Thoughts from Linda
Wakanda exists… Adeba’s factory is located there
February 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther took the world by storm and introduced a fictional African country called Wakanda, whose technological and scientific advances were hidden from the rest of the world by an invisible shield deployed at its border.
Here is the catch. Wakanda isn’t a fictional country. It is a metaphor for countries that exist. I count 54 of them, just in Africa. I grew up in a “Wakanda,” Adeba Nature’s factory is located there, an hour away from Abidjan, its economic capital.
In the few years, I have been working as part of the sustainable and slow beauty ecosystem in Cote d’Ivoire, I have encountered so many unique ingredients, unheard of skills and knowledge, mind-blowing technological advances that I am baffled by the fact that so few people, Ivorian or not, seem to see them. There appears to be an invisible shield indeed, but not a physical one. In my conversations with customers, suppliers, researchers, traders, I noticed some recurring patterns that I believe contributed to the creation of a powerful psychological barrier that prevents people from truly appreciating what’s around them.
A logic of extraction
Africa has been emptied of its substance, and what has replaced it is empty too.
Joseph Ki Zerbo.
The professor and intellectual from Burkina Faso highlighted that, historically (and still today), Africa has been a continent where extraction reigned: raw materials (rubber, gold, cobalt), culture (Picasso and his Black period), and tragically so, 10–12 million Africans to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade.
Many of my interlocutors tend to think of countries in Africa as places to endure or escape, not learn from, respect or admire, so that logic is still at play:
In the economy: primary exports still dominate. According to the 2020 World Bank/IFC private sector report, Côte d’Ivoire’s manufactured exports have remained low and have fallen over time. Between 2010 and 2017, the share of manufacturing exports in total merchandise exports averaged 14 percent – 3.5 times lower than the average for lower-middle income countries. That same report confirms that there is little R&D done on local products by highlighting that a “rise in demand for mid- to high-range products from a growing regional middle class presents growth opportunities for the [cosmetics] industry, but research and development as well as strong marketing and branding are necessary for Ivorian cosmetics to compete against established global brands.
In culture: In 2018, a report commissioned by the French government created waves in the art world. It revealed that “ that 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums. France alone has at least 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its national collections,” and called for permanent restitution.
And unfortunately, also with human-beings: Today, young African men and women voluntarily embark on “death” pirogues with the goal to “get to Europe or die trying.” The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has estimated that 19,000 died crossing the mediterranean between 2014 and 2019 and pointed out that many more people die during the land crossing of Africa from their country of origin to the coast.
A logic of dismissal of local knowledge and techniques.
Growing up, I read about the practice of the symbol in schools during the colonial period in Cote d’Ivoire. My parents themselves went to such schools, where they were forbidden to speak their local languages lest they would be forced to wear an ugly necklace called the “symbol” for an entire day (or until someone else was caught speaking their local language) and subjected to taunts and mockeries from other students and teachers alike. These experiences were traumatizing and had the objective of making “French” the language in which folks would communicate. Many older grand-parents did not speak French at all, so this practice led to a break in the transmission of knowledge and tradition, losses occurred. Today, one of my deepest regrets is to not be fluent in Agni, Aboure, Baoule or other Akan languages that I find beautiful, and which I believe would help facilitate Adeba Nature’s mission of preserving knowledge and of innovating on tradition in a safe way.
The adoption of damaging beauty standards
50% of women in Cote d’Ivoire bleach their skin to make it lighter, 77% in Nigeria. In Côte d’Ivoire, folks even sell bleaching products for babies. 50% of Black women will experience some type of alopecia because of the prevalence of wigs, weaves and other styles damaging to hair follicles so they can have straight hair. For a variety of reasons, from deeply psychological because of the legacy of colonialism, plain superficial (influenced by popular singers and actresses) or even rational based on observations of perceived preferences in hiring, beauty standards push women to adopt unhealthy practices in the hopes of attaining an ideal look. Women in Cote d’Ivoire and throughout West Africa go through extraordinary lengths to lighten their skins and achieve the skin tone of their dreams. The most popular Facebook groups dedicated to beauty are geared toward getting “a yellow skin tone, or an orange one, or caramel or coffee with milk. These behaviors can be partially explained by the lack of effective products to address people’s genuine skin care and hair needs, if a woman can’t find any product to deal with her acne scars, she might end up thinking bleaching is the only solution. This is where Adeba comes into play and this is why our ability to innovate on tradition is key.
