Nowadays, the term ‘sustainable’ gets frequently thrown around as a marketing ploy. How can you trust that the products you’re patronizing are truly what they seem? Amy Galper’s guest has been distilling essential oils sustainably and with integrity, following an authentic distillation process. In this episode, she interviews Jeremy Dhanani, the CEO of Malagassi Essential Oils, one of the leading family-owned essential oils companies in the world. Jeremy shares what it’s been like to grow up amidst aromatic plants and distilleries and how he is leading his family’s company to always honor quality over quantity. Malagassi is truly setting a global example of how to grow, harvest, and distill aromatic plants sustainably, ethically, and with real integrity.
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Authentic Distillation: Honoring Quality Over Quantity With Jeremy Dhanani Of Malagassi Essential Oils
How To Distill Essential Oils Sustainably And With Integrity
I’m glad you are here because we have an amazing guest, Jeremy Dhanani, who is the Cofounder and CEO of Malagassi. It is a beautiful essential oil company that distills essential oils and has been working with essential oils for generations. I am excited to have him here, and we are going to learn so much about what it means to grow up amongst all these amazing aromatic plants and the work that his family business does. Not only that, but also the important work they are doing to protect these plants by using sustainable and ethical practices and for being a leader in this field and industry. Jeremy, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be in the show and chat about essential oils and all these things that we are both passionate about. I’m looking forward to it.
I know people would love to hear more from you because you are young and you have been involved in this business for your whole life since you were a baby. People would love to read a little more about your family’s business, how they got started in working with plants and aromatics, and how it grew into this beautiful business and became such an important presence in the world of aromatherapy globally.
It would be maybe interesting to go back in time a little bit. My family has always been in agriculture. They left India about five generations ago and moved to Africa and Kenya. Principally, they started growing coffee and processing coffee. We have always been in the field and working with plants. My family moved to Europe and continued with wine and different products of agriculture. That is when we got to bergamot in Italy.
It was an introduction to aromatherapy because bergamot is over the different industries, perfumery mostly, but is also an important plant in aromatherapy. That is when the family business started producing essential oils merely with bergamot. The passion grew in the family. We started looking at other oils from other places in the world.
Early on, Madagascar came on the table as the cornerstone land of essential oils because of its unique climate and all the different climates there in the north. It is tropical. You have high mountains, deserts, and plains. There is so much diversity in that country. It allows aromatic plants to grow in a unique and powerful way. That is how we got interested in Madagascar, and the business expanded there.There is so much diversity in Madagascar. It allows aromatic plants to grow in a very unique and powerful way. Click To Tweet
I was born when the company was already in Madagascar and doing twenty oils at the time. All I knew since I grew up was going to Madagascar, and later on, we went to Morocco. We traveled the whole world, going from one distillery to another distillery. I was always on the table. That gives a little overview of how my family got into essential oils.
I have a question because you were saying all over these distilleries. How many areas are your family involved with local farms and distilleries around the world? How did you start those relationships with these communities?
It was my dad who came to Madagascar. He partnered with someone that has already been in Madagascar for several years prior. At this time, it was more of a curiosity. I was interested in seeing this strange land. It was strange. It is not anymore. Seeing how everything that he heard about essential oils and Madagascar is unique and powerful. He is traveling with his partner.
He started seeing some things that could have been maybe a little bit improved, talking to people, hearing what they were telling and hearing some frustrations. They are seeing that may be a lack of quality material and infrastructure. It grew organically that my father started offering small producers and farmers to help them out with some material or the distilling unit and helping them grow land. There is a piece of land on sale right next door. If we had it, we could expand the business.
He is organically helping this farmer and that farmer. Over time, it became something a little bit bigger because we started funding those farmers and allowing them to expand their fields. We started buying entire distilleries and installing them there. We are trying to improve logistics in all different aspects. How can we reduce the amount of transport between the field and the distillery to have less time?
Having a higher quality product saves people from moving from one place to another. That is how it started. Several years later, we are distilling about 36 essential oils in Madagascar. We have six distilleries. There is one thing in Madagascar you are not allowed as European or anyone else from Madagascar to own land. How do we do it? The farmers do not always have the money to buy the land. What we do is we buy in their name.
Something that is important that helped us build trust over time is that we are spending a large amount of money to buy land in the name of the farmers in Madagascar, which they own. The distilleries are ours, but the land belongs to the people. That is that collaborative effort that we put in place several years later. Now we are still working with the same farmers all these years. We are still expanding, educating, and seeing how we can improve. Every day, we are still trying to improve the operations, the lives of the people working, the farmers, the process, and everything.
