THE PERFUME ISLES
The tiny archipelago of Comoros off the east coast of Africa dominates the world’s supply of the essential oil ylang-ylang. But dominance comes at a cost
Comoros, off the east coast of Africa, dominates the world’s supply of ylang-ylang. But dominance comes at a cost.
Driving along the winding, potholed roads of the island of Anjouan in the Comoros archipelago, you can smell the nation’s iconic crop long before you see it. The scent – a heady, floral, spicy cocktail somewhat reminiscent of jasmine – is most powerful at dawn, when it spills out of the plantations that dot the landscape and flows down over the steep volcanic hillsides towards the Indian Ocean below. The crop is the ylangylang flower and this little-known string of islands set in the warm waters between Mozambique and Madagascar has been its heartland ever since it was first introduced here by French colonialists during the late 19th century. Despite being one of the poorest and least developed nations on Earth, only home to around 800,000 people, in recent decades Comoros has dominated the world supply of the essential oil made from ylang-ylang flowers, producing as much as eight out of every ten litres that reaches the perfumeries and cosmetics companies of France. The oil is used in everything from soaps to incense, but it’s as an ingredient in fine perfume that Comorian ylang-ylang is best known. Since 1921, it has even been a key component of the most famous scent of all time, Chanel No. 5. And, with the country’s other main exports being vanilla and cloves, the archipelago has long been known to sailors, settlers, traders and other visitors as the Perfume Isles. Yet in recent years, market forces far beyond the control of farmers, combined with environmental challenges and further compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, have seen the industry fluctuate wildly.
It all kicked off in 2011. Until that time the price was very low; the flower out of favour with perfumers. From 2011, an effort to overhaul and revitalise the sector took place in the Comoros and demand for ylang-ylang began to rise. By 2014/2015 demand had overtaken supply, triggering a bidding war over the limited pool of flowers. The price began to skyrocket out of control. This continued unabated until it peaked in 2019, by which point foreign buyers could no longer afford to buy it. By 2020, demand had dried up almost entirely and flowers were being left to wilt on the tree. As the world slipped into lockdown in March 2020, what little demand there was evaporated altogether.
BOOM AND BLOOM
Among those who make a living in the world of ylangylang is Tohedine Abolou, a 39-year-old flower farmer and distiller who lives in the tiny village of Hajoho on the rugged, northeast coast of Anjouan. I first met Abolou in the summer of 2018, when the island was in the grip of ylang-ylang fever. In just four years, the price of flowers had leapt from 100 Comorian francs (US$0.24) per kilo to 2,500 francs (US$5.88). A single litre of oil could net a small fortune, in a country where the average annual income is just US$1,400. New ylang-ylang trees were being planted by the thousands. ‘Now we’re earning some money at last!’ Abolou told me, as women in brightly coloured clothes plucked handfuls of droopy, acid-yellow flowers from the gnarled ylang-ylang trees behind him. ‘In 2015,
I could sell my essential oil for 800 francs per degree. Now I get 4,150!’ (Ylang-ylang oil is priced by the degree of density.)
Abolou is the third generation of his family to do this work and when I spoke to him, he had high hopes that the new profitability of ylang-ylang production would allow him to give his children the kind of opportunities
he never had. ‘I left school for this work. My father couldn’t afford to keep me there,’ he explained. ‘But now I’m making enough money to support my family.’ When the pickers finished their work, they bundled the flowers into bulging sarongs and hauled them across to a small tin shack, where two men were busy setting up distillation equipment. One was sealing metal pipes with fabric and tire rubber to make them airtight and fitting them into place around a large metal still, while his colleague threw logs of mango wood into the blazing furnace underneath. There was little time to lose. To ensure the best-quality oil, ylang-ylang flowers must be picked early in the morning when their fragrance is at its strongest and then distilled as quickly as possible.
As the process got underway, Abolou explained that his set-up could distill batches of 230 kilograms of flowers at a time, in a process that lasted some 24 hours. To generate and maintain sufficient heat, he burned through an entire truckload of wood each time he did this. The output: around five litres of sweetsmelling essential oil that ranged in quality from high to low as the distillation process continued.
