As a child growing up in West Africa, Funlayo Alabi remembers being chased down and smothered in shea butter by her helicopter mother. Shea was the remedy for everything from dry skin to chest colds. Think of it as the Nigerian version of Windex from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. "Mothers love it, kids hate it," quipped Alabi.
So naturally, it was pretty surprising 25 years later when she realized it was just the thing she needed for her youngest son. "He was suffering from very severe eczema. We had him on steroids. I thought to myself, 'This boy is going to live on steroids if I don't find a more natural alternative.'" Alabi acquiesced and phoned her mother to bring shea butter on her next visit to the States.
Soon, Alabi and her entire family noticed their skin looked and felt better than ever. Not only did it help manage the symptoms of her son's eczema, but their skin was less prone to dryness and had a beautiful, warm glow. It was 2008 and Alabi realized that she had an amazing product on her hands that was largely untapped by the global markets. "I have always had a business mind and knew that we could develop high-quality shea butter products and sell them."
She got right to work, mixing shea butter lotions and shampoos in her own kitchen. Often, Alabi would experiment and get creative with the ingredient, sometimes including lavender to soothe breakouts or Baobab oil to stimulate collagen. This was the beginning of her company Shea Radiance, the bootstrapped cosmetic company based out of Ellicott City, Maryland. In those early days, Alabi would give samples to friends and family. After rave reviews, she began to sell in pop-up shops at her office and eventually, at farmers markets. "I was running out of inventory so fast, and we knew that we really needed a steady supply chain to keep growing."
After months of research, she planned a trip to visit some shea communities in northern Nigeria and dig in deep to understand the harvesting and production process: from fruit to nut to butter. While the point of the trip was to establish a good supply chain with excellent quality shea butter, Alabi noticed something else. "We found women. We came to realize that every product that had shea butter in it involved one woman, often with a baby strapped to her back, walking through the fields and collecting each fruit on the ground, one by one."
Alabi and her husband observed these women over several weeks and were astonished by how hard they worked. "But what was really amazing was the fact that multinational companies were buying huge quantities of shea, but the women were still poor. The money just wasn't making it into their hands." It was in the summer heat of that small Nigerian village that she and her husband decided, "If we can do a good job marketing and selling our shea butter products, we can have an impact on communities -- even if it is just one or two. We can buy from these women. We can support their economies and we can give these women the economic access they need to support their families." That moment was a defining one for their company. To empower women through good business relationships and economic independence became the heart, the very DNA of Shea Radiance.
With some help from the Niger state and German NGO, GIZ, Shea Radiance organized these independent women operators into cooperatives. They established more refined production practices to guarantee quality and extend shelf life of their shea butter from a couple of months to two years. During 2010, they were able to produce 22,000 pounds of raw shea butter that then was shipped to the U.S. After that, Shea Radiance went into fifth gear to brand, market, and sell all across the country.
Today, Shea Radiance has more than 20 different hair and skin products, all distributed through its partner, Select Nutrition, which services more than 7,000 stores throughout the U.S. In addition to the brick-and-mortar sales, the company is ramping up e-commerce and international channels, especially in Europe and the Gulf states that are desperate for its products. Based on current growth, sales for Shea Radiance products will gross tens of millions by 2020.
Alabi admits, "I probably won't be the CEO at that point, but I would like to be freed up to do more work with women in agricultural societies in West Africa. I really do believe that a jar of cream is not just a jar of cream. It can change the world. When women are economically empowered, it affects the family. And once you can affect the quality of life of a family, you can effect the community."