There is something wonderful to read about that long-term relationship. Especially now, I’m sure you are well aware that the essential oil and aromatherapy business is growing like crazy and exponentially. With this mad rush on land and places that people are not caring or take into consideration, all of these people have been tending the land for generations. It is so beautiful to see that that is such an important value that you guys do, and you have been doing this for so long. It is important. You are distilling 36 different plants in Madagascar. Do you have other locations outside of Madagascar that you are harvesting and distilling?
We do. We also have two distilleries in Morocco. In Morocco, we buy raw materials from local farmers, and we also work with the same exact farmers for a long time. We buy the material and distill it ourselves, but in different places of the world, we have a lot of partnerships with farmers, and they are all unique in some cases. We pre-finance the entire production, which helps out and allows us to always have the quantities we need for our clients but also make sure that we have the production price. If it were our field and our distilleries, we would have the same exact price.
We pre-finance the entire production. We take 30% or 40% of it. We pay a fair price for it. The rest of the production belongs to the farmers. The producers can sell it on their own. We have all these different partnerships. We are developing new partnerships in Asia. The idea behind this is that there are a lot of producers and farmers who produce amazing essential oil. They have amazing practices and a process. We like to call it the authentic process of distilling essential oil because of the passion and quality of the product.
Often, these small producers and independent farmers don’t have the resources and network to get it out there and sell it on a global scale. That is what we do at Malagassi. This is different from the family company, which is producing. At Malagassi, what we do is represent all these independent farmers. We distribute their product here in the US but also in Canada. We have clients in Japan. It is getting a little bit more global. There is a lot of visibility and presentation to those producers.
You said something about the authentic way of distilling. I love for you to talk a little bit more about that because it is true. I wanted to cover this later in our conversation, but it has become such a commercialized industry. It is driven by money, price, and greed, with little care about where the plants are coming from, how they are grown, who is harvesting them, and how they are distilling. Tell me a little bit more about why that is important to you and what that means to Malagassi.
That is the core of our business and how we differentiate ourselves from other suppliers or producers. Our goal is on our website and LinkedIn. We distill for quality and not quantity. There are 1 million different ways to distill aromatic plants, and there are 1 million different results as well. First of all, when we distill a plant, it is a plant, leaf, flower, bud, roots, tree, park, hardwood, leaves, and branches. There are many different parts of the plant. All different parts of the plant have different yields and properties, even though the molecules are the same but in different ratios.
The first thing about authentic distillation is to see the plant that we are talking about. What is the specific part of the plant that has the most interest? Let’s take an example of clove, for instance. We are always going to distill the bud. Nothing more unless it is a specific request, but we never distill the branches, leaves, or any other part of the plant. We only distill the bud. It doesn’t have the highest yield, unfortunately, but it has the highest composition and level of the original. The issue is that the other producers who distilled the branches.
They can call it the original coniferous or any other name that this plant has. They can call it the exact same way and sell it at a fraction of the price. They can do a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th distillation and increase the yield. Sadly, that practice lowers the overall quality of essential oil on the market. One thing that we call authentic is not being money-driven, like, “We are going to have the biggest production.” Maybe we have a fraction of the production, but the product is going to be amazing.Authentic is not being money-driven but about having an amazing product. Click To Tweet
There are other ways. If we go into more technicalities of the steal that we use, the real authentic way would be copper steel. I love copper steel, and we still have it, but as a decoration. When we do a big production, we do a small batch of the same batch. The issue with copper steel is that it sometimes affects the sand and color. There are instances that we work with a producer of frankincense. They do use copper steel, and we love it. We mostly use stainless steel. That is mostly the idea.
Speaking about distilling and your process, I love for you to walk through a little bit more about the whole process for those people who are learning about essential oils and are feeling passionate about them. They want to understand. Every plant is different in how long it needs to grow. What is the harvesting process? Are your farmers and partnerships harvesting the material by hand? How large is your machinery? How much do they yield? How much plant material do you have to collect?
I see a lot on the internet about how a lot of people feel that essential oil production is not sustainable. They will say this on and not often, saying, “You use so much plant material, and you are only taking out one particular element of the plant and for such a little quantity.” How do you balance these conversations and comments that come in? What are your practices, as a company, to make sure that you are continuing to be mindful of the amount of materials, how that process is, and how you work from seed all the way to the bottle?
I will structure the answer into different parts. The second part would be sustainability. The first part would be what the process of distilling an essential oil is. I will talk mostly about the oils from Madagascar, which are the ones that we do from the seed to the bottle. We overview the entire process with the one I’m more familiar with.
