Two years ago, Lucy King’ori and her husband would be up all night, watching in despair as their son scratched his skin until it bled, causing him to scream in pain.
“I always put him in mittens so the scratches would not be as severe,” says Lucy. Since birth, her son suffered from eczema - a dry, itchy and often painful rash. His condition meant he barely slept through the night.
“I watched helplessly as my baby suffered. And I do not use the term ‘suffer’ lightly. His skin was red raw and he would cry his eyes out,” she says of the condition that would not respond to any treatment. “We would not only have to treat the eczema but the torn skin as well. His condition flared up when it was hot.”
She tried everything, but nothing seemed to work in the long run, only providing a little comfort before the condition emerged worse than the last time.
“I ensured he was never in the sun, for his skin was really light and burned easily. I consulted paediatricians left, right and centre, changed them enough times in an attempt to find a cure. The creams they prescribed for topical application - since doctors discourage oral medication at that age - only seemed to work for as long as the baby was using it.
Other times, my baby’s skin grew resistant to the creams even before the cream could do its job. I gave up on creams when one paediatrician prescribed a cream so strong that my baby’s skin started lightening. I was at my wit’s end, powerless and so exhausted that I fell into depression,” she admits.
Then one day, through sheer luck, she stumbled upon something that would heal her son completely. “I happened to be talking to a long time South Sudanese friend, Alek, and a fellow mother. Our kids are about the same age and she explained that her child also experienced some eczema around the cheeks and she had used this cream to treat it,” Lucy narrates.
“She did not need to convince me to try it out. Being desperate at the time, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try this ‘cream’. She handed me the cream wrapped in a paper bag. It was raw shea butter, (an off-white fat extracted from the nut of the African shea tree),” she says.
“In two weeks of use, the eczema had cleared up completely. The shea butter did not have a strong smell like most creams I had previously used on my son’s skin,” she says. For the first time, Baby Nicholas, who was then four months old, could sleep through the night.
“I was convinced this shea was clearly gold and I wanted to know what made it so.” She embarked on a journey of research looking for what it was that made shea butter so good. “At the point, I was sure I wanted to explore this path.
I did not know how much the shea butter cost, but I had a feeling it was affordable. I did research on the internet, looking for the properties of shea, side effects, packaging, the works. I took a sample of the shea butter that Alek had given me to the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) for further testing. I learned everything I needed to know about shea. Then I registered a company to get this particular shea butter to Kenya.”
This breakthrough came at a time she needed it the most. “I used to run a boutique in town. I had opened it in 2012 and it was doing well - even getting stockists contracts with magazines. But just when I was about to give birth, I and other tenants were given notice that the building had been sold off and the new owner had tripled the rent. Not wanting to deal with that issue, I closed shop and took my stock home with the intention of dealing with this rent issue after giving birth,” Lucy narrates.
But she never had to deal with the rent issue. Lucy had training in interior design and accounting and had previous experience in IT and running a graphic design business. She had an adventurous spirit and venturing into the unknown wasn’t a new thing. In fact, she once travelled to Sudan in search of adventure.
“It was there that I met Aden. At the time, I was working as a designer, specifically designing wedding invitation cards. Aden asked that I plan her wedding, and I did. I came back home two years later, following political unrest,” Lucy reveals.
Years later, her knowing her way around South Sudan came in handy. “Four months into my research on shea, I talked to Alek who linked me with Aden from South Sudan. I drove down there and found out that shea trees are grown in the villages where they do not speak English but being with Aden made communication easier.
I also found out they had been using shea only for domestic use and never for commercial purposes. That is when we started the community-based initiative, Shea by Asal where the initials ‘ASAL’ belong to the first four women that we kicked off this initiative with. I wanted the women to earn something from it as well. Now there are six women producing the shea, the base ingredient on all our products.”
Asked why she decided to drive all the way to South Sudan, Lucy says she wanted to get the proper product. “When I gave my shea sample to Kebs personnel, who were very instrumental, I learned, among other things, that Shea expires in a year to a year and a half from the time of harvest.
Buying from middle men meant I am not aware when it was harvested. Further, I would not know if the shea was cold or hot pressed. Cold pressed is the preferred mode since all shea benefits are preserved. Besides, I wanted to give back to the women who work on the ground.”
But just as is with all expired products, would one not know if Shea is expired? “Different grades of shea - with Grade A being the premium cold-pressed Shea and D being hot pressed and preferred for making soaps and cooking oils - have different smells, with D having the most pungent. Additionally, most people add Vitamin E to prolong the shelf life of the shea. The only measure of expired Shea is if it has ten different shades within it, and even then that would be years after its expiry.”
So whenever she needs a fresh harvest of Shea, she calls Sudan in advance so they can start the harvesting. “When I get there, I inspect the harvested Shea before giving a go ahead, then bring it back to Kenya by road. Once in Kenya, we package it either raw, or with essential oils. Originally, we just packaged it raw, but as I did more research, I realised there is much more that can be done with Shea, so I started making soaps and oils with it,” she says.
“I have my mum to thank for my go-getter attitude. She believes there is nothing one cannot do if you put your mind to it. The far we have come, the company can take care of itself comfortable without having me chip in from personal savings or loans.”