In northeast Ghana, pregnant women sit on hot water and shea butter to ease labour pains and protect their newborns’ skin. In the Gambia, shea butter is applied to the babies’ umbilical stumps to prevent infections and reduce mortality rates. It is believed that the fatty acids, vitamins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory agents present in the natural butter nourish and protect the skin, a practice that can be traced to Cleopatra in ancient Egypt. Early accounts speak of large caravans carrying clay jars of shea butter for her personal use. Today, African women still use shea butter to moisturize their skin and prevent stretch marks during pregnancy. 

Over the years, the demand for organic beauty products in Africa has grown rapidly, as more consumers become aware of the benefits of using natural and organic products for their skin and hair. Today, the global market value of shea butter is about $10 billion, with a projected growth of over $30 billion by 2030. These products have proven to be an invaluable multi-purpose resource for beauty and a myriad of other applications. Moreover, organic products are highly sustainable. Black soap, which is a staple in different parts of Africa, is a sustainable product that does not harm the ecosystem or create waste. It is a handmade soap from West Africa made from plantain leaves, cocoa pods, shea butter, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil. The ingredients are burned to ash, which gives the soap its dark colour and rich lather.

Some people further infuse herbs into these natural skin and hair care products, following unique recipes that are passed down through generations. A common belief is that the more natural a product is, the better it works. Natural skincare specialist and organic brand owner, Ayomi, said watching her grandmother build a successful business trading herbs in the northern part of the country, had a significant influence on her starting an organic skincare brand. “The herbs my grandma sold were very effective for treating infections and sugar-related diseases, which is an unpopular reputation amongst Northerners,” Ayomi said. When she started her organics brand in 2015, she held on to that value, using strictly plant-based ingredients and sometimes infusing herbs into her products, especially hair care products. 

Ghanaian women mixing shea butter for commercial purposes.

Part of organic products’ economic impact is obvious: creating employment. In different parts of Africa today, women make income from selling organic products in local markets or online platforms. In Burkina Faso, locally made shea butter is sometimes called “women’s gold”. Shea nuts are the exclusive property of women in Burkina Faso. They collect and process them into shea butter. This allows them to earn money and support their families, especially in rural areas where other sources of income are scarce or inaccessible. Many women have formed cooperatives or associations to produce and sell shea butter, both locally and internationally. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development describes organic agriculture as “not only a source of safer, healthier products; it is also a profitable source of income for rural communities in Africa. It is an effective tool for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”  

Beauty and personal care are a big market in Africa. The continent has the fastest-growing population in the world, expected to double to 2.4 billion in 2050. This means more potential consumers for the beauty industry, especially in urban areas where people have more disposable income and exposure to digital trends. In Nigeria, retail sales of beauty and personal care products surged to the highest level in at least 15 years despite the country’s mounting economic headwinds. Mordor Intelligence estimates that the African cosmeceutical market size will grow from $3.55 billion in 2023 to $4.95 billion by 2028, at a CAGR of 6.86 per cent. Beneath these figures, is a segment of consumers with more aspiration and preference for quality, safety, and sustainability in their beauty products. 

Organic beauty products extend beyond traditional formulas, often resulting from innovative experiments with various ingredients, textures, scents, and colours. Unfortunately, this experimentation opens the door to potentially harmful combinations, creating opportunities for unprofessionalism and greed in the market. A report by the World Health Organization shows that substandard and counterfeit makeup products pose a significant threat to public health, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

This trend is attributed to the influence of unrealistic beauty standards set by the mainstream industry. Ayomi notes that consumers with darker skin often aspire to achieve the skin tones of celebrities like Kim Kardashian or Beyonce. “I have had to turn customers away because my products do not align with their vision.” A joint study by the Centre for Health and Social Sciences at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India and the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, predicts that the skin-lightening industry will reach a staggering worth of $31 billion by 2024.

One recent standout in the indigenous organics brand scene is Nigerian-based Jenny’s Glow, known for its skincare and beauty products. The brand claims to address various skin issues such as blemishes, dark spots, uneven tone, wrinkles, and dryness. Jenny’s Glow is also recognized for leveraging influencers and celebrities to endorse its products. Early this month, a social commentator led a week-long callout on organic brands. Jenny’s Glow and organic men’s grooming brand, Okunrin, were the point of contact. It wasn’t the first time Jenny’s glow received backlash. Several mini yet consistent social media callouts had been happening weeks prior. One user claimed a product had burnt her skin. Another had experienced a bad rash reaction from the brand’s face cleanser.

Every organic skincare product follows a recipe. Some recipes use essential oils, lemon juice, baking soda, and apple cider vinegar. However, these ingredients have a high risk of being adulterated. “Several times I have had to make my castor oil myself. Because the one sold in the market is compromised,” said Ayomi. Other organic products contain bleaching ingredients, steroids, and high concentrations of hydroquinone that can cause irreversible skin damage such as skin irritation, infection, burns, and cancerIn April, a video of an organic cream vendor mixing packaged yogurt and some unrecognizable ingredients went viral on TikTok stirring concerns about the production process of organic skin and hair care products. 

Some people have developed a fear of organic skincare products, while others have no/little knowledge of their intended value. “Except for faithful customers who go way back, only a few people value 100% organic skincare products at the moment,” said Ayomi. “I don’t blame the consumers,” said Oluwakemi Onipede, an organic skincare therapist. “Many skincare vendors out there have spoiled the natural organic name in the quest to make fast-action products and bleaching products. That is why I ensured I got certified. So people don’t just think I woke up one morning to mix things without proper knowledge,” she added. 

Skincare specialists who focus on skin repair end up cashing out. Affected consumers are desperate to find solutions to restore their skin health and appearance, hence willing to pay a premium for products that claim to do so. Market research by Euromonitor shows that skin care products that offer repair and protection benefits, such as anti-ageing, anti-pollution, and sun care, are expected to perform well in the future.

Organic skincare products are more than just beauty products. They are a reflection of the rich and diverse beauty culture of Africa and its people. They are also a source of economic opportunity, social empowerment, and environmental sustainability. However, the infiltration and lack of transparent regulation could have a lasting effect on the evolution of organic products in Africa.

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