Lulu Life, the shea butter brand grown in Sudan and produced in Kenya, is emerging as a premium product in the western cosmetics market, following research revealing it as possibly the richest source in the world of skin nutrients that heal scars, burns and stretch marks, and keep skin young for years longer.
The shea butter brand is now supporting hundreds of employees in both Sudan and Kenya, but its newest success as a top-of-the-market luxury product in North America, follows years of lurking on Nairobi supermarket shelves, for little more than Sh300 a pot.
Nearly a decade ago, the French non-governmental organization MEDIC (Medical Emergency and Development International Committee) founded the Lulu Livelihoods program to help feed and support women affected by the conflicts in Sudan. It was not until 2005 that Lulu Works launched the Lulu Life skin care brand label, using the shea butter grown and harvested in Sudan to make body butter, soap, scrub, lip balm and recently mosquito repellents in Nairobi.
Building on the brand name “Lulu”, as the Arabic (and Swahili) for “treasured pearl”, Lulu Livelihoods has since succeeded in converting the traditional role of Sudanese women as the guardians of the lulu tree and producers of lulu oil, into incomes for more than 800 women in 40 different rural processing centers in Southern Sudan, and a livelihood for many more at the Nairobi formulation and marketing plant..
But the secret of the company’s latest successes lies in the type of tree it is harvesting from. Sudan is just one of 19 countries, stretching from Ethiopia to Senegal, that grows the shea butter tree. But only three, including Uganda and Ethiopia, grows a rare species of the tree, vitellaria nilotica.
In West Africa, the far more common Shea Butter tree, long-since used as the source of oils for a large shea butter business, is vitellaria paradoxa.
Shea butter has been known for its medicinal, cosmetic and nutritional properties since the days of the pharaohs and Cleopatra, and its production has been a well developed industry in west \Africa for over a century. In Sudan, by contrast, it was civil war that began to make shea oil important, as a main source of food security during the dry season.
The opportunity to develop the Sudanese oil into cosmetics coincided with the discovery by western researchers of an active ingredient in shea oil, Unsaponifiables, that helped counteract eczema, psoriasis, dry skin, scars, stretch marks, wrinkles, burns, rashes and wounds. At much the same time, scientists also discovered that the oil contained Stigmasterol, which helped relieve muscle aches, arthritis and rheumatism and contributed to cell growth and regeneration, leading to younger-looking skin.
With the Shea Nut grown only in Africa, the research led to surging interest in sourcing shea butter from the continent as a raw material.
Lulu Life is one of the only producers formulating the butter into cosmetics in Africa itself.
It has been a move into value-added production that has delivered a butter of far greater purity than is available under most western brands, for a cheaper price. The brand is additionally close to alone in producing the butter without bleaching, and chemical processing. The East African shea nuts used by Lulu Life are simply cold-pressed to extract the oil.
“The difference is that the West African shea nut butter is hard, while the Sudanese one is soft,” says Beatrice, from Lulu Works. The dark paradoxa nuts from West Africa are bleached and deodorized before processing into skin care products, striping them off nutrients found in butters made from nilotica oil, according to Lulu Works. However, other West African companies argue that the hard, unprocessed paradoxa variety is richer in nutrients.
Either way, Lulu Life is now selling the cream for up to $24 a pot in US stores (almost Sh2000), and will, in July, begin marketing the cream online via its own website.
The prospects for any rapid competition are limited. Although Lulu trees grow abundantly and last between 200 to 300 years on the plateau and the alluvial plains of Southern Sudan, they must grow for 15 to 20 years before they start producing nuts. Shea butter is no short-term crop.
But for East Africa’s own-brand shea cosmetics maker, 10 years of building production and livelihoods now looks set to pay off in the true prize of any specialist producer: the top of the market.
Written by Stella Kabura for African Laughter.
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