The award-winning entrepreneur and founder of Shea Radiance, Funlayo Alabi, discusses her Nigerian childhood, mixing up shea butter on the kitchen table, her now global, multi-million dollar business and protecting the women who pick the nuts…
Funlayo Alabi, ceo and co-founder of Shea Radiance, lives in Maryland just outside of DC, with her husband and their two sons; Femi, 18, and Toluwa, 10.
“I was born in the UK, lived there until I was five, then moved back to Nigeria, where I lived for the next 12 more years. In Nigeria, it was divine. We had a carefree childhood, family all around us, great schools. Then at the age of 17, I moved to the US with my sister. We moved there to go to college.
That’s what was expected of us. Everyone I went to secondary school with reached sixth form and knew they would stay in Nigeria for university or move to the UK or the US. We’d been primed and knew that we would be kicked out of the house at some point. My sister and I came to the US, to Howard University, and it was fine because we had each other. It was the next step in terms of our academic career. I studied international business.
My entrepreneurial leaning
When I think back to sixth form, I remember taking cards to school that my uncle had designed – he was a great artist – and selling them. It was the beginning of my entrepreneurial leaning. I studied international business as I had a passion for different cultures and travelling. I don’t think I necessarily went in to learn the technical aspects of business but I had to get a degree and it was handy learning accounting.
When I went into workforce, after a series of jobs I ended up in IT – not international business. I was working my way up but I realised I wasn’t happy being in the corporate world, with all the corporate confines, and I knew that somewhere along the way I didn’t want to be in that world, as it was very restricting. I didn’t want to retire from a job in the corporate world. All the while, my husband and I were doing different things on the side.
Discovering shea butter
During both pregnancies, my mum would bring shea butter from Nigeria when she’d visit. I used it on my belly during pregnancy and never got stretch marks. It could be genetic, but it made my skin feel lovely, and reduced itching and irritation.
When my son Toluwa was young he had really bad eczema. We had him on steroids for it and went through so much, trying to keep eczema free – he had patches behind his knees, the creases of his arm – so when my mother was coming again, I said: you have to bring shea butter.
At this time, my older son also had really dry skin. He was born with a bad kidney and as a result he was really dehydrated, his skin was so dry, so we wanted something to keep his skin looking moisturised. When my mother brought shea butter we were intentional with its use, as we wanted a solution, so we started religiously using it on their skin. After a few weeks, we noticed my older son’s skin had changed – it didn’t look really dry, the quality of his skin was changing.
With Toluwa, we found the skin tones were slowly fading. Eczema starts on the inside so obviously if it’s due to an allergy we have to pay attention to that but symptoms can be managed with shea butter. It’s one of the tools – not the only one. Some people may have to use steroids if it’s really bad but I don’t think it’s the long term solution. You need to use your common sense when balancing conventional medicine and natural products.
When we saw the impact it was having on ours sons, we did research on shea and found out it has all this amazing stuff – it has anti-inflammatory properties. There was so much available but no one used it back home because it wasn’t cool – they used Avon and Vaseline because it was nicely packaged.
We started reading more about aromatherapy – and began combing shea butter with chamomile and lavender, with other oils we thought had healing aspects. It was like a new world. We’d mix it up in the kitchen, handing it out to friends and family. And at weekends, I’d make pots then sell it at the farmer’s market.
It was all about finding something that worked and to see if other people needed it and got the idea behind having a natural skin care solution. It’s 100 per cent natural. We also realised that we had to make really good quality shea butter – that’s why we travelled back to West Africa.
Fair and equal working conditions for the field workers
I didn’t start out thinking about fair and equal working conditions. My biggest concern was the quality of the shea butter. The stuff my mother had bought really worked well on my kids’ skin but I noticed debris in it; the quality wasn’t great. It hadn’t been filtered; it was as if it had been wheeled along the side of the road, it had all these particles.
We are self-taught in terms of making creams and potions but knew we needed a better quality product so reached out to a US organisation doing work in West Africa – the West Africa Trade Hub – who are doing work with shea butter. We then started travelling to shea fields, growers in the north.
It was nothing my husband and I had seen growing up in the northwest. But when we travelled, we realised women could make great quality products with proper training. And yet they were really poor. It wasn’t about fair trade; it was about sustainable economic transformation.