Every oil is different. Before the clove gets distilled, it needs to be sun-dried for a few days. Sometimes if the weather doesn’t allow it, it spreads over a few weeks. In the case of the clove, we need to sun dry and extract all the water out of the bud before we can distill it to limit the amount of water we get in the final product but also increase the yield of the production.
All the plants are picked by hand every day. Ten months a year, from March to December, they are picked every day because every day, they are new blossoms. As soon as they blossom, they are picked in the morning, and they are distilled in the same few hours after getting distilled because that is when they have the most potent smell and scent.
The distillation takes 24 hours. It is a long distillation. Over those 24 hours, there are different grays that get extracted with different densities. The first to get extracted and score the grade one are extra in some cases and have the lightest molecule. They are extracted first by steam distillation and then there are grades 2, 3, and 4. This is steam distillation. This is hydro distillation. We put all the flowers in the water, and we boil them.
As the water boils and evaporates, it grasps the aromatic molecule of the flower. Those molecules evaporate within a certain time. That is where it condenses into a liquid form again and goes to the separative funnel, which then drops, and we get the water of the water steam and the essential oil on top in most cases because essential oil is lighter than water. It separates, and we have the oil.
In case some people reading don’t know anything about the process, this is the process. It is quite the same for steam distillation, except that the plants are not in the water. They are above. There are different plants that we don’t steam or hydro distill that we cold press, mostly carrier oil. A lot of citruses are cold pressed, sometimes distilled, but it is rare.
To jump into sustainability, those critics have a base that everything can be excess and everything can be waste. The biggest argument that I have heard about the sustainability of the aromatherapy industry comes from mostly the same critics. We can put to any agriculture that is an excessive monoculture practice of destroying the diversity of an area and planting one strain of plant for kilometers or square miles of one plant. That is the excess of our culture. It drains the soil, and it makes the diversity impacts the floor and the corner of the zone.
Eventually, people need to expand in different places because the soil because infertile. That has a lot of negativity to it. We have our own answer to that. We try to promote permaculture as much as we can. Almost everything that we do is in permaculture. We always have at least 2 or 3 different plants growing in the same area, which is great to keep the soil more dynamic and have an overall better quality of plants. Longer longevity of the plantations the plants because they get nurtured by the presence of other different plants.
We promote permaculture whenever we can. When it comes to the waste of using only one part of the plant, we try to do a circular economy on every account. We reuse biomass as fertilizer when we are planting. Let’s take the example of Niaouli. We’re distilling the leaves, but all the branches are great for combustion. We take all the leaves, cut the branches, and transform them into green charcoal that we can use to power distilleries. It can’t be 100%, but we are trying our best to always reuse everything.
Another practice that is bad is the destructive harvest. A lot of people grow a plant and cut it to harvest. They replant another plant, and they do this year after year. That is bad because the plant never gets to grow fully and participate in the ecosystem. When they are small, they are focusing on growing, and they are not enriching the floor or the soil. That is one thing that we don’t do, especially it goes to the harvest of trees.
We do a non-destructive harvesting method. It consists only of cuttings. In the case of bark, Katrafay, for instance, that grows only in South Madagascar, we cut a third of the bark. We do the same for cinnamon in Madagascar. We cut only a third of the bark so that next year, we cut another third and the next year, another third. By the time we are back to the first third, it has time to grow back, and the tree keeps growing.
It reduces our yield by a third. That is why a lot of people don’t do it, but, as I said in the beginning, we always focus on quality, not quantity. We do that. Over time, after several years, even the third is a lot more than the little twig. In the case of cinnamon, there is always a lot of camphor when the tree tries to grow. Once there are more bigger trees established with their bark and thickness, the camphor level drops, and the cinnamon level goes up. By being patient, focusing, listening to the plan, trying to be sustainable, and trying to supply good quality products, everything works over time. This is a big part.
I love that is what your commitment is, and I wish more people were doing this, thinking, and mindful in this same way. When you look at the industry, especially now since it has been growing big, you look at different market research reports, and it is astounding how huge the essential oil industry has been growing. It is mind-boggling. What have you seen as frustrating? What is frustrating you in the aromatherapy essential oil industry? As one of the leaders in the field of sustainability and quality, what would you say is something that is frustrating you in the industry?
The symptom of all this frustration is the lack of education on every side of the industry. A lot of buyers don’t know about essential oil and what it entails. You get a bottle, but how do you get there? If people would focus a little bit more on educating themselves and trying to understand how everything is put together, they would probably make better decisions when it comes to sourcing.
