Archive | March 2013

From the tree to the bottle

We’re committed to helping Somaliland via a socially responsible business model. Frankincense and myrrh has been harvested for generations there and it is time that the people who harvest these resins and live on this land, see the real benefits of their harvest. This video is our company’s story of how we began, our mission for sustainability, our journey of growth, and our hopes for the future. Thank you to Shuraako for producing this.

It costs how much?!!

As many of us in the industry are aware, fragrance oils masquerading as essential oils are rampant. But forget the “industry”.  Of course WE know, that’s our job.  The people I want to get this message to are the consumers.  Consumers of “all-natural” beauty products, “pure” essential oils, “wild crafted” oils, “organic” (notice I didn’t write “certified organic”) oils….these are the people that I want to share this information with.  Most consumers are shelling out extra money for natural, organic, wild-crafted, whatever it may be, because they want the real health benefits that these plants offer.

When Boswellness first started distilling frankincense we were surprised to learn just how much resin was required to get a decent amount of essential oil.  We hydro-distill our essential oil, which means we just use water, heat and resin to produce our oils.  We prefer not to use solvents, which we feel compromises the quality of the essential oil.  Our GC/MS analysis of our oils show high concentrations of alpha-pinene followed by limonene in our Boswellia carteri essential oil.  The former is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial benefits.  The latter for aid in digestion, detoxification, and even anti-cancer properties.  Analysis of our Boswellia frereana shows a very high concentration of alpha-thujene, known for its anti-cancer properties as well.  Having this information is all well and good and sounds soooo sciency (I made that word up), right?  But what am I really trying to get at?  In a nutshell, REAL essential oils have REAL medicinal benefits, but REAL essential oils don’t come cheap.

So, when we started out and realized just how much we would have to charge for our frankincense and myrrh essential oils we figured people would accept it for what it was, since these were the real thing.  Oh how naive we were!  We came to realize that everyone was promoting their frankincense as “the real thing” and at a fraction of the cost of what we were offering.  How could this be possible?  We know it takes x tons of resin to produce x kgs of essential oil.  So how could they be offering their frankincense essential oil at less cost than the raw material required to produce that amount of essential oil?  Slowly we began to realize that we were up against some serious challenges in getting our essential oils into the market. Our best tool for attracting customers was education and creating awareness.  It’s still something we struggle with to this day.

There is virtually no regulation for the natural products industry, which means you can say something is “natural” even when it contains synthetics.  I have also seen the word “organic” used for some essential oils, without having any documentation to back up that certification.  Natural, organic, wild-crafted, etc. are such buzz words right now that they are used quite liberally in product marketing.  As consumers, we have to dig a little deeper if we want to truly gain the health benefits that we’re searching for in natural products.  Ask for proof of organic certification, read label ingredients, ask for proof of whatever certifications the company claims to have (i.e. wild-crafted, fair trade).  And know that if the price of an essential oil looks too good to be true, then it probably is.

I hope that someday, there will be more regulation and oversight over the Natural Products industry.  I hope that claims of “all natural” will actually mean something, and that claiming something is “organic” or “all natural” will not be allowed where synthetics are present.  There, I’m done.  That’s my preachy preach for today…and for a while. I promise. Next time, let’s talk about something more uplifting.  Like Somaliland and our work there!

Vermont Organic Farmers Logo

The Adventure (of a lifetime for me!)

Mahdi and I enlisted two partners (and friends), Billy and Casey, early on in our business who shared our passion for creating a socially responsible business.  The four of us decided that we needed to travel to Somaliland to meet with the harvesters of the frankincense.  We wanted to understand how this resin was obtained, meet the people who had been doing it for centuries upon centuries, and build a bridge from Somaliland to Vermont, so to speak.  Mahdi and I had planned on meeting our two partners in Hargeisa, and we set out on our adventure…the long way.  We decided to fly into Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and drive from there to Hargeisa, Somaliland.  This drive across East Africa was hands down the most eye opening, amazing adventure for a girl from Maine who had never set foot in Africa before.  Especially since we took public buses the whole way.  The unbelievable landscapes, the kind people, the dusty winding roads, the mechanical problems, the “sand tornados” in the vast desert, the pesky baboons, the curious stares at the lone American girl…all of it made for a truly unforgettable experience.  Image