People would take products from these women then make it into their own butter and women weren’t getting much of the revenue. These women were desperate for money to pay for school, or medical supplies, so would sell it really cheap. Men would come, pay them a small amount then contract them for three months. She could have sold it for more but needed money today so agreed.
We were a small company, so when we started working with them, on a common sense basis, we said: if we sell our product, do a good job, if we fill our products with as much shea butter as possible, it means we can work with these communities, they will be our trading partner – without going through middle man – we’d just deal with a co-op who could get all we needed.
We were looking not just for fair trade, but for giving as much back to the women as possible. We were able to get women access to better training, and to work on a couple of other projects in northern Nigeria, creating better quality products because of this connection. It was a win for us and for them.
We started small, in 2010, and gradually grew. We were bootstrapping initially, then started talking to people who could help us grow the business. We’re still a very tight core team, we are lean, everyone on the team is super passionate about what they do – it’s not like we have several layers of people. We’re like a passionate family of mainly women and a few men.
The workers lives are being transformed over time
Here’s the thing with West Africa property and agriculture. It takes more than one thing to deal with the issue of poverty. It’s very complex. For our first project in 2010/2011 we did a partnership with local government and a German non-profit, a development project, and were able to source £22,000 of shea butter. Doing that meant that the women could produce but it also took up a lot of our time and resources working deep into our supply chain. Later, we went back and some of that equipment we had provided wasn’t been used properly; there were goats and chicken sleeping in grinders and roasters. They’d gone back to what they’d been doing before.
We realised the women needed help but I had a brand and company to build in the US. I hired a team to work with the women in Nigeria – but once we were out of sight, things went back to how they were before. So I started working closely with the Global Shea Alliance – a group of stakeholders in the shea industry – as well as big buyers from Europe, big brands, academics who understand development and that landscape, people into the agriculture.
So we became part of this alliance, we knew we needed partners to work with us in communities where we were sourcing. We also became very active in the Sustainability Working Group. We wanted to empower the women and provide them with training – for instance, we piloted a health and safety project.
You see, there’s no insurance in rural areas and women face certain dangers and health risks when they pick nuts: they are exposed to snake bites. They have to work far from their village to gather the nuts. There are men in the fields who have assaulted and sexually abused women. There is a whole list of dangers they face – they feel it’s part of life and they have to deal with it but when they are burned or have bites, they are out of action and if they aren’t working they see no money.
We interviewed women in northern Ghana, where we also work, and found out what they most feared, what dangers they were most exposed to. And then came up with some solutions – about how to prevent them. Reaching out to partners helped us to fund some of these initiatives.
We don’t do anything for free, you see these women are businesswomen, so even if it’s 23p that women donate into a co-op to fund shoes, we want them to have ownership over their part of the business.
My advice for someone looking to start a social enterprise
You need to understand the needs of your supply chain partners – whether it’s coffee, cocoa – you need to understand the needs of that particular element and figure out one thing you can do to help. It’s always important to find partners – you can’t do it alone. It’s vast. Poverty has been there for many years, it’s going to take more than you buying products to change people’s lives so find partners.
You also have to focus on your business, because if it doesn’t survive you won’t help anyone. We’ve made a lot of mistakes as we’ve grown – the social aspect became an obsession and everything else fell apart. Running a successful, growing business is best thing you can do to help people in the supply chain.
If I could go back, what would I change?
Nothing. Because if we changed anything about the equation – including bad stuff and embarrassing stuff – I don’t think we would be kind of company we are today. Larger companies do good things but the social aspect was a later thought – built it big, then thought: now we’re going to give back. With others, like us, the social aspect starts first. In a sense, we were putting the cart before the horse. But would I change that? No. We didn’t do everything right but here we are.
My dreams for the business…
I have income goals for our partners, and for the women, but a few things still need to come in to place to make that happen. So when we have another conversation at a future date, I hope to be able to say this has now happened.
And my personal life…
Just to raise healthy, happy, giving, conscientious sons. I want them to see the world and understand they have a lot to give back. Also, the ability to mentor: to help other young women so they can go out and change the world. And to share our experience, to say: if we can do it, you can definitely do it – and more. Everybody has a different past – different gifts and talent – you just need to develop and be a blessing to the world.
If I could wake up anywhere tomorrow…
I’d like to wake up on a beach in Dakar. Listening to the waves crash. The people around me right now at work are agreeing that this is where they’d like to wake up too.