Mission over quality? Storytelling over certifications? Partnerships over a one-woman show? Since launching her shea butter hair care company back in 2005, Shea Radiance founder Funlayo Alabi has found the balance necessary to run a successful mission-driven brand. From getting onto to shelves and establishing the right partnerships to effectively marketing your vision, Alabi shares her tried-and-true tips for running a conscious business.
1. Lead with mission when pitching to retailers
Alabi used to pitch the quality and price-point when she’d talk to retailers—now she appreciates the importance of mission for getting products onto shelves.
“When I first started, I didn’t always lead with the mission because I wasn’t sure how interested people were with that. I thought they were much more interested in what’s the price point, what’s the quality.”
But soon she realized that what sets her brand apart from the other hair care products on shelves is its sourcing story. Though shea has presented financial opportunities for women throughout Africa, Northern Nigeria still neglects this agricultural sector in favor of the oil industry. Seeing a need, Alabi began working with women in eight cooperatives throughout Northern Nigeria on shea production (not just sourcing from them, but investing in equipment, training and other resources), to provide them with a way to bring in money for themselves and their families. It’s this message, she said, that actually gets people to try your great product.
“I need to tell the story of the impact because this is really what is important, not just to me. It became clear this sets you apart and puts Shea Radiance in a position to do more business.”
Finding the retail partners to pitch to is another piece of the puzzle, Alabi notes. What to look for: Stores that want to partner with companies with a social mission, which are those that will allocate the space and resources to telling your brand’s story.
2. Use visuals to tell the sourcing story
When she showed fellow entrepreneurship course classmates photos of the faces behind the manufacturing process, Alabi learned firsthand that people have to see a mission to believe it. “When I came back from Nigeria, I showed them pictures [of the women and kids] and said, ‘This is really what gets me going, what I am excited about.’ I told them the stories of what it really means and the class said, ‘Funlayo, why haven’t you been telling this story? Every product seems the same until we actually try it—these images really resonate.’”
The best way to communicate what your company is doing at the point of purchase is through shelf talkers, Alabi says. But beyond that, Alabi is focused on telling her story on her website through content, and bridging the gap with QR codes on her product.
3. Remember: You’re a business, not a non-profit
Alabi’s close ties with her suppliers haven’t just been advantageous to the women she works with, but also to the Shea Radiance business model. “When we got started it was really important for us to be connected to the source in an authentic way, really understand shea butter and how it’s made and have control over the quality.” Alabi’s investments allowed her to create both a successful finished-product brand and a lucrative supply business, which made up 65 percent of her earnings up until last year.
“Do I provide [the women] with everything they need to produce the product? Yes, I do. Do I provide finances so that if they are not producing enough nuts they have the money to go buy from other villages? Yes, I do. But I’m not an NGO. I just want to give them the support to do what I know they can do.”
Alabi isn’t giving anything to the communities that won’t yield returns, and she communicated her expectations to the women so that orders arrive on time and production remains efficient. (“We negotiate, we argue,” she said.) But in the end, her goal is to produce a great product that brings in profits, so that she can ultimately do even more business with the women in Nigeria.
4. Visit local trade meetings to find partners
Beyond retail partnerships, Alabi has found connecting with others who can offer different expertise and services is critical to building a business. Many of these connections have been made through attending in person-events such as Natural Products Expo and USAID’s West Africa Trade Hub, which is where she was introduced to GIZ, a German NGO that's mission is to eradicate poverty throughout Africa.
“They had the experts who could teach the women how to negotiate as a group, who would make sure they were following the good quality processes so that they could produce a good end product."
Now Alabi is looking at working with a Nigerian nonprofit that would be responsible for staying connected with the women, reporting on their day-to-day needs and preparing them for the next order.
5. Don’t put all your faith in organic & fair trade certifications
Though certifications have increasingly become a way for manufacturers to combat greenwashing and maintain authenticity, Alabi has carefully weighed the pros and cons. What came out on top was that other efforts can allow her to earn the same trust from retailers and their customers.
At this point, she has chosen not to get organic or fair trade certifications. The reason: The processes would be too resource intensive to advance her sustainability vision and maintain a profitable business. Instead of becoming certified, she’s been actively involved in the Global Shea Alliance, which has created its own set of standards that all members must adhere to, and has invested resources in marketing what she’s currently doing.
“On the one hand, I won’t fit the requirements of traditional fair trade because I am doing things a little bit differently. On the other hand, I am doing a little more than what the fair trade requires and I still have to pay for that.”
Alabi acknowledges that down the road, she would certainly consider certifications if she had the resources to make it a positive and business-savvy experience, one that supports her long-term vision. But until then, “for most people, to be able to see the faces of the people who are doing the work and knowing that we are going back year after year is even better.”