By S.S. YOGA
Malaysia has the potential to be a big player in the essential oils and fragrance industries, but there has been little progress since patchouli, whose oil is the base of many perfumes, was cultivated in some parts of Malaya 169 years ago. This may change with a freash initiative by researchers from the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute.
IT MAY come as a surprise but the local essential oil industry began as long ago as 1834 when patchouli (nilam) was grown in Penang, Pahang and Johor. There are pockets of land planted with tea tree, patchouli and kesum (smartweed) in Perak, lemongrass (serai) in Pahang and citronella (serai wangi) in Kelantan. There is a large-scale project in Perlis where tea tree is grown in a joint venture between the state government and the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi).
Mardi researcher Abdul Rahman Azmil Idris (together with colleague and project leader, chemist Ahmad Wahab) has been working on boosting the local fragrance industry since the late 1990s.
The question that prompted them to carry out their research was: since some of the essential oils used by perfume manufacturers come from Malaysia, what is to stop Malaysia from developing her own fragrance industry?
Essential oils obtained from various local plants and herbs.
There are some 300 types of essential oils in the world, and countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and China are the main producers of such oils in this region.
“Indonesia does not produce high-grade essential oils as they contain too many impurities and heavy metals (due to the use of inferior machinery). Yet they still sell because there is a huge demand for these oils. We can’t compete with them due to their lower costs, especially labour costs. But we might be able to compete with them by producing higher-grade oils that can fetch better prices to offset our higher costs.
“Of course it is a chicken-and-egg scenario. We need people to grow the plants first so that there is supply but then again, there must be an industry first that processes essential oils so that the farmers will be interested to grow the plants. That is where perhaps we can come in to do research on the more economical means of processing the oils,” explains Abdul Rahman.
Sniffing it out
One way out of this predicament is for big corporations or players to get involved in the local industry. They would be able to afford the high start-up costs and should be in the industry long enough to reap the returns.
With the emphasis on cultivating high-value crops and developing labour-saving technology, Malaysia can tap the lucrative market for essential oils. In 2000, the global consumption of essential oils and natural extracts amounted to US$1.73bil (RM6.57bil), with Asia supplying 47% of the raw materials and processed oils.
For instance, the essential oil of tea tree (no relation to the plant whose leaves we brew tea with) can fetch RM228 per kilo, serai wangi RM190-RM228 per kilo, serai RM304-RM380 per kilo, and kesum, a whopping RM760-RM950 per kilo.
Mardi research officer Abdul Rahman Azmil Idris was prompted to carry out research on local essential oils when he relasied that some of these oils were used by prefume manufacturers abroad.
While processing essential oils seems viable, it would be premature for Malaysia to venture into perfume-making at the moment, as we do not yet have the expertise to handle the complicated and costly process of coming up with new fragrances and marketing them.
It would also be more economical to concentrate on the sources of essential oil that give higher yields by weight. According to Abdul Rahman, Mardi is not looking so much at floral oils though they have tested a few flowers like the rose and ylang ylang (kenanga).
Of course, some of these oils are not only used in fragrances and aromatherapy; they also reputedly have medicinal properties. For instance, the distinctive aroma of citronella is familiar to many because it is a base ingredient for some insect repellents.
The oils are extracted from the plants or herbs by distillation. The equipment used varies according to the volumes involved. The distillation process depends on the type of plant and the volatility of their oils. For example, tea tree leaves need to be chopped up but need not be dried as the oils are very volatile and would evaporate. On the other hand, citronella needs to be air-dried (in the shade) for two to three days. Patchouli needs to be sun-dried for four to five hours before being air-dried for four to five days; it can be kept for at least six months before being distilled.
Large distillers which can handle one to four tonnes are suitable for large-scale plantations while medium-scale distillers with the capacity for half to one tonne per distillation is ideal for farms. Smallholdings can use distillers capable of processing 50kg to 80kg per distillation. Smaller distillers are fuelled by gas and process the plants using wet steam (water being in the same container as the plant). The other types of distillers use diesel and process the plants using dry steam. In the larger distillers, the containers or cartridges are separated.
A small-scale wet-steam distiller at Mardi, Serdang. The result of the distillation process is the essential oil which ahs settled at the top.
In the distillation process, the crops are first placed in a cartridge and boiled. The essential oils of the plants vaporise and cool down in the condenser to form oil droplets. Since the oils float on water, they are easily separated and are then kept in special containers.
The time taken to extract the oils depends on the type of oil: patchouli, for instance, takes six hours on average as it is less volatile and does not vaporise so easily while tea tree takes two hours as it is more volatile.
As for yield, one tonne of freshly-harvested tea tree can produce about 1% of oil (that works out to 10kg). The yield for citronella is 0.6% (6kg) and patchouli, 2%-3% (20kg-30kg).
Mardi has a few distillation units installed, with the biggest one in Perlis while the medium-sized ones are located in Bukit Tangga, Kedah, and Temerloh, Pahang. The small ones can be found in Kuala Linggi in Malacca, Kluang in Johor and Serdang in Selangor.
At present, the team at Mardi is experimenting with as many local plants and herbs as possible. They even tried extracting essential oil from pomelo skin and discovered that it gives a sweet citrusy scent.
Abdul Rahman says that, in order to regulate the industry, it is up to the government to devise guidelines, similar to what Australia did to regulate the industry there. This would instil confidence in the overseas market on the quality of the oils produced locally.
Mardi is on the lookout for potential partners to commercialise their findings. For enquiries, call the Mardi Business Development Unit (03-89437111).
The Star, Thursday, 17 July 2003