Three years ago, California serial entrepreneur Victor Lulla, decided to start a business that would help others. After adopting twin girls from China and a fortuitous meeting at Expo West, Lulla and his wife set out to create a company that would do more than just make money — they wanted a business that would take root and help people better themselves. Hence the birth of Out of Africa.
Q: The African karite tree is central to your business. How did you discover its rich potential?
A: "As fate would have it, two years ago I was at Natural Products Expo West looking for products for my own health. I ran into an old friend who introduced me to Gilles Adamon, a well-known citizen in the tiny Western African country of Benin (eight million people) and 'a fabulous human being.'
Adamon introduced me to shea butter, the fatty substance from the nut of the karite tree. The karite, known as the 'tree of life' in Benin, has resisted all attempts at transplanting on other continents. It's the gold of Africa and has been used for eons for beauty and healing of the skin, as well as cooking oil and in the best chocolate. Thus began Out of Africa."
Q: The country of Benin has become an integral part of your life. How have you combined business with benevolence?
A: "Our company sells shea butter products, but we also benefit Benin's people by providing employment, and educating its children through the School Children Unite programme. Three per cent of Out of Africa's sales are donated to the Benin Education Fund.
So far, we have funded education and healthcare for 250-300 children (about $100/year). We also work with two women's co-operatives in Benin. The cooperatives provide hundreds of women with work in an area that is acutely poor nation, with high unemployment and typical corruption problems. The butter is produced in the fields and is unrefined as compared to others in the market which are machine-made."
Q: What advice can you give others who wish to pursue or support similar businesses?
A: "The key is finding a partner. Without it you're dead … and you have to be fortunate enough to find someone of quality. My guy has two degrees from the University of Paris, and we spent a year and a half discussing this before we started. Through his contacts and prestige, Adamon was able to convince government officials to waive its punitive import (up to 50 per cent) and export duties (up to 40 per cent).
Today, sales are going well enough that we are looking for partners in Europe for expansion. My vision was to build something very big so that we could bring education to lots and lots of kids. Because of its health aspects, shea butter could reach far beyond the cosmetics and natural products marketplace. We're looking for the economy to change a little bit so that we can do more."