I tapped into arid land’s fragrant riches

Tommaso Iser Menini.
You may have an inkling of Frankincense and Myrrh from the story about the wise men who gifted them to baby Jesus, but do you know what they look like? Do you know they can be found in Kenya?

Hustle talked to a private company dealing with natural resources in the arid and semi-arid counties of Kenya and Uganda, on how they extract value from the infertile land.

It is not common to see a white man or non-Somali in Isiolo or Marsabit selling Frankincense or Myrrh but Agar Ltd founder, Tommaso Iser Menini is quite at home there.

Tommaso lived and worked for an NGO as a project coordinator in Isiolo between 2015 and 2017, when he figured that the pastoral communities needed private sector players more than they did NGOs.

“In a lot of arid areas, the ground is ripe for private sector engagement. I felt I would be of more use to pastoralist communities as a company than with the NGOs - not to discredit the work they do,” he says.

As a coordinator for income generating activities, he focused on non-timber forest products; everything coming out of the forest that isn’t wood. Think nuts, honey, gum add resin, aloe and even ecotourism.

“As I looked into these alternative livelihoods, I noticed that the existing traders in the business are skilled, they can move anything anywhere. They know this business but aren’t particularly prone to paperwork, which is where I thrive.”

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There was a lot of informality. There were no procedures, licensing and little permits, if any.

“Abig believer in formalities, we wanted to be the first to do things as formal as possible, from field to shelf,” says Tommaso.

Sustainable sourcing

African Agency for Arid Resources Limited (Agar Ltd) was thus born, with the mission and vision that rotate around four key words: Conservation, sustainability, biodiversity and empowerment. People at AGAR are by trade conservationists, specialising in the collection, grading, processing and sale of Gum Arabic and resins, which are products of trees.

The collection from the trees is sustainable as they produce Gum Arabic or Frankincense or Myrrh after a little bit of rain and they are tapped with no harm to the trunk.

“We are also consultants, carrying out studies and assessments in arid lands training the communities on important technical aspects for the collection of the resources and advocate against deforestation.”

Hard start

“All of the basic procedures and protocols in business are important because they help giving you purpose and direction. Market research is a must-do, not a suggestion, before you distribute anything anywhere and allows you to know your eco-system before you venture into anything,” says Tommaso.

He has learned the hardest way, having worked with a lot of unreliable and dishonest people, even losing money through conmen who posed as experts. He reacted swiftly and understood trust had to be earned and not given.

That’s when he started AGAR. The experience allowed him to do things his own way. He resumed from where he left off in his previous company - working with communities at the ground, mostly in Turkana, Wajir, Isiolo and Marsabit with Agar’s Area Manager Kevin Abishay, and Operations Manager Nancy Muthoni helping from the Nairobi office.

The company quickly passed from selling raw materials to transforming them into essential oils, selling about 15 litres of Frankincense and 5 litres of Myrrh in bulk in the first months, before they started packaging in bottles to sell at fairs and events.

They pick most of their own resources and process them into oils and have been able to build the company from the ground up, knowing their value chain. The first essential oil to be added alongside Frankincense and Myrrh was eucalyptus and after this they began to get requests for other more common oils.

“We are one of the major distributors of essential oils in Kenya and you don’t get thus far without quality to back it up. With us, all certificates of analysis are always ready to be shared.”

While a 15ml bottle of Frankincense in the US retails for Sh8,191, Agar sells it for around Sh2,000. Customers in turn get value for their money. The products Agar sell have nothing added or taken away from them. It is believed 95 per cent of Eucalyptus oil in the market is diluted or altered, but unfortunately there is no way to tell except through a lab test and a strong, trained nose.

Informality breeds adulteration

Tommaso says Kenyan companies follow so much compliance to import or export, but domestically there is still too much informality for processed goods and many players stay under the radar. Aside from being Agar’s director, he is also trying to help regulate the sector as an executive committee member of the Gum And Resins Association (GARA), which is active in lobbying for more recognition of the sector.

Too often, the North Eastern side of Kenya has been on the back burner and has had very little investment or public works being put in. That lack of infrastructure and insecurity due to ethnic conflict over mostly pasture and water is a key factor in the slow growth of the region.

“Only recently, we narrowly escaped being attacked by armed morans during work in Marsabit. The very next day at that same spot, a bus was attacked and seven people lost their lives. But did you see it in the news? Unless it is Al Shabab, banditry is not news. Our work is intense and the trade is challenging, but I find my work fulfilling and I know it makes a difference,” says Tommaso.

Research is a must

He and his associates then thought of starting a brand, Essenza, in April this year.

Through a basic market research they carried out the same month, it was found that 8 users out of 10 are women. They also discovered that the biggest consumers are much younger than assumed - between ages 24 and 35 - and that the domestic market in Kenya was bigger than expected.

“Through that research I learnt the Kenyan market was ripe for an entrance. We have some competitors, especially importers. But importing to Kenya is not easy at all and that’s where we come in. We are a local company sourcing and making our products locally.”

 “We have 10 types already: Frankincense, Sweet Myrrh, Lemongrass, Rosemary, Geranium, Ylang-Ylang, Eucalyptus, Lavender, Peppermint and Tea Tree essential oil. Meanwhile we plan to do polls and see what more oils clients would like,” Tommaso says.

Essenza by Agar was launched in September. “Finally customers are becoming more quality-aware, not just cost aware. Have you noticed so many brands in the market don’t advertise where the oils are coming from? That’s because usually the origin is not known, but we are proud to say where our oils come from!”. Majority of Essenza oils are from Kenya with others from Madagascar and Rwanda. Only one is not from within the continent (Peppermint) which comes from Italy.

Quality

Tommaso knows too well that quality can come from African producers but often, goods are exported rather than distributed domestically.  The Essenza line is already being discussed with important distributors in West Africa and Europe, where Agar plan to also export Gum Arabic.

Aside from the online shop at Jumia Express, Essenza is also sold at Elixir Health Shop in Village Market and Favaherb at MiniMall in Lavington. Oils can also be purchased from Agar’s field office in Isiolo.  

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FrankincenseMyrrhAgar LtdTommaso Iser Menini