A case of arrested development
A recent New York Times magazine article quoted a cosmetic chemist who said that “Consumers always get dissatisfied with beauty products and want something new, but the reality is technology in cosmetics hasn’t substantially changed in 30 or 40 years, these oils and extracts likely add little to nothing, he said, like a vast majority of press-release-friendly ingredients in other beauty products (CBD, noni fruit). But people perk up when they read them on a label.” This statement might be valid for the Western world, but just last week, in the Adeba lab, our team was studying the properties of an ingredient that is not currently used in cosmetics at all even though it’s been used by local women in their routine for its sought-after benefits (hydrating, soothing, anti-aging). The number of google searches about it is ~3000, versus 1 million hits for the much better known African treasure, shea butter. We work with local researchers , who, with limited means, have developed original and unique ways of conducting research. One, now retired, researcher told us that he was able to identify new useful plants whenever he went to his village by following wounded or sick dogs into the tropical rainforest and study the plants that they used to heal themselves. How ingenious!
And this is where a framework for thoughts developed by former hedge fund manager,and current flaneur Nassim Taleb becomes highly relevant. (you read right, that type of hedge fund!) The two concepts most relevant to the R&D Adeba is conducting in the beauty world are the concepts of antifragility (what improves with change/shocks) and Lindy (what stands the test of time). The ingredients and plants that we are now working on are known to be safe as they have been used by location population for generations. These botanical ingredients and the local techniques developed around them have survived the influx of imported products, the lack of popularity from being disconnected from the mainstream, and the lack of appreciation and transmission across generations, which makes them both lindy and antifragile. Adeba Nature makes valuable incremental modifications when creating formulas with those ingredients, therefore creating new natural non-toxic products by building on the highest quality of research, that done in villages, by people with skin in the game, who’ve been using the ingredients in one shape or form for generations and have noted the benefits. This is innovation. It is the type of innovation that protects people and the planet as it doesn’t increase risk. It is the type of innovation that folks who may be allergic to ingredients currently in the market or for whom existing products simply do not work, need. Research is not over in West Africa. Far from it. It merely suffered a case of “arrested development” whereby imported products were automatically considered superior and local products dismissed with little attempt at improving them. In addition to botanicals only used by a few, local people’s skills and knowledge have also been overlooked. We are now re-wiring our brains, to think beyond extraction, but also to understand, build on the library of techniques, technology even developed around local plants, away from prying eyes. This trend is not just visible in the beauty world, Cote d’Ivoire is sporting incredible innovation in the agribusiness with great coffee and pepper brands, (have you had some Niamkey’s Black pepper yet? It won the “Prix des Epicures d’argent” in 2019) or in fashion, with for example, Ivorian designer Loza Malheombo’s creations being prominently featured in Beyonce’s “Black is King” movie. In the world of beauty, Adeba Nature is discovering formulations and products that not only address issues like hyperpigmentation, bleaching scars or alopecia, but also others such as dry skin and dry hair that affect folks everywhere in the world, e.g., our carapa oil soap is now a bestseller in Cote d’Ivoire and a favorite of our clients in the United States as well.
At the end of Black Panther, in one of the hidden scenes, a UN representative asks the king of Wakanda, “With all due respect, Sir, what does a third world country have to bring the world?”
When I think about that question that is often subtly (or not so subtly) asked when I talk about Adeba Nature, a quote from Raoul Peck, director of “I am not your Negro” comes to mind: “I was born in a world where I didn’t create everything before me,” he said. “But I can make sure that I take advantage of everything I can to show that the world as you think it is, is not the world as it is.”
And dare I add, definitely not the world as it could be.