This market is completely price driven, but not for everybody. There are a lot of companies that care more about quality. I’m not saying it is all bad, but I’m saying that there are a lot of price-driven companies who will choose the most affordable version without understanding that it might be lower quality or any of the molecules of interest in it. The smell would be lower.
Because the market is price-driven, it gave birth to another thing that is frustrating, which is the standardization of essential oil. That is why humans have been doing everything. They are playing God. A lot of essential oils are made in labs. What they do is they are buying a lab that buys a ton of clove bud. They are going to take that clove bud and see the molecular structure of that oil and they’re going to see, “There is 80% eugenol and this percent of lean oil and this percent of something else.”
In their standard expectation, the eugenol needs to be 90%, but the lean oil needs to be 10% or 5%. They are going to chemically add the components that are missing and chemically remove the component that is too many. It becomes like Frankenstein oil. That allows them to cut down the price by a lot. With that one done, they can produce ten. I just made up that number. I don’t know.
Even if it is five, they buy one ton, and they produce five out of that. The price is a fraction, five times less. If a producer or farmer comes with a genuine product that they produce, most farmers and producers don’t have the resources, the labs, and the teams to do all of those manipulations. The farmers come and say, “I have a clove here at this price.”
This company, which is huge, is selling it at five times cheaper than farmers can’t compete with that. Most buyers don’t understand the difference. They say, “I can buy it five times cheaper because that company is bigger than the small producer.” That’s frustrating, not only for our production but also for all these other farmers that we work with, we know, and we care about. We see their frustration of, “I can compete. I need to cut my price down. I need to lower the price. That is one of the things that frustrates me the most.”
Education is important. The passion that drives me is trying to educate people more. That is why I’m grateful for a conversation like this, Jeremy. Thank you for taking the time. It is important for people to hear what you are saying. I don’t think people realize what is going on. This is important. Before we say goodbye, I know you have grown up around essential oils and everything. Do you have some favorites that you use? I’m sure you have a lot of favorites but are there a few that you are using right now that are by your table or on your desk that you are into?
I use a lot of essentials. If I had to name a favorite one, it would be Helichrysum Italicum. I love this oil because it was a revelation for me as a kid. I have always been very adventurous, taking risks, jumping off, and hurting. My parents always gave me a few drops of it to put on my cuts and burns every time I would hurt myself. In a matter of 1 day or 2, I would see that wound completely close, heal and leave no scar as if nothing happened. It would always fascinate me. My dad would come and tell me, “This is the power of the plant. This is a drop of a plant, and you are healed.” This is true for every essential oil that exists. In the right application, they are going to do a miracle.With the right application, essential oils are going to do a miracle. Click To Tweet
Growing up as a kid in essential oil, there were a lot of jokes at school because, somehow, sometimes, a lot of people are skeptical about it. When you are a kid, you want to defend your family things. You get emotional. What my dad told me is, “Always have a bottle of Helichrysum. Whenever someone is skeptical, give it to them.” It is an expensive oil. It is a nice gift. Give it to them and let them experience it.
Everybody has back pain, knee pain, or something that they want to get rid of. They are going to an operation or anything. It is my converting oil. I like to show people that this is real. It is amazing and powerful. You should use it. That is my favorite. Also, bergamot and I like to diffuse citrus when I work because it gets me focused. I like lavender and ylang-ylang before I go to sleep. I use fennel seed oil if I have a stomach ache. I use peppermint if I have a headache. I use rosemary in my hair. I’m lucky enough to have enough supplies. I use it all the time without moderation.
Malagassi is primarily a business-to-business company. You provide and work with other businesses. You do not sell directly to customers. For anyone who is reading and is excited about trying Malagassi, you can check out their website and follow them on what they are doing on social media. I’m sure you have some social media presence, Jeremy, so that people can follow you and stay in touch.
I have been trying to share Malagassis oils when I do little videos with my students and get the word out about the work. You can continue to learn about oils and what Malagassi is doing. Thank you so much, Jeremy. This was an amazing conversation. I learned so much. Every time I talk to you, I feel like I get new insights. This has been fantastic. Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me. It was always a pleasure to chat with you. I hope people like it.
About Jeremy Dhanani
Born in a family of essential oils producers of Madagascar, Jeremy grew up learning about the power of plants and the richness of nature. As a millennial Jeremy always had much interest for technology and design. He graduated in Architecture as well as computer programming while always keeping a foot in the field. Following his family’s steps into the world of aromatic plants, he turned his passion into a profession and co-founded Malagassi in 2019, a New York based company supplying brands across North America with premium quality essential oils, spices and other goods from Madagascar and the rest of the world.