The burgeoning northern Australian spice industry has moved from concept to impact with the first orders secured to replace 100 tonnes of imported kalonji seed.

Melbourne firm Hab Shifa imports up to 800t a year of kalonji seed – also known as nigella – for sale as a health ingredient in cooking and for production of therapeutic oils, but it has now engaged AgriVentis Technologies to supply locally produced seed instead.

AgriVentis Technologies chief executive Lewis Hunter said the deal was a major breakthrough for the emerging Australian spice industry, with the volume supplied to Hab Shifa expected to grow each year as more farmers joined the spice industry.

“We’re currently contracting farmers in Queensland to supply seed to meet this first order, and we’re looking for more farmers to work with as we build this industry across northern Australia to tap into the booming demand for spices around the world,” Mr Hunter said.

“We would like to increase our supply to Hab Shifa, and we have received inquiries from other companies here in Australia who would like to purchase high-quality Australian seed, instead of imported product.”

Through the Spicing Up the North project funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), CQUniversity researchers conducted varietal, environmental and economic assessments of five different spice types at six sites across Queensland and the Northern Territory, identifying black sesame and kalonji as prime candidates for large-scale production.

The project was supported by Rockhampton Regional Council, the Burdekin Bowen Integrated Floodplain Management Advisory Committee (BBIFMAC), TRAP Services in Tully, the Northern Territory Department of Industry Tourism and Trade, and the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development.

As results emerged demonstrating both the economic value of the crops – some are valued at upwards of $US2700/t on the international market– and their high yields in a range of northern environments, grower participation in the project grew, with more than 15 different farmers trialling the crops on a small-scale by the second year of the project.

AgriVentis is now engaging farmers to plant larger crops to meet the growing demand, with CQUniversity economists predicting the global the kalonji oil market will be worth US$25 million by 2025 in the United States alone.

Trial crops in Biloela in the winter of 2021 yielded 3t/ha – well above the average yield of 980kg/ha in market-leading Turkey, placing Australia in the box seat to capitalise on the growing global demand.

Hab Shifa founder Azam Kassim was delighted to be the first customer of Australia’s newest crop and looked forward to the day when Australia was exporting its seed to destinations around the world.

Mr Kassim said kalonji had been used as a natural remedy for numerous ailments since the times of the Ancient Egyptians, with this anecdotal evidence now backed up by modern scientific assessments of its vitamin, mineral and fatty acid components.

“In fact, a component of the essential oil extract is thymoquinone, which is unique to kalonji, and this is the key ingredient that is believed to be responsible for its therapeutic benefits.”

Hab Shifa’s black seed products are approved by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration and include oils for pain relief, skincare products, and capsules for improved health, as well as raw seed for cooking.