Making scents: Resins are really from Africa, by gum

A tree in the Ethiopian mountains where opoponax resin is collected. (Ermias Dagne)

A tree in the Ethiopian mountains where opoponax resin is collected. (Ermias Dagne)

Historically, tree gum exudates – known as resins – have been classified within the traditional Oriental fragrance family. It is my opinion that we Africans should take them back!

After all, they are mostly harvested on our continent. Though it is clear that smells such as warm sensual incense, amber and musk, also classed as Oriental, should remain within that rich and heady grouping, fresh African resins should be celebrated as proudly homegrown.

Africa’s precious raw materials are too often sent off to other countries for processing, rather than Africa making our own consumer-ready products. We should be investing in local technology for processing and packaging, otherwise the only winners are logistics companies that transport our precious natural resources away, and then freight them in again as finished products.

Resins come from arid environments – the resinous oil is the plants’ protective method for survival in harsh rainless environments. I look close to the equatorial belt when sourcing. From Ethiopia, I source a raw material called opoponax, a golden resin with soft powdery undertones, technically advancing the composition’s longevity.

The story of opoponax is an insight into how African collaboration can bring unique perfumes to market.

Warm and welcoming
Before I arrived in Ethiopia’s capital, I connected with Ermias Dagne, emeritus professor of chemistry at Addis Ababa University. It amazes me how individuals who have a passion for the supply chain are so warm, welcoming and open to sharing knowledge. He took me to his garden: a piece of land that is working in vibrant diversity. Here he has set up a distillation unit for processing the collected gum droplets of the opoponax resin.

Opoponax pickers, or sometimes just the sacks of resin, travel to the garden distillery from the Bale mountains, a watershed that spans Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Fortunately, resin is stable, unlike roses that start to wilt and lose their oil the moment they are picked. Even so, travel here is complicated, transport unreliable and without the assistance of the professor this precious raw material would not see a market so easily.

Once the essential oil of the resin has been extracted by steam, it is used as a base-note binder. Perfumes are formulated with top, heart and base notes. The top flighty notes, usually citrus bursts, are the initial attack and last for 20 minutes; the heart notes are floral, lasting for about four hours; and the woody base notes form the “dry-down” that present later, and last longer (six to eight hours). Opoponax resin is a versatile raw material because it has the ability to carry heart notes through to the base – a way to form a seamless and rounded composition.

Working with opoponax – instead of traditional “Oriental” perfume notes such as benzoin (a Sumatran-sourced ice-cream note) or musk – is pioneering work: creating a new generation of fresh, complex – fragrances that are African-inspired and unique.


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