the leap from producing crops to finished products to market and the supply of bulk products to European markets."
“This was the key to our success, our involvement in the bulk side of the business is where we built a vast network of producers, which now have become our suppliers as the range has expanded, which creates a very short supply chain. This key strength in knowing where the oils are derived, and with no middleman, means we can price our certified organic oils at the affordable price we do, making the brand one of the most competitive organic products available today."
“Back in 2002, I remember at the time, saying I was a businessman, and I wasn’t going to farm; and here we are today,” says Grant wryly. “On my first day at work, I turned up in a suit out of sheer force of habit, having endured years as a lonely finance entrepreneur. Today, I have found comfort in my shorts and veldskoens,” he laughs.
Seasonal SOiL Planting & Harvesting
Understanding the market forces and the technical aspects of the essential oil product took time and according to Grant, entering the export market is an expensive exercise and not something individual producers can manage to do. Rising to the challenge, Grant explains, “We formed a not-for-profit co-operative with other farmers and handed over our customer base to the collective management team to market the oils wholesale for 31 other farmers around KwaZulu-Natal.”
Currently, 80 hectares on the SOiL farm are under essential oil crops laid out over the slopes, drains and waterways. With no chemicals or pesticides, seedlings with the correct genetics are nurtured through root division with seasonal planting and harvesting and fields left to rest. The farm plants essential oil crops suited to the balmy region and sources other essential oils from within their Organic and Fair-Trade global network.
Tea tree is produced year-round, while Lemongrass, Citronella and Palmarosa are seasonal, but Grant says it is all about genetics. “As an example, garden variety plants may smell lovely but don’t produce the right oil as they don’t have the components for distillation. We tried to grow lavender in KwaZulu-Natal, but it doesn’t get cold enough here to thrive.”
Organic agriculture means no chemicals or robotics, and it is labour-intensive. “Our biggest challenge is keeping the fields free of weeds which are done by hand and create jobs in the region.”
Herbs and trees are harvested manually and placed on the tractor trailer and onto the farm distillery, where plants are placed into 5 000 ltr tanks and steamed from the bottom. No pressure is allowed to build up, which is key. While pressure speeds up the process, it creates too much heat making the matter volatile and at risk of burning off the oil.
As the steam percolates through plant material, the heat causes plant oil sacs to burst, vaporize and produce an oil vapour mixed with steam which exits the tanks and moves through the tube condenser. Water is pumped around the tubes to cool and condense the oil into a liquid of oil and water which drips into a large vessel. The oil floats to the top and is scooped off in an age-old process which takes between 1 to 2 hours for a full essential oil extraction. The unused plant material is removed and placed back onto the tractor-trailer spreader, and the spent material is returned back onto the farm soil as natural fertilizer rich in nitrogen.
SOIL’s Global Market Share
SOiL’s biggest export market is Romania and the USA, with further distributors in the United Kingdom, Dubai, Sweden, Taiwan, and Japan.
“It’s a tremendous effort complying with the various country regulations. In 2018 we undertook a massive project of registering for sale in the EU which meant we had to comply with all EU regulations along with the UK’s Brexit and non-tariff trade barriers. The testing criteria is also costly, and it is challenging finding consistent representation to keep the bulk channels going, which includes providing to the private label market in Sweden and the USA.
On the Southern African continent, SOiL has recently launched in Mauritius, and we currently manage cross-border sales into Namibia and Botswana and supply direct to spas and lodges in Mozambique.
Apart from essential aromatherapy oils, the SOiL farm also sends 30 000 tons of sugar cane to the mills each year and farms 140 hectares of macadamia nuts as a healthy protein.
However, it is the 150 tons of tea tree which is channeled through the co-op, which makes it the largest organic cooperative in the world and the biggest organic SOiL product to be produced by far.
SOiL’s Sustainability Criteria
“Everything we do on the farm is focused on sustainability and the future,” confirms Grant and Natalie. “We offer genuine care of the land and people and actively look for suppliers who have good social credentials in how the product is produced. While it is challenging to work within certain criteria, we believe it is our consumers’ guarantee. Today, it is too easy for brands to claim they are organic when they are not or that it is an essential oil, when it is a chemically produced product.”
In South Africa, Grant and Natalie and SOiL Marketing Manager Barbara Du Plessis are up against an unregulated industry regarding what marketers can put on labels. “We are the only essential oil in South Africa that lists ingredients according to cosmetic regulations. Recent litigation by multi-level marketing companies saw it ruled that they now only need to be 10% organic to be certified as an organic essential oil, which for us is unacceptable. Our oils are all 100% pure and 100% organic. Your first red flag on the retail shelves is if you see the range of oils with all the various products selling at the same price.
“We would like consumers to understand that a quality product is relevant to the costs of production, with the more expensive oils seeing more intensive operations to produce it. There is also a tonnage difference which must be factored in. For example, 1 ton of tea tree plants provides a 1 percent yield in the distillation process, delivering 10 kg of oil, with 99 percent of the harvest being put back onto the land as mulch, so it is not a highly extractive process. Geranium has a 0.15 yield per ton, providing only 1.5 kg of oil with less biomass left over. Tea tree and lemon scented tea tree can be harvested for twenty years as it simply starts sprouting again.”
A typical day at the SOiL farm sees the McMurray family and the SOiL team, many of whom have been working there for decades, living the olfactory benefits of the SOiL brand. “We use all the Treemendus product range in our home,” says Natalie. “I like the balancing effect of diffusing rose geranium and frankincense and we burn the Easy Breathe blend when the kids are sick.”
Under the sun and close to the earth, SOiL is pioneer in bringing organic, sustainable fragrance and healing scent to its global customers who like to live close to nature to enjoy all the benefits essential oil aromatherapy has to offer.
Visit the SOiL Shop for a full range of world-class certified organic and Fair for Life essential oils, blends, rollers, burners and accessories www.soil.co.za
At SOiL we love hearing from our new and dedicated customers and invite questions and experiences you have enjoyed with us on this journey together.