When we finally arrived in Hargeisa and met up with our two business partners, it was time to set out for the harvesting region, Erigavo.  Erigavo is nearly a two day drive from Hargeisa due to the rugged terrain and lack of paved roads.  Since we were 3 Americans traveling through Somaliland, the government insisted on having an armed guard with us whenever we left the city limits of Hargeisa.  Upon going to meet with our police escort and letting them know our itinerary, we were quickly shut down.  They felt that the harvesting region, being very close to the border with Puntland (another autonomous region of Somalia) and given recent tensions along that border, was unsafe for Americans to be traveling in, and therefore would not allow us to go.  So, it was just Mahdi himself who was permitted to travel to Erigavo.  He gladly made the trip on behalf of all of us.  Image

While Mahdi made the arduous two day trip to meet with the frankincense harvesters, Billy, Casey, and myself enjoyed Hargeisa and the surrounding villages, taking in the sights and immersing ourselves in Somali culture.  Meanwhile, Mahdi arrived in Erigavo.  He sought out the Mayor first, as he wanted to introduce himself before just entering the close knit harvesting community.  He went to the Mayor’s house, knocked on his door, and was greeted by the Mayor’s wife.  He asked if he could speak with the Mayor.  She graciously invited him in.  During this introduction, Mahdi presented the Mayor with a small bottle of one of our first batches of frankincense essential oil.  The Mayor smelled it, looked at Mahdi curiously, and asked “How did you get my tree in this bottle?”  That was Mahdi’s first realization that the frankincense producers of Somaliland had no idea of the possibilities and uses for this precious resin that they painstakingly scraped from trees and hauled out of the mountains.  It was a pivotal moment for him and the future of Boswellness.  He was more determined than ever to educate them on the value of what they have and make sure they get what they deserve for it.  Eight years later, our work continues.

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The Beginning

I should have started this long ago.  In the 8 years that we’ve been in the frankincense business we have discovered so much, met so many people, experienced countless highs and lows, traveled the world, changed our lives, changed other people’s lives…so now where do I begin?  I guess the most logical place is at the beginning. 

When my husband Mahdi and I decided to start a business selling frankincense resin as incense, our goal was to do something that would help Somaliland and allow us to give back to the people there.  Mahdi came to Montreal as a refugee in 1988.  He left his parents and beloved country behind because his parents wanted a better life for him and his brothers.  At the start of the civil war between northern and southern Somalia, they scrounged up just enough money to send Mahdi and his brothers out of the country to safety.  Mahdi wanted to stay behind and fight for his country, but his parents would have none of it, and he reluctantly began his journey to a foreign land. 

Mahdi worked hard, put himself through college, and eventually ended up in Portland, Maine, where we met.  Although at that point he had been in North America for 10 years, the sense of obligation to his country was as strong as ever.  He had a keen awareness of the opportunities that he was afforded, which his fellow Somalis who stayed behind were not.  That was (and still is) his driving force for starting his own business–a business that had ties to Somaliland and would be profitable enough for him to invest back into his country. 

And so, with the first kilo of resin that his mother sent him from Hargeisa, we began a business.  At first, we figured we would sell frankincense resin as incense.  That’s really all we knew of its use at the time.  But upon further research, we realized that frankincense was actually a popular essential oil–and so it began.  We purchased a small still and began experimenting with making the essential oil. 

The smell of the oil was heavenly when we got it right…and not so much when we got it wrong.  Distillation is a science as much as it is an artImage, and through trial and error, we were creating this amazing essential oil, perfecting the clarity and scent with tweaks to water volume, amount of resin, and temperature each time.  After 8 years of distilling frankincense, we’ve gotten quite good at it, as one can imagine. 

So in a nutshell, that is how it began.  But early on, we decided that we had to travel to Somaliland and meet with the harvesters to build the relationships vital to the success of our business model.  More on that in my next post…