Keep Sesame on the Street

Sesame lower res

Exceptional stability and long shelf life make it a popular component of many cosmetic and industrial products. The nutty, sweet aroma also means sesame oil has many exciting uses in international cuisine.

Here, we look at the cultivation and trade of sesame oil plus the specialist method used in its production. The article also examines the current market for sesame, the effects of recent political unrest on its quality and supply and how an organic sesame project can help address the challenges that this discontent can bring.

A variety for all regions

Sesame (Sesamun indicum. L.), one of the earliest known crop-based oils, is a valuable commodity with significant market potential. Africa and Asia dominate sesame production. Myanmar, India and China are the top three producers closely followed by Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda. White and other lighter coloured sesame seeds are common in West Asia and the Indian sub-continent, whereas the black and darker coloured types are more prevalent in China and South East Asia. Africa, on the other hand, produces a variety of sesame seeds. The cross-fertilisation of African and Indian types has also resulted in a large number of sesame species.

The sesame plant grows to between 50cm and 250cm in height depending on the variety and growing conditions. The plant thrives in well-drained, fertile soil and has an extensive system of feeder roots making it very drought tolerant. The sesame plant continues to produce leaves, flowers and capsules for as long as the weather allows. At maturity, the leaves and stems change from green to yellow to red in colour. At this point the leaves fall off and the sesame seed pods split, releasing the seed. Harvesting of sesame seeds is usually performed by cutting the plant stalks and stacking them vertically with the cut-ends placed downwards. Each stalk is then shaken or beaten over a cloth to catch the seeds that fly out from the dried capsules.

A well-oiled seed

Approximately 65% of the annual sesame crop is processed into oil. Sesame itself has a high oil content (around 50%) compared to most other oilseeds – soya beans are only 20% oil, for example. The oil content of the sesame seed varies with each species; it can
range from 28% to 59%

Sesame oil is often extracted using relatively inexpensive but manually intensive techniques. These include hot water flotation, bridge presses, ram presses, the ghani process (a large pestle and mortar), or by a small-scale expeller. Alternatively, it can be extracted using larger-scale oil extraction machines, or by pressing followed by chemical solvent extraction. Cold pressing with an expeller press is also possible. This method is popular with many audiences as it avoids exposing the oil to chemical solvents or high temperatures during extraction.

Earthoil, a specialist in pure, organic, fair trade and natural essential and vegetable seed oils, offers sesame oil which is cold pressed at its organic and fair trade certified Kenya facility. Here, it is then filtered and bulked before being packed into drums,
IBCs or flexi-tanks ready for shipment. Refined sesame oil is also provided, which is still organic certified but with less colour and odour.

Sesame oil is used in the cosmetic industry as it penetrates the skin easily; it is used in India as a massage oil. It can be added to face creams and soaps too with low grade sesame oil also used in paints, lubricants and illuminants. The oil carries many benefits;
it is naturally antibacterial making it effective against common skin pathogens as well as skin fungi, it is also naturally antiviral and is a natural anti-inflammatory agent.

Maximising market potential

High oil content plus a multitude of potential applications mean there is significant market demand and commercial value for this little
seed and its flavoursome oil. International demand for sesame continues to increase every year. In fact, the world's traded sesame seed recently surpassed one million tons per year and was valued at roughly 850 million US dollars.[1]

A number of factors can influence the success or failure of a sesame crop and its subsequent supply and sales to meet these
industry requirements, however. Extreme weather conditions are one such example. But a region's political situation may also
have an impact. For instance, political unrest in Africa (eg Mali) has limited the opportunities to grow, harvest and move sesame crops for export. This, in turn, affects supply so manufacturers are unable to develop products containing sesame at the rates
required to satisfy market demand. Limited availability then causes prices to increases which impacts the whole supply chain.

Moreover, in the current market organic sesame may command an even higher price. Overall organic sales are currently valued at approximately $55.9 billion and strong growth continuing across Europe and the US[2].

An ethical approach

Earthoil is well-placed to help producers affected by this current market situation. The company offers organic cold pressed sesame oil through one of its community grower projects in northern Uganda, a region which has suffered years of civil unrest. Many of the small scale farmers within this co-operative were displaced during the heaviest years of fighting, and have now returned to reclaim their land to start farming again.

Earthoil purchases organic sesame seed from this project and ships the seed to its oil processing facility in Kenya. As well as providing a route to market and a steady source of income for these farmers, the project also provides technical support. For example, it offers horticultural advice on how to maintain good soil conditions and crop rotation for improved product quality and increased yields. Earthoil also ensures a fair and equitable price for this organic sesame with prompt payment made to all its growers.

The project has also brought significant improvements in living standards from providing employment to the region, transport and improved methods of ploughing fields. And, for every truck filled with sesame, the project pays a percentage into a local development fund and has introduced tree planting to the area with over 44,000 new trees planted. Above all, the project has improved the per capita income per farmer by more than 80% since the project's inception.

Plus, in the wake of significant political turmoil in some of the other sesame growing countries such as Mali, Earthoil's sustainable community grower project in Uganda offers a secure and reliable source of material.


With its distinct aroma and broad application potential, sesame oil enjoys clear global popularity. By working with suppliers like Earthoil, manufacturers can be confident that the sesame oil they use is not just high quality and organic but also comes from a secure, credible, ethical and sustainable source.

[1] The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, August 2011

[2] Organic Market Report, The Soil Association, 2012