In all facets of various societies, worldwide, you can find Nigerians doing their country proud. One such Nigerian flying the green white green flag ,so prominently and boldly, is Funlayo Alabi. The DC/Maryland based Funlayo is co-founder and owner of AgroBotanicals, a company she founded with her husband Shola Alabi which focuses on obtaining fairly traded raw shea butter from women cooperatives in Nigeria; and shipping these shea butter products to the USA. AgroBotanicals also serves as a wholesale company selling large quantities of shea butter (1000lbs to container loads) to mid size cosmetic manufacturers.
Funlayo handles marketing, public relations and some of the daily business operations while Shola primarily researches, develops and manufactures the products. The fierce entrepreneurs have two subsidiaries under AgroBotanicals. The first is the Shea Radiance line of luxury spa products, also created from fairly traded shea butter. The second is Shea Radiance Supplies, a company that caters to small scale manufacturers selling small amounts of shea butter (5lbs -100lbs) in the natural and organic cottage sector of the spa business.
We had the pleasure of delving into the mind of the socially conscious and environmentally driven Funlayo Alabi, LadybrilleNigeria Personality of the Month, to discuss the beauty business, shea butter, shea products and what it takes to be successful fashion/beauty entrepreneurs. Read on . . .
LADYBRILLENigeria: Funlayo, first, there is a serious love affair with shea butter. How did that come about?
Funlayo: Having children with problems like eczema (youngest son had eczema) and extremely dry skin (oldest son had extremely dry skin prior to a kidney transplant) pushed us to revisit old remedies we remembered from our childhood. We asked my mother to bring us a few pounds of shea butter on her visit from Nigeria and we started using it on the kids and ourselves. The results were very encouraging and we realized that by adding different oils and humectants to shea butter we could create really effective moisturizers. Everyone in my house loves shea butter. Our shea butter formulations are so effective that they eliminate the need to use petroleum based products on the skin.
LADYBRILLENigeria: Give us the brief history of how you founded the subsidiary, Shea Radiance?
Funlayo: Once we began formulating our products and sharing them with friends and family, it became evident that there was a market for effective natural based moisturizers. We did some additional research and felt there was a need for luxury natural and organic products based primarily on the functions of shea butter. A lot of the large companies are begining to incorporate shea butter in their products, but use a very insignificat amount and they use refined shea butter. We wanted our products to be rich in unrefined shea butter so the customer would feel the immediate benefits to their skin.
LADYBRILLENigeria: For those who might not know, what are the qualities of Shea and where does Shea come from?
Funlayo: Shea Trees grow in the West African Savannah. They can be found in Burkina Faso, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Senegal and Togo. Scientific research has confirmed what our grandparents have known about shea butter. In addition to being a superior moisturizer, Shea butter also relieves eczema, soothes burns, promotes healing, eases muscle aches and colds.
Shea butter is rich in bioactive properties:
• Antioxidants such as Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Flavinoids including Catechins (Similar to those found in Green Tea)
• Triterpenes with anti-inflammatory and protease-inhibition properties
• Phytosterols which improve skin metabolism and reduce inflammation
LADYBRILLENigeria: As you know, Nigeria’s beauty industry is very much a part of the fashion industry. You are actively involved in trading Shea from Nigeria. Briefly describe the current state of Nigeria’s beauty industry as you know it?
Funlayo: Nigerians have always been on the cutting edge of beauty and fashion. We (Nigerians) are extremely creative at taking the old and creating something new and fresh. I see a move towards more natural and traditional beauty solutions growing in Nigeria. Lots of Nigerians are going for a more natural and organic look with their hairstyles and their fashion. The Nigerian fashion industry is on the verge of a major breakthrough on the international stage.
LADYBRILLENigeria: When all is said and done, what kind of footprint are you looking to leave (outside) and most expecially within Ngeria, as a business woman?
Funalyo: I believe that for any business to remain profitable, it must be sustainable. Shea butter production is primarily a woman’s business. As our business grows and prospers, we want to see the cooperatives we buy from grow and prosper. The shea butter producers are the caretakers of the shea trees that grow in their villages. If they are exploited and not paid fairly, what is the incentive for them not to have the shea trees chopped down and sold for firewood/charcoal when money gets tight?
I want my business to have a positive impact on the local community. Many companies buy shea nuts at a low price and ship them out of the country to extract the butter. We prefer to have the women do the shea butter production because it adds value to the product and they make a better wage.
LADYBRILLENigeria: (Speaking of the women producing their own shea butter), as the owner of a business, to a large extent your business values are an extension of you. What are Shea Radiance’s business values, if any?
Funalyo: We want our business to be around long after we are gone. Our business model is based on sustainable practices that have been best summarized by Andrew Savitz in the triple bottom line:
LADYBRILLENigeria.com: (Okay, let’s touch on people and planet.) You and your husband are even more remarkable than I thought. [I] love that 10% of proceeds from sales of your shea products go to the Agricultural Initiative for Women in Africa (AGRIWA). Explain why it was important for you both to get involved with AGRIWA?
Funlayo: AGRIWA is a non-profit organization that we are in the process of setting up. While in Nigeria in April (2009), we saw many opportunities to do good works in the rural communities in particular. We believe in giving back. We do it in our personal lives and we felt that as our business grows and expands we needed to have a vehicle that would allow us to do charitable work. Women in rural communities are especially needy of medical and educational support for their famillies. Our goal is to be able to fund in a small way projects that will improve lives and alleviate poverty. We hope to partner with other organizations that have a heart for the poor so we can do joint ventures with them.
