Often when we think of botanical folklore and tradition, of centuries of wisdom and experience in using plants to treat everything from acne to eczema, we envision Asia or Europe. But now there's a new continent in the world of personal care. And with a quarter of the world's biodiversity and at least as much botanical history and lore, Africa is poised to potentially surpass its sister continents in breadth and depth of personal care ingredients.
Certainly, Africa isn't the first place that comes to mind as a source for plant-based personal care. But in a shrinking world where virtually every personal care company is looking for new fragrances, antioxidants or that special ingredient du jour that will give it an edge over its competitors, Africa is no longer the forgotten continent. In recent years, a growing number of African companies are not only producing creams, lotions, balms and other beauty products using native ingredients, but are also exporting these concoctions to North America and Europe. And manufacturers ranging from The Body Shop to Burt's Bees are increasingly incorporating African ingredients into their formulas.
"It's like the awakening of a giant," says Jim Simon, Ph.D., a professor at Rutgers University and co-principal investigator and quality-control coordinator for the nonprofit trade association Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products. "Africa is just a treasure house of different natural resources." And many of these botanical resources are natural or organic and sustainably grown.
"In Africa, there's not much mass farming or pesticide use. If you live in Africa, almost everything you grow is more organic than here," says Linda Cusack, an eighth-generation South African who moved to the United States eight years ago and founded Rooted in Africa, a Phoenix-based distributor of natural African personal care products. "[Agriculture] is not an industry in Africa like it is in the U.S. Things aren't overprocessed in Africa. If you smell lavender essential oil grown in Africa, it's so much richer and earthier, even more than the lavender oil grown in France."
Cusack says many of the small African companies that make personal care products are using natural ingredients without being consciously aware they're doing so. Frequently, only a few preservatives or additives need to be changed before the product can be labeled organic.
Rooted in Africa is one of the growing numbers of for-profit and nonprofit distributors of African personal care products and ingredients (see sidebar, below). Often, these distributors act as a combination business developer and parent to their African clients. "We work with start-up companies in Africa that are making a difference in their communitiesâproviding jobs, developing sustainable agriculture and engaging in social upliftment," says Cusack, who notes that one of Rooted in Africa's clients, Under the Sun, helps fund a South African pediatric AIDS hospice with the profits from its products.
Other African personal care companies working to bring social change to the continent include: Rwanda-based Ikirezi Natural Products, which works with Rwandan widows and orphans to produce organic geranium oils; California Inside & Out manufactures and markets the Benin-based Out of Africa line of shea butter soaps and body oils, and gives a portion of its profits to an education program for young girls in Benin; South African-based Return to Roots Skincare funds rape-prevention programs for African women; PhytoTrade Africa, a nonprofit trade association, and ASNAPP market raw ingredients to help support sustainable economic development in Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal.
"There are a lot more marketing and business programs now for African products, and that gives more recognition and a better vehicle to make African materials and ingredients more available worldwide," says Simon of ASNAPP.
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 30,32