‘This is ours’: Somaliland women smell success as frankincense business takes off

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After years of alleged exploitation, a new collective of Somali women takes on the male-dominated frankincense industry

Every morning, Luul Siciid Jaamac starts her day with a cup of tea and the burning of frankincense. She says she breathes in the incense to relieve her back and joint aches, hard-earned from a lifetime of sorting frankincense resin in Somaliland.

The woodsy, piney scent is sweet – and lately, so is victory.

Jaamac used to sort frankincense resin for an allegedly exploitative company named Asli Maydi, which supplied frankincense to doTERRA, a major US essential oils company that generates more than $2bn in annual sales.

Today, Jaamac is the chairperson of a new frankincense sorting collective called Beeyo Maal, which empowers about 280 women to run their own business in the male-dominated frankincense industry. “Now, we are in charge and we have got the freedom to run our business,” said Jaamac, who is also one of the founding members.

Before, Jaamac and several other female sorters – workers who divide frankincense resin by color, grade and quality – were subject to the whims of leaders like the owner of Asli Maydi, Barkhad Hassan and they were excluded from decision-making, many of the women say.

Since its founding in 2008, doTERRA has built its brand on a promise of ethical sourcing. But a two-year investigation by the Fuller Project found women working for the company’s frankincense supplier Asli Maydi were underpaid and required to work in harsh conditions. Multiple women accused Asli Maydi’s politically powerful owner Hassan of sexual harassment and assault. The Fuller Project article led doTERRA to suspend operations with Asli Maydi; several weeks later the women registered their collective.

On a late afternoon in March, I spoke with a group of Somali women wearing colorful headscarves and waving enthusiastically over a WhatsApp video call. They were standing in a small green room – their very own warehouse. Smiling faces crowded in front of the camera, seemingly eager to show off their new workspace.

Beeyo Maal, which means the “milkers of frankincense”, is based in Erigavo, a major city in the self-declared republic of Somaliland, and it was registered as a business with Somaliland’s ministry of trade and tourism in January. Jaamac has never held a meaningful leadership role before, she said, and as chair of the cooperative, she hopes to cultivate a caring and respectful work environment.

The floors are dusty with frankincense resin and the roof is corrugated aluminum, but, unlike their old warehouse, this one has running water and a toilet – no longer do they have to rely on the kindness of neighbors to let them go to the bathroom. Overflowing bags of frankincense sit in corners, and the women scoop handfuls of unsorted resin, holding them before the camera for me to see.

The British-based charity Horn of Africa has been involved since the collective began – the charity’s director, Amina Souleiman, came up with the concept and helped the women acquire the warehouse, obtain their first frankincense resin, and register for a business license. The warehouse is rented through the year, according to Souleiman.

Women in Somaliland rarely own frankincense trees, since traditional law dictates they be passed down to male heirs. This system has marginalized women to sorting, which is one of the lowest-paid positions in the industry. “I want the women to really have the opportunity to buy the resins themselves and then to sell it themselves,” Souleiman said.

Luul Siciid Jaamac, the chair of Beeyo Maal cooperative. Photograph: Elsar Media/Courtesy Beeyo Maal Cooperative

Wages are paid weekly through a mobile money service called Zaad. Nimo Abdi Salah, the cooperative’s treasurer, said she hopes to teach basic math and money management skills to some of the cooperative’s members. At 23, she’s younger than some of the other women in managerial roles. It’s not easy for women to be leaders in Somaliland, but she has “big dreams”, she said.

Right now, the women are buying from Somaliland harvesters, and selling sorted incense for burning and chewing in local markets. Eventually, they hope to sell their product more widely online – and even internationally. The women also hope to expand from just incense to marketing frankincense creams, lotions and soaps.

The women are paid $1 to $1.50 for sorting about 2lbs of resin, totaling about $5 a day, they say. For Asli Maydi, they were making just over $1 a day. Though they’re earning more now, a fair wage would be $15 a day, based on what they would need to support themselves and their families, Souleiman said.

It will take time for them to grow their customer base and reach their goal wages, Salah said. For now, women are investing any extra money they have back into the business – primarily to buy more frankincense from harvesters.

