The Scents of Africa

Steiner once said that the geography of the land reflects the hidden forces that shapes not only the landscape but is also a reflection of the Folk-Souls and thus shapes those born there. Just as the geography of the land reflects its hidden forces, so do the plants that have evolved from its soils and were shaped by its climatic conditions. Plants in turn, imbue us with their essence and thus the soul of the land, in one way or another. Even when you go walking in different biomes you will notice the difference in feel from one area to another, although they may be separated only by short distances.

In perfumery we are especially aware of how the scents of plants vary from country to country even though they may be exactly the same specie of plant. Bulgarian rose and Turkish rose have for example distinctly different scents even though they are both classified as Rosa damascene. The whole of the ecosystem shapes the individual elements within it and we are shaped in the same way. Although the variety in ethnic groups within Africa varies greatly in character we all share a common element that on the surface may perhaps not be easy to discern, yet it is there. Perhaps we can only describe it in ethereal terms. We who live in Africa are all infused with the soul and spirit of Africa, perhaps the term “quintessence” which the alchemists used to describe the purified human psyche will be most apt.

In reality we are all constantly being “enflowered” by our environment, to borrow a translation of the word enfleurage. Enfleurage is an old French technique used to extract the scents from strongly scented flowers too delicate for any process that involves heat. Today it is mainly used by artisan perfumers, myself included, as it is too time consuming for large scale production. Freshly plucked flower petals are layered onto large panes of fat-coated glass, and the sheets are loaded into wooden frames called chassis. Each chassis full of fat, glass, and flower petals is next scaled airtight for several days, during which time the lard or other scentless fat, “soaks up” fragrances from the heavily scented flowers. The old petals are then taken out of the chassis and replaced by fresh blossoms, the frames are resealed, and the process is allowed to continue for a few more days. This procedure is repeated again and again, until finally the fats have absorbed all the fragrance they can hold. The “enflowered” fat is then placed in alcohol to in turn absorb the scent from the fat. The scented fat (called pomade) is also used to make soaps or solid perfumes.

Extracting the essence from aromatic raw material is indeed a process of purification which leaves you with only the essence, or the spirit from which it was extracted. One can easily see why originally all perfumes and incenses were used for sacred purposes. Incense is actually burnt offerings of aromatic material. Offering something up, suggests an uplifting or the transformation of something from a lower form to a higher form, specifically, the translation of something mundane to something sacred. Originally it was thought that burning a sacrifice, the material was transformed into something spiritual, and thus it could then be received by the deity. The word sacrifice itself comes from a root meaning to make sacred or to sanctify. No wonder the modern word “perfume” is a derivative of the Latin word “parfumare” which means “through smoke”. Like smoke a perfume is as illusive as a moment in time, which none the less leaves an unforgettable imprint in our memories.

As one can view aromatic extracts as the quintessence of its living source, Perfumery is a perfect creative medium through which to express the spirit of Africa. Africa has an incredible wealth of aromatic material, and it has taken me many years to collect the ingredients necessary to design a perfume using only African ingredients. To give you an idea of our wealth; the Medical Research Council of SA has 24 000 indigenous plant species on their database claiming to have medicinal value. Of these they have extracted a “shortlist” of 4 000 species that they believe have commercial value. Europe in contrast, might have a maximum of 2 000 plants drawn from all over the world that are used in “natural products” (as wide as, and including, homeopathic and pharmaceutical remedies, food additives, health foods, cosmetics etc). Some official reports have this figure as low as 250.

Africa is however, best known through the ages, for its Frankincense and Myrrh, though not many people are aware of how many varieties of Myrrh and Frankincense there are, and how different their scents are. True Frankincense has for an example a lemon/lime citrus scent and Olibanum (Boswellia.serrata), mainly from India, has an orange citrus scent and is generally darker in colour. In Africa Somalia is especially renowned for both Frankincense and Myrrh, however, outside of Somalia there are many other varieties of both Frankincense and Myrrh in Africa. The Myrrh most people know is for example is Commiphora myrrha. There are however, 37 other species of Commiphora which are presently known from the Flora of Southern Africa region alone; twenty-nine of which occur in Namibia. Most Commiphoras exudes resins and thus has a potential for aromatic extracts.

It was indeed from Namibia that I at last found which was for me the pivotal ingredient for designing an all African perfume. I heard about a project that the IRDNC (Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation) has in the Kunene Region to developing Commiphora resources for income generation among the Himba.

Omumbiri (Commiphora wildii) has been used traditionally by the Himba to make their own perfume. They make both a dry powdered perfume and a mixture with the Omumbiri,ochre, and butterfat. The omumbiri resin is used by placing it at the bottom of a container made from a cow horn. Animal fat and ochre is then placed in the container. The fragrance of the resin permeates the ochre and animal fat mixture so that when it is rubbed on the skin, it has a pleasant smell. Himba women rub their skins with this mixture on a daily basis. They live in the Kunene region of this vast desert land and because of their seclusion from outside influences, have managed to maintain much of their traditional lifestyle. The Omumbiri project has helped them to maintain their nomadic life style and culture.

As a natural perfumer the aromatic wealth of Africa truly fills one with excitement of creative possibility. Each new aromatic is for the perfumer like discovering a new colour to add to the palette. African Dawn, Whisper and Faye are the first products on the market that contains Omumbiri.

African Dawn

African Dawn is a blend composed out of my personal favourite African aromatics, which for me expresses the spirit of Africa; from its fresh herbal notes, through its intoxicating florals and spiciness, down to an earthy, rich smokey base. African Dawn opens with the fresh herbal notes of Blue Grass and Cape May that mellows into a heart of the Comorian Ylang Ylang, Egyptian Jasmine and Moroccan Rose, spiced with Coriander, Cinnamon, Cloves and Buchu. The beautiful base is truly unique with Omumbiri from Namibia, Muhuhu from Tanzania, Hyraceum from the Cederberg, and Beyo Frankincense from Somalia.


Whisper was inspired by the scent of Lilac on a warm evening. I used the very rare and costly Tahitian Gardenia Absolute for its beautiful green floral notes, paired with Violet leaf and the indigenous Butterfly bush blossoms to create the signature of this perfume. Omumbiri and Muhuhu forms the base of this beautiful fresh green floral.

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  • Enrico
    Posted at 08:07h, 16 January Reply

    Hi, do you still make these perfumes?

    • Tolu
      Posted at 22:59h, 24 January Reply

      I would love to know too.

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