Chicago-based Ghanian American Abena Boamah grew up using ultra-moisturizing raw shea butter on her skin, but it would be many years before she turned a reformulated version into a career for herself. First, she became an algebra teacher, pursuing various hobbies and interests in her free time, including charity work, photography and skin care. She went down a rabbit hole learning about shea butter — the ingredients, processes and the people who produce it, many of whom are in Northern Ghana. Ultimately, she became inspired to start creating products. By sourcing shea through an aunt based in Ghana and spending months formulating products in her kitchen with all-natural ingredients, she started making body butters and scrubs for herself, friends and family.
"I live in Chicago and the winters here are terrible, so the formulation of everything was like, 'What do I need for my body? From hydration to moisturize, do I need something to lock in? What are the different things that I find annoying when I'm putting on lotions or washes? What is good for my skin?'" Boamah tells Fashionista. She also listened to friends and family about their skin-care needs and concerns. "We always have Black women in mind when we're making our products," she adds.
Boamah lived in Ghana for three years a child, but had been itching to go back as an adult, so she did in 2017. She was hoping to learn more about shea butter, one of the country's most important local products, and perhaps take and share some photos of locals who make it. "My whole thing was, I want to go and document women that are making shea and learn more about it. I just want to learn about the process," she recalls.
In Ghana, she was staying in Accra, the capital, but needed to go up north to Tamale, where shea is made, and where she knew no one — and couldn't get anyone to go with her. Determined, she reached out to a family friend who found her a driver. "When he picked me up he was like, 'Who are you?' I just looked out of place, probably because I had this crazy hair, my hair is a big Afro," explains Boamah. "Also in the north, it's more Muslim culture. I have a nose ring and I'm giddy and he's like, 'Who are you?'"
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She told him about Hanahana Beauty, still in its nascency. "He's like, 'I actually know a community of women,' and he started sharing with me about the process of women producing shea butter; he introduced me to the Katariga Women's group that day." She spent hours with the women, learning directly from them and documenting what they were doing, and ended up buying 50 kilos of shea from them. Today, the Katariga Women's Shea Cooperative is her official source of shea.
Hanahana Beauty is now a full-fledged direct-to-consumer, 100% natural, hand-crafted ethical skin-care brand with a purpose: to empower women of color. Boamah's relationship with the Katariga women has flourished and strengthened in the years and months since, with Boamah now splitting her time between Ghana and the States. She's made it a point to give back to the women in any way she can, forming the Hanahana Circle of Care to provide benefits to the women like health care and education. Hanahana also pays the group double the fair trade rate for shea.
While the shea is sourced from Ghana, Boamah still physically makes all of the products — think rich body butters, scrubs and a moisturizing exfoliation bar — herself in her home office, from creating the formulas in large batches, to packaging them. "I think it's been really helpful probably being a math teacher because I'm all about measurements and ratios," she says. But that's about to change. Boamah is preparing to move production to Ghana, in part because it's more cost-effective, and making everything on her own has not been particularly conducive to scaling. She's spent the past several months looking into natural resources there to replace the U.S.-sourced oils and other ingredients she uses in her products alongside the shea, and says she's found even better-quality options there.
With help, she'll be able to meet greater demand, like from potential wholesale partners that have reached out. Growth is the main thing on her mind right now: Having bootstrapped from the beginning, sales have tripled over the past three years, and she's looking into raising capital.
"As we've grown and expand it has me thinking more intentionally about how do we grow as a company that is sustainable for myself and also for the women we work with, and what does that mean to reach more people?" she asks.
For Boamah, Hanahana is more than just a brand. In addition to supporting the women in Ghana, she makes an effort to help educate (which perhaps comes naturally, given her teaching background) and build community more locally with events across the country, like "Yoga and Chill." "The whole thing was being able to create these spaces where women of color can come and do yoga and after that, we curate a chill moment," she explains. She's even held one in Accra. There are also "Conversations," which are sort of informal panels around a specific topic. She also does "Beauty and Chill," a space for people in or interested in the industry to come and talk about beauty and wellness.
It's clear creating these events and other ways to empower fellow women of color is Boamah's main passion within the business. "I can't wait to have our product supply person and have people take over these things because I would love to get thinking and focusing on creating and the creative side and those moment working on the ground," she says.
In addition to launching more skin-care products in the short term, Boamah has lofty goals for the long term. "With Hanahana, I really want to grow the company to be more than just a small team but where it's really impacting people in the sense of creating jobs on both ends and creating access on both ends," she says. "I think it can be a household skin-care brand."