From Your Lips to This Tree

To celebrate FairWild week, we traced the baobab oil in our Lip Veil all the way to the source.

Photographed by David Brazier

Our Lip Veil collection contains FairWild-certified organic baobab oil. But what does that mean? FairWild is a UK-based nonprofit that supports a sustainable future for wild plants and the people who collect them. Around 30,000 plant species have medicinal or aromatic uses–think of argan oil and shea butter in skincare, juniper berries that flavor gin, or willow bark that powers aspirin. Because these plants typically come from biodiverse ecosystems, and are collected by some of the poorest communities on earth, it’s important to support their sustainable sourcing, which is where FairWild comes in.

“Without wild plants and the ingredients they provide, the landscape of human existence would look very different," says Bryony Morgan, an executive officer at FairWild Foundation. "Given that it’s already estimated that at least one in five wild plants are threatened with extinction, it’s up to every one of us to help build a sustainable future for wild plants.”

We were curious about where the oil in our Lip Veil actually came from, and so for FairWild Week (June 24 – 30), we turned to FairWild partner Gus Le Breton, an ecologist and founder of B’Ayoba, a Zimbabwe-based company that sustainably harvests and processes baobab powder (an amazing superfood), along with our baobab oil.

Photographed by David Brazier

In the US, the baobab is pretty foreign. What’s so interesting about this tree?
The baobab tree is the most charismatic of tree species because it is so big in diameter (25 feet or more) and can live to be 2,500 years old. They are a very key part of the ecosystem—there’s a whole biological world that forms around them. To me, conserving the baobab is an emblem for wider-scale conservation of forests. Though “forest” is misleading—they’re found mostly in very dry areas where there’s not a lot of forest cover. That’s why they are doubly important, because they play a critical role in preserving the integrity of the soil, with a complex root system that holds the soil together, while the tree feeds mulch and leaf litter into the earth. They are also critical habitat for bats—they’re actually pollinated by bats—and are also important habitat to a wide range of birds, insects, and mammals, particularly primates. Suffice to say if the baobab trees were absent, there would be a lot of other animal and plant species that would struggle as a result and would in some cases disappear.

"The baobab tree can be 25 feet in diameter and can live to be 2,500 years old."

What part of the tree does the oil come from?
The fruit! It’s an extraordinary looking thing, a big round wooden fruit covered in fur like a coconut, though it can be long and thin or short and fat or shaped like an egg. Unlike most fruit, when it’s ripe, it’s already dry inside. There are also hundreds of seeds inside, and through a gentle milling process we separate the powder from the seeds, then press the seeds to extract the oil.

Why is baobab oil so good for the skin?
Baobab oil is high in oleic acid, which gives a really thick, beautiful rich feel to the skin. And its single best-known characteristic is its ability both to moisturize and to retain moisture, which it does by preventing trans-epidermal water loss. I use it every day to shave, and it leaves my face moisturized for the whole day, even in our hot, dry climate.

Tell us about the communities you work with. How do you choose them?Because baobab occurs in very dry areas—peripheral lowland areas from the southeast to northeast of the country—the communities living there are very poor. They don’t have much economic opportunity. There’s a lot of pressure to try to engage in some kind of arable farming for money, but it rarely works. What happens is they clear the native vegetation and plant a crop, like corn, but it’s not suited for our dry climate. So they end up with a failed crop, while losing all their native vegetation and top soil, and the whole thing is an ecological disaster. Baobab is an important income opportunity for rural people, providing money without the costs, labor and headache associated with growing corn. They just have to harvest the fruit, which is inherently sustainable because the trees aren’t damaged by having their fruit harvested, and they’re conserved because they have value.

The harvesters store the fruit at their home, then send it to processing centers in different locations, which are all fully food-safety certified. We deliberately employ local people who are also harvesters. We’ve got about 4,500 certified harvesters all told—let’s say 3,500 involved year in and year out in the harvesting, with 300 to 400 working in the processing.

"Not only are the women the ones who work, but they get to decide what happens with the money."

Why are so many of the harvesters women?
Traditionally it’s the role of women to harvest fruit from indigenous trees; that’s a cultural norm. So 75 to 80 percent of our harvesters are women—not only are they the ones who do the work, but they get to decide what happens with the money. It’s very common in poor rural areas for the men to have emigrated in search of employment to the city or neighboring country, and then of course we also had a massively damaging HIV pandemic 10 to 15 years ago—the legacy of that being that a lot of young men died, leaving behind their wives and family.

Women-headed households jump at this opportunity, because it doesn’t require any investment from them. By contrast, if you’re going to grow corn, you’ve got to buy the seed, plow the field, plant the corn, then labor to tend it and water and protect it; you’ve got to have some agrochemicals to fertilize it and keep the pests away, and all of that costs money. But there’s no cost with harvesting baobab fruit. Time and time again when we’ve had outsiders do assessments of our harvesters, they’ve found the income that they generate—cash, from the sale of baobab fruit and processing of the fruit—is often bigger than any other source of income.

Photographed by David Brazier

I know you make the rounds to meet individual communities who work with B'Ayoba. We would love to learn about any of the women depicted in these photos.
Mashia (at top) is 51 years old, married, with four children. She lives in the Nyanyadzi area of Chimanimani, in southeastern Zimbabwe. She has been collecting baobab and selling to us at B’Ayoba for the last four years. Neither her husband nor any of her children have any other form of employment. Generally during the harvesting season (which lasts for five months, June to October), Mashia goes out once a day to collect fruit with a group of other women collectors, which can be something of a social activity. She collects from 14 different baobab trees that are exclusively hers. The other income-generating activity in the family is the growing and sale of tomatoes and sorghum, which is managed by her husband. She says the income earned from the sale of baobab fruit is the biggest source of cash to the family every year. Because she harvests the fruit, she decides what to spend the money on, and usually spends it on the school fees for her youngest child and food for the family. Her ambition is to set up a small business making soap from the baobab seed oil for sale in her community.

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