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This Is More Than Just Distilling

 I really want to talk about our connection to the source of our frankincense and myrrh, Somaliland,  and how it is truly the foundation of our business.  Part of our mission statement on our website (http://boswellness.com/mission.html) says: “Reinvesting in the harvesting communities and paying the harvesting families a fair price is at the core of our business.”  

I’m always struggling with how to let people know our mission is not just lip service (without sounding preachy), but something we are constantly working towards as we go about our business.  Every decision made is done so with that one sentence in mind.  We have this crazy idea that business can actually do so much good when it’s not solely focused on the bottom line.  Not to say that profit isn’t important (or there would be no business), but reinvesting in the health and longevity of the local community is just as (if not more so) important.  

Some of you may be asking, “Why Somaliland?”  Because that’s where Mahdi (founder of Boswellness) is from and where his heart still resides.  

In fact, Mahdi is the one who really fostered the relationships and engages with the Somali community, unsurprisingly as that is his culture.  Without having that connection, it’s unlikely that we could have made a real impact on the harvesting communities.  The cultural intricacies (let alone a language barrier) would be too much of a challenge for a non-Somali to navigate and truly connect with the community on the level that only a local could do.

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As I sit here and try to make a list of the initiatives we have taken on, it occurs to me that we have been very busy over the last 8 years, and yet we still have so much more to accomplish.  But so far, here’s what we have accomplished: 

  1. Met with the harvesters and land owners

  2. Introduced them to the essential oil of the frankincense and myrrh resins. (They didn’t know about that part)

  3. Educated the harvesting community on the end consumer market possibilities for their resins.

  4. Sought out and partnered with academic institutions to study the ecology of the trees and create plans for sustainable harvesting.

  5. Connected UVM and Burao University on this project so that local youth could become involved in helping their community and become stewards of future sustainable harvesting practices.

  6. Conducted a rapid assessment of the current situation on the ground in Erigavo. Asked harvesting community about their needs. (Video here)

  7. Established a fair price for the resins based on what the harvesters deemed fair.

  8. Submitted numerous proposals to NGOs for projects ranging from access to clean water, to installing sanitary bathroom facilities for the community, to renewable energy and more.  (Although none of the proposals have been funded yet, we are hopeful that they will be one day). 

  9. Applied for and successfully attained (3 years after we began the process!) the first organic certification for frankincense and myrrh from Somaliland.  

We’re pretty proud of that list and we’re going to keep on adding to it.   It’s been quite a fulfilling journey so far.  And the fringe benefit of having a constant supply of that liquid gold on hand…not so bad either.  

 

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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.

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…