Shots fired

It is unclear if the sorters’ former employer, Asli Maydi, is still in business – many women stopped working with Asli Maydi when frankincense harvesting slowed during the pandemic. Its owner, Barkhad Hassan, appears to have left the country, according to his social media posts. Hassan has posted several times since the Fuller Project published its original story in January, including several videos of him firing weapons at a shooting range. On 17 February, he shared a video of himself holding a gun. The caption read: “I know my enemy and they will die painfully and suffer a lot for sure. Sooner or later.” He also posted a photo of Anjanette DeCarlo, one of his alleged sexual assault victims, describing her as his ex-girlfriend and threatening to post nude photos of her. (He has no such photos of her, unless they are digitally altered, DeCarlo said.)

Other alleged victims of Hassan and his associates are still in hiding, Souleiman said. “They haven’t got back to their normal life,” she said. “He’s making a lot of threats … It’s really disturbing.”

Hassan denied posting threats on social media. In an emailed statement, he noted: “Somaliland is plagued by extreme poverty, a corrupt government and a lack of institutions,” and he claimed that the allegations against him were “fabricated by those looking to advance their own economic and political interests”.

He declined to say whether Asli Maydi was still in operation, but he said his work “will not stop”.

When asked if it was still working with Asli Maydi, doTERRA said in an email that it had “suspended its operations in Somaliland and will not reopen its operations until it is satisfied that it is appropriate to do so”.

In a statement, the company announced it had appointed the law firm Sidley Austin to lead an independent investigation into the allegations of substandard working conditions and sexual assault. Thus far, doTERRA said it “has not uncovered anything of substantial concern” but expressed disappointment “that on-the-ground investigations have not yet been completed due to interference from certain clan and political officials as well as regional violence which has led to safety concerns for our employees”.

Sidley Austin will advise doTERRA and its supplier to implement workplace training on fair working conditions, sustainable practices and sexual harassment. DoTERRA also noted “a hotline has been established and will soon be operational” for workers to lodge complaints.

DeCarlo, a sustainability consultant who formerly worked as a contractor for doTERRA, said no one from doTERRA had contacted her since the Fuller Project published its investigation, in which she alleged Hassan had raped her in 2018. In its January statement, the company suggested that she contact law enforcement – as doTERRA acknowledged that the company itself did “not have the authority or investigative powers needed to fully investigate these allegations”.

“It kind of felt like being assaulted again, to be honest,” she said. (DoTERRA said it did contact DeCarlo but she did not respond.)

Otherwise, DeCarlo said, life is good. She is teaching in the sustainable innovation MBA program at the University of Vermont, and since her sexual assault experience went public, her students have “leaned in harder to everything that I teach them, knowing that I have been through stuff trying to uncover injustices in the supply chain”.

She has published in scientific journals and started co-writing a book. With her consultancy company and her project Save Frankincense, she has continued her sustainability work, including teaming up with harvesters to track the tapping of individual frankincense trees, delineate their farms by GPS coordinates and ensure reliable payments.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘Wow, you’re still here?’ Like that’s a surprise,” she said. “I strongly believe I was assaulted to be stopped … If I stopped, then they win. He wins.”

In the years since the assault, she has found renewed purpose in her work, and has only recently started to “feel like myself again”, she said .

“I’m still here,” DeCarlo said. “Because there’s work to do.”

‘This is ours’

Back in Erigavo, things are not perfect, the women say. Sorters still walk to work, in some cases as long as two hours each way. Wages remain low. And sorting still involves backbreaking labor, which can lead to health problems.

But “at least this is ours”, Jaamac said.

The freedom is inspiring, said Fatima Mohamoud Mohamed. She’s worked in frankincense for more than four decades, since she was an eight-year-old apprentice to her mother. Mohamed can still remember the first paycheck she ever received. “I bought a pair of flip-flops,” she said. They weren’t the best quality – her feet were still scratched by thorns – but they gave her “some comfort”, she said. “That meant a lot to me.”

She hopes she can replicate that feeling for the other women in the cooperative, though in more meaningful ways. For example, she wants to set up retirement funds for the women.

“We can build our future,” Mohamed said, “and the future of other women.”

The Guardian is publishing this article in partnership with the Fuller Project, a non-profit newsroom dedicated to the coverage of women’s issues around the world. Sign up for the Fuller Project’s newsletter, and follow them on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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