Despite being one of the poorest nations on Earth, Comoros has dominated the world supply of ylang-ylang essential oil
The Cananga odorata plant originates in South East Asia. Its common name, ylang-ylang, which translates roughly as ‘flower of flowers’, comes from the Tagalog language of the Philippines. But it’s here in the Comoros that the species has achieved truly iconic status. Airlines, travel agents, shops and hotels are named after it, and its distinctive floppy yellow flowers adorn everything from postage stamps to banknotes. Yet as a commodity, it has long been neglected by the Comorian government and the industry has gained a reputation for being opaque and unregulated. Taxation on exports has been extremely low, doing little to boost
the country’s perpetually cash-strapped coffers. In an interview in 2019, the deputy governor of Anjouan, Mohamed Said Musa, estimated that just three out of every ten litres of essential oil reached the customs authorities. Consequently, the nation’s dominance of the crop has done less than might have been hoped to drag it out of poverty.
Musa also blamed the preponderance of cash crops such as ylang-ylang, with their lure of quick riches, for leaving the country entirely dependent on imports to feed its 800,000 citizens. And besides, he said, even in the good times, the Comoros doesn’t derive a fair share of the profits from such crops, which go on to form the basis of extremely expensive products.
Even so, at the peak of the goldrush, a single litre of Tohedine Abolou’s best quality oil could net him well over £400, the equivalent of roughly four months’ salary for the average Comorian. But today, just two years later, flowers across the Comoros are being left to wilt and die on the tree, their value almost entirely gone.
The global market in aromatic crops is notoriously volatile. In recent years, vanilla, lavandine, patchouli and others have all suffered significant price swings that have hit producers hard. At the peak of a recent vanilla boom in neighbouring Madagascar, vanilla pods were briefly worth more than their weight in silver, before the price started to tumble. But these fluctuations pale into insignificance when compared with the rollercoaster ride of ylang-ylang, whose price increased by a factor of 25 in just five years, before plunging back down again to the point where it’s now barely worth harvesting.
‘It’s very difficult,’ says Marie Azihari, a consultant for the Bernardi Group, one of the main buyers of Comorian essential oils, who also sits on the board of local charity Deux Mains which works to develop a sustainable ylang-ylang production chain. ‘Their produce is selling for a very low price, so it’s very bad… Some have stopped picking.’
When Azihari first became involved with the crop in 2011, production had been declining for decades. Ylang-ylang was out of fashion and perfume makers, put off by the inconsistent quality and the opaque supply chain that characterised the industry in the Comoros, were choosing other fragrances to formulate their perfumes. Worse, there was growing concern about the industry’s contribution to the rampant deforestation that has plagued the country ever since it gained independence from France in 1975.
In just two decades, Anjouan, the centre of ylang-ylang production, lost a staggering 80 per cent of its natural forest
In just two decades, between 1994 and 2015, Anjouan, the most populous of the islands and the centre of ylang-ylang production, lost a staggering 80 per cent of its natural forest cover. While there were several causes for this, many people pointed to the wood-hungry distilleries scattered across the island, and to the amount of good, arable land taken up by ylang-ylang plantations, which left the rapidly growing population little option but to encroach ever further into the forests to grow food crops.
‘When I arrived ten years ago, people told me ylangylang was finished,’ explains Azihari. ‘No new perfumes were being made with it. Only the same old perfumers were using it.’
UP AND UP
Over the next few years, Bernardi, Deux Mains and other local actors set about revitalising the industry. Antiquated equipment was phased out and replaced with the latest technology. People at every level of the production process were trained in best practices. Layers of middlemen were removed from the unwieldy supply chain through the creation of cooperatives that pooled their resources and sold directly to exporters such as Bernardi. Oil quality began to improve. Efforts were also made to curb deforestation through the creation of wood parks and the introduction of new, fuel-efficient stills which use just a fraction of the amount of wood. In time, the image of ylang-ylang began to change for the better. ‘At the beginning of the project, everyone was happy,’ says Azihari. ‘There were improvements in quality, fair trade, sustainability. And when the big players started using ylang-ylang again, everyone else started using it, too.’
Paradoxically, the initiative may have been too successful. With the crop back in favour, demand surged, buoyed by the emergence of a new market in aromatherapy and the expansion of the fine fragrance market into emerging economies such as India and China. The price of flowers and oil began to rise. Hoping to cash in, people planted thousands more ylang-ylang trees all over the Comoros, yet still supply couldn’t keep up with demand.
Soon a fierce bidding war broke out between Bernardi and its bitter rival, Biolandes, another Francebased fragrance company, over the limited supply of flowers, driving the price into an uncontrollable spiral. ‘Everything was okay until 2014/15,’ says Azihari. ‘Then we saw very aggressive behaviour from one of the buyers. They wanted a monopoly. The price started to rise and rise and rise.’
