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NGO henna project in Somalia - Somali women at heart of henna business

by Ailsa Buckley*

* MAPP

One of the nomadic collectors delivering her bags of henna leaves to the mill in Hargiesa ready for grinding to powder

Somalia is a country that changes very fast.

In the face of great adversity, new businesses emerge each day. Businesses that can and do provide jobs and income to disadvantaged young people. Businesses that, if nurtured and supported, will be the future mainstay of the national economy.

Since the nation state of Somalia disintegrated in 1991, the civil war tore the country and its fragile economy apart, decimating business activity and creating high levels of unemployment. Disparate economic structures exist across Somalia and multiple currencies circulate. In the emergent Somaliland Republic, decreased trade with Europe and a lack of external investment have resulted in an over-reliance on traditional activities and a greatly reduced industrial base. There is a distinct lack of knowledge about or access to global markets. Little or no value is added as exports are sent out as raw commodities. However one new business in Somaliland is managing to change all this while helping Somali women to build a new future for themselves.

“Business should be about exchange and value, trade and respect, friendship and trust”


The Body Shop

Asli Grinding Mills produces quality henna powder that can be found not only in the local market places in Somaliland, but also increasingly in the markets of neighbouring countries. Asli Grinding Mills is also a supplier to Body Shop International (BSI) in the United Kingdom, their first major international export customer. This ethical trading company specialises in body and skin care products.

The Asli business venture has received marketing assistance from the Marketing Assistance and Product Promotion project (MAPP), implemented by Progressive Interventions (PI), the Irish business development NGO, and funded by the European Commission. The MAPPs programme is dedicated to the creation of sustainable employment opportunities by providing support to enterprises focusing on natural resources and value-added products with market potential.

Henna - a natural cosmetic

Henna is one such resource: a natural cosmetic extracted from the leaves of the Ellan tree, which grows wild in the mountainous regions of Somalia. Somalis use this cosmetic as a hair dye and to decorate their skin and nails with intricate designs. It is an indispensable household cosmetic with many women operating a beauty business called cilaan soar (body decoration with henna) to earn income for their families. The dried and powdered leaves are also thought to have cooling and astringent properties. In African folk medicine, henna is even used as a treatment for leprosy.

Despite the abundance of henna trees in Somaliland, the henna powder is primarily imported from Yemen. In October 98, having recognised the economic importance of this local resource, the Somali NGO Candlelight embarked on a project to develop commercially-viable henna processing in order to create jobs in the region. Candlelight Health & Education (CLHE), the sister organisation of Asli Mills, received initial project start-up support from the Danish Refugee Council while the MAPP project has provided technical assistance and facilitated local and overseas market links for the new product.

CLHE was founded in 1995 and addresses the health and educational needs of local people. The organisation is actively involved in environmental issues with a general focus on sustainable development, gender and human rights. Asli Mills, the income generation project founded by CLHE, prepares and markets other natural ingredients as well, such as the local Gob tree from which Somalians make facemasks and shampoo.

Nomadic people gather and dry henna leaves before they are sold to CLHE, which then grinds the leaves into henna powder. Since January 2000 Asli Mills, the trading arm of CLHE, has supplied approximately five tonne of red henna powder to BSI for use in four products in its new Henna Hair Colour range.

During August and September BSI launched these new products in some 1,700 branches in 49 markets worldwide. However, the company is not simply a global retailer of toiletries and cosmetics, BSI is committed to environmental protection and social change through its trade-based approach to sustainable development. The BSI Community Trade Programme sources ingredients and accessories from communities in need around the world.

Mohamed, drying the henna leaves in preparation for grinding at Asli Mills

Ibrahim (Asli) and Shukri (CLHE) selling their products at the first Hargeisa Trade Fair in 1999. Here they won the prize for best product. The trade fair was organised by Progressive Interventions in collaboration with the Somaliland Chamber of Commerce

The Body Shop is celebrating this new community trade ingredient by giving away baskets of products to the winner of a new competition. The BSI and the UNEP magazine “Our Planet” is running this competition, which highlights the work of Asli Grinding Mills and Candlelight through the web-site http://www.ourplanet.com.

BSI branding allows the consumer to look behind the label and be confident of purchasing a fairly-traded environmentally-friendly product, with returns going directly to Somali society. New jobs have been created and many of the beneficiaries are women pastoralists or nomads who now earn incomes by collecting the henna leaves for grinding.

A new future for women

One example is Khadija, a 44-year-old nomadic woman, mother of six children, who lives in the mountainous area of Adadlay village. Her husband was killed in the civil war and her only means of income was rearing and selling cattle. But the effects of overgrazing, recurring drought and unstable livestock prices put her source of income at risk. The family owns a herd of 30 goats, 90 sheep and one camel for transporting their portable house (Aqal) from place to place in search of water. Khadija collects an average of 30 kg of henna leaf per month and delivers them to the project leaf collection area nearest her. The project monitors collection to ensure that the trees and the local environment are not damaged during the process. As a result of the additional income she receives, Khadija's herds of livestock are growing and she and her family are increasingly secure.

CLHE is also active in domesticating the henna tree (and growing henna trees as live fences) in remote agricultural areas to support agro-pastoralists who have difficulty in competing with farmers close to urban centres. Already, the CLHE initiative has provided people with additional income and access to education and health programmes from which they would not normally have benefited.

Exhibiting at Trade Fairs

During the 1999 Hargeisa Trade Fair, organized by the Somaliland Chamber of Commerce and PI, Candlelight/Asli Mills were awarded the trophy for Best Product in recognition of their work in the region. They will be exhibiting their products at the next Hargeisa Trade Fair planned for February 2001. Their products and activities are currently also being promoted on the PI website: buysomali.com.

The MAPP project continues to support Asli Grinding Mills with business advice and counselling. Like The Body Shop, Progressive Interventions believes that “commerce can act as a force for positive social change and that commerce must come with a conscience.”