LADYBRILLENigeria: So, I received the (review samples) Ultra Rich Body Cream, the Chocolate Truffle Pure Shea Butter (thanks for putting a warning label that says do not eat it (laughs)) and the Pomegranate Whipped Shea Butter. Could you explain the distinctions between pure vs. whipped shea?
Funlayo: Yes. Shea Butter is a very versatile moisturizing base and we feature this by creating 3 distinct textures of moisturizers using shea butter.The Chocolate Truffle Pure Shea Butter is the raw shea butter scented with a hint of cocoa essential oils. It has the firm texture of shea butter. This product is a great healing balm and can be used for moisturizing dry callused feet at bed time, sunburn, cuts, eczema, dry nails and lips. It’s a great spot treatment.
The Whipped Shea Butter is half shea butter and half combination of nourishing oils whipped into a rich souffle. This oil based delicacy is great for those who don’t have the patience to work with the raw shea butter beacuse it is easier to apply. It is also excellent mositurizer for the dry winter months. It is a great hair and body moisturizer.
The Utra Rich Cream is a rich creamy textured shea butter product. It is filled with antioxidants and extracts including Baobab etracts, Marine Extracts, Pumpkin and Guava extract. It is a very rich cream and a little goes a long way. This cream keeps the skin hydarated all day long long.
LADYBRILLENigeria: The Ultra Rich Body Cream is indeed VERY rich. Is that for all skin types or just really dry skin?
Funlayo: It’s for all skin types and those with dry skin will appreciate the benefits even more.
LADYBRILLENigeria: I like your packaging. The Chocolate Truffle packaging is not only attractive but the container is 100% biodegradable. I am really impressed that you are especially conscious about your environment. (If) you have lived in or visited Nigeria, we are far from being as conscientious about the environment, unless of course you go to the villages. What do you think has made you that sensitive about our responsibility to the earth and our job to do our part for a cleaner environment?
Funlayo: Thank you. It took us almost a year to design that package from the time the idea was conceived. We wanted a package that would convey the beautiful, renewable and sustainable nature of shea butter. We are more sensitive about the environement because our business in shea butter is dependednt on these trees being available to produce fruits. If the women who are the caretakers of these trees decide to cut them down, it will have a negative impact on the environment and our business. This is why Fair Trade is an important component of being good stewards of the environment.
LADYBRILLENigeria: (Let’s touch on the “profit” aspect of your business value systems) I read on your blog that you recently visited Nigeria and gave a speech in the Niger Delta area. You identified five primary concerns in supply chain logistics that affect Nigeria’s ability to be profitable in trading shea. Briefly explain each concern to us and why we should care?
Funlayo: Yes, we were in Minna, Niger State for a Shea Butter Financing Workshop sponsored by the Niger State government and USAID/West African Trade Hub. The major challenges faced by Nigerian producers is lack of financing from the banks. In spite of all the talk about supporting agricultural initiatives, that money is rarely seen by those who are really interested in developing the shea butter business. Another challenge is the lack of committment to quality standards – in haste to make money Nigerians are sometimes known to compromise on quality. The last challenge is the need to rebrand Nigeria’s image. Negative reports of Nigerian ethics hurts all our businesses. I know that there are many excellent and creative entrpreneurs in Nigeria. We just need to hear more about them and less about the corrupt ones.
LADYBRILLENigeria: I like that you have a blog that is regularly updated and seems to be an extension of your customer service to your clients. How important is that in today’s fashion business world?
Funlayo: Yes our blog is an extension of who we are. We try to stay updated and this can be a challenge with so many conflicting priorities. Our customers want to about our trips and other interesting facts. I also know that as Africans, we have a unique opportunity to educate and inform others about all the good that is coming from the continent. We currently have two blogs, http://www.shearadiance.typepad.com/ and http://www.sheabutterexperts.com./ The same extends to the fashion world because people want to stay informed on the trends. I am amazed at the number of incredible designers emerging from the continent and the only reason I know this and can brag about it to my American friends is because I read blogs/websites such as (LadybrilleNigeria) that highlight this.
LADYBRILLENigeria: Your business is involved with the West African Trade Hub in the USA. How can Nigerian fashion and beauty businesses like yours, looking to trade with the West, use the West African hub to their advantage?
Funlayo: The West African Trade Hub was created to fulfill a mandate by the USAID to promote trade between the US and West Africa. It was through the Trade Hub that we made a connection with our partners and cooperative in Nigeria and have since made several trips with members of the trade hub to the shea areas in Nigeria. The trade hub also helps execute the AGOA mandate which also promotes trade of certain items, including textiles, crafts and fashion from West Africa to the US, tariff free.
LADYBRILLENigeria.com: What next for Shea Radiance?
Funlayo: Well we just updated our product line with new labels and logo. We are looking forward to the 2010 shea harvest with the hope of buying and selling lots of shea butter.
LADYBRILLENigeria: How do we support your work and where both online and offline can we find your products for purchase?
Funlayo: You can find us online at http://www.shearadiance.com/or shearadiancesupplies.com. We are also in the Mall at Columbia. Our non profit efforts through AGRIWA will be published on AGRIWA.org soon. Those in the Washington DC Metro Area can find us at the Shea Radiance Kiosk at The Mall in Columbia, on the lower level beside Kay Jewelers during the holidays.
LADYBRILLENigeria: Thanks Funlayo for being our personality of the month. We are honored and congratulations with all of your great work. (It) is not as easy as you make it all look.
Funlayo: Thank you so much for letting me share our story.
Visit Funlayo Alabi’s Shea Radiance site(s).
Visit the West African Trade Hub here.
~Interview by Uduak Oduok
LadybrilleNigeria Personality of the Month is a monthly feature of Nigeria’s fashion entrepreneurs, business leaders and personalities truly connecting and changing the face of Nigeria’s fashion industry.