Benoit Lemont, the purchasing director for Biolandes, denies that his company was responsible for the unsustainable rise in prices. ‘I could tell you the exact same story about Bernardi driving the price up,’ he explains in a phone interview. ‘When we come to
[do business in] a new country it’s not to launch a coup, it’s not a game. We’re looking at the long term.’
In any case, with the price of flowers rising by the day, things started to fall apart. On the smallest of the Comorian islands, Moheli, farmers found themselves having to sleep in their fields at night to prevent their trees being stripped bare by thieves, while others began harvesting the flowers before they ripened to prevent them being stolen. Speculators got involved at every level and within just a few years, the number of small-scale distilleries on Anjouan doubled, leading to further competition.
‘When people come to sell us their flowers, they find agents from other distilleries waiting outside our gate,’ said El Anzizi Boina Imani, 36, a ylang-ylang distiller near the town of Domoni on Anjouan in 2018. He had recently invested in fuel-efficient stills to replace the outdated, fuel-guzzling ones he used before the boom. As he spoke, they steamed gently and the precious essential oil dripped slowly into an empty glass Coca Cola bottle. Like most Comorians with access to a little capital, Imani started planting his own ylang-ylang trees to further capitalise on the windfall.
‘Just walk over there and you’ll see ylang-ylang trees everywhere,’ added 26-year-old Kader Ahmed Bakar, a worker at Imani’s distillery, pointing along a nearby river valley. ‘The price is so good, everyone is planting. As soon as I have the money, I’ll plant ylang-ylang.’ As the price continued to rise, unscrupulous operators began to mix brake oil into their ylang-ylang oil to make it appear denser and hence of better quality, a practice that’s surprisingly difficult to detect. Another scam involved double-distilling third-grade oil then mixing it in with the first grade.
In a storeroom in Domoni, filled wall to wall with blue plastic jerrycans of ylang-ylang oil, Saikane Aboubakar, the manager of Ylang Flor, a local buyer for Bernardi, fights a permanent battle against poor-quality, adulterated oil. Leading me into a back room, he
A single cyclone in the Indian Ocean could wipe out half of the global ylang-ylang crop overnight
demonstrates one of his techniques for detecting such tricks, which involves dipping a small slip of paper into the oil and then holding it above a candle. If an oily residue remains on the paper after it has been heated, he explains, the oil must be discarded. By the end of 2018, Aboubakar’s team had managed to stop most of the spoiled shipments from reaching the end users, but the damage had already been done.
‘Factories in France had a lot of ylang-ylang oil bought at a very high price that they couldn’t even use because the quality was so bad,’ says Azihari, the consultant for Bernardi. ‘We told the distillers it would lead to a crash, so please don’t sell to these [scammers], even at a high price. But they kept selling.’
When the crash came, it came hard. Unable to justify paying extortionate prices for such an inconsistent product, perfumers started to move back to using other fragrances, including synthetic ones, in their perfumes. At the same time, supply was surging, with new ylang-ylang trees reaching maturity not just in the Comoros, but all over Africa. The price began to plummet. Each actor in the long ylang-ylang supply chain had more stock than they could sell. Farmers found themselves unable to sell their flowers and distillers ran out of space to store stockpiled oil, which dropped in value from day to day. Many ended up unable to repay large loans taken out during the boom. Then, in early 2020, just when things seemed to be approaching rock bottom, the Covid-19 pandemic erupted. The French factories shut; trade stopped. ‘Covid stopped everything,’ says Azihari. ‘There was no demand at all.’
Benoit Lemont, who has been in the fragrance business for decades, sees the latest upheavals as part of a pattern made inevitable by the nature of the market and the small size of the industry. He points out that with such heavily concentrated production, a single cyclone in the Indian Ocean can wipe out half of the global ylang-ylang crop overnight, just as a single period of heavy rains in Madagascar can prevent vanilla vines from blooming and alter the price of ice creams around the world. ‘With ylang-ylang, the cycle is about ten years. All we can do is try to establish longterm contracts with the end users,’ he says. So far, this hasn’t happened.
Yet, in the long run, he still believes there is cause for hope. ‘It’s an amazing plant,’ he says. ‘And I see a future for “natural” scents on a large scale. Even if we’re at a low point now, the wave will come back.’
In the meantime, powerless to alter the market forces that shape their lives, there’s little that Comorian ylangylang producers can do but wait.