The sweet smell of grass.


In the early 1980s, at a time when foreign exchange was hard to come by thus compelling many industries which depended on imported ingredients to fold, Lever Brothers, Ghana's largest soap manufacturing company, took the initiative to try and ensure that more of its ingredients be of local origin. Citronella oil, which is distilled from a grass-like plant, is used in perfuming the company's Key bar soap and others, including Sunlight. The company tried to introduce citronella to Ghanaian farmers as a new cash crop in 1984. Despite huge investment however, Lever Brothers' hopes for domestic supply were not met as production of the oil did not sufficiently take off. Of late however, there has been a significant turn around in the citronella industry -- thanks to Unilever.

The history of the Ghanaian citronella industry begins in the late 1970s, when the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) had started producing and testing a prototype steam distillation plant for extracting scent from local grasses. Then in the 1980s, Lever Brothers asked Dr David Tagoe, a former technical services manager, to go to Sri Lanka and study methods of cultivating and distilling citronella.

The result was a 15-acre citronella pilot plantation started in 1984 at Bunso in the Eastern region with the assistance of the Crop Research Institute. By 1987, it was evident that within five years, up to 59% of Lever Brothers' demand for citronella, at that time 24 tonnes, could be sourced locally. The import bill for the product was then around $150,000.

The company invested C88m into the industry by supporting a number of farmers with technical advice, supply of planting materials and installing distilling plants on plantations. Interest in growing the new crop was so great that Lever Brothers could not satisfy the demand from farmers for planting materials.

However, although citronella oil production increased from one ton to nine tonnes a year between 1987 and 1990, it failed to satisfy even 10% of Lever Brothers' demand.

In an effort to discover why production was lagging so far behind, Mr Ohene Kwaku Bonsu, a rural industrialist, carried out a study and came to the conclusion the plantations had been situated at the wrong place and that the price paid to the farmers was too low.

He described the extent of the decline in the production of the oil in the early 1990s as "as grave as being on its way to death."

Mr Bonsu suggested the need for an intermediary body to liaise...

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