Like many of us, Leila Janah is addicted to superheroine fare like Wonder Woman and Jessica Jones. Unlike most of us however, the social entrepreneur has taken it upon herself to apply some of those world-saving principles to the real world, employing women in need with her ethically sourced, organic beauty company LXMI. What she lacks in the golden lasso department, Janah more than makes up with her intrepid spirit and desire to empower the women she works with.
A bit of backstory about Janah and her brand: Nine years ago, the San Francisco-based Harvard grad started a nonprofit social enterprise called Samasource, which connects people in the poorest parts of Kenya, Uganda, and beyond with technological training and gives them a crack at the global marketplace. Her core belief is that what people living in poverty really need is a living wage, not charity. “It seemed like a crazy idea: to build computer centers inside shipping containers in off-grid villages, using only solar power and long-distance wifi to connect [the workers] to the rest of the world,” says Janah. But it worked. Since then, Samasource has employed over 1000 women and young people in the region.
How does this relate to skincare?, you might ask. While working with Samasource in Uganda, Janah stumbled upon a unique skincare panacea at a local market. It was nilotica, a rare form of shea butter that exists exclusively in Northern Uganda, South Sudan, and some parts of Ethiopia. The trees from which it’s derived only grow wild and take 20 years to mature; their nuts’ essential fatty acid content is 25% richer the traditional shea butters imported from other parts of Africa. It’s also, Janah says, imbued with vitamin-rich crystals, which dissolve on the skin to yield a baby-soft feel and beatific glow.
Inspired, Janah decided to launch a luxury beauty brand based around the ingredient, employing the same ethos as her tech project—this time, with a conservation element as well. Thus was born LXMI (named for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi), which employs women’s cooperatives in Northern Uganda to harvest the nuts from which Janah derives her signature nilotica ingredient. LXMI currently sells two products, Crème du Nil, a hydrating, pore-reducing moisturizer, and Pure Nilotica Melt, a balm-to-oil that instantly smoothes skin. At less than a old, the brand is already retailing at Sephora—where its Melt was the first organic-and-fair trade product on shelves nationwide—and on QVC, and aims to promote not only living wages for its workers but also conservation of the nilotica trees, which have historically been cut down for charcoal.
So this summer, when Janah invited me to come along on one her many trips to Africa, I was basically on the next plane. Watching Janah travel through Eastern Africa, you get the sense she is very much in her element. On an 8-hour gorilla trek in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is home to nearly half the highly-endangered Mountain Gorillas left in the world, the guides joke that Janah could be next in line for a job there. She leads the pack, eschewing the recommended gloves and walking stick necessary for descending slippery rainforest cliffs and rappelling off of thorny and stinging vines.
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Later, while buying a carved mask in the village gift shop, Janah spontaneously begins advising the mask-maker as to how to sell his wares on Etsy, where he can get a microloan to buy himself a phone with a camera, and how he can connect his goods to the global economy, spurring yet another idea. “I hope he does it,” Janah says, “I'd love to build up a marketplace for local artisans to sell high-quality goods.” Indeed, the young CEO is indefatigable, even after a 16-hour drive through extreme dirt roads and an 8-hour forest trek.
She’s got me and Leticia Byrne—a Ford employee from Detroit who won the trip through a giveaway via LXMI’s newsletter—in tow, as she makes her rounds, visiting Sarah Amolo, the president of the women’s cooperative that harvests Nilotica in the idyllic countryside near the village of Otuke and its environs. Sarah is a war widow twice over, having lost both husbands in a horrific conflict which just died down in 2007, and is now a leader among the local women—like the rest of LXMI’s harvesters, she’s more than doubled her earnings since throwing in her lot with the company.
From Otuke, we journeyed to Murchison Falls National Park, one of Janah’s favorite places in Uganda and one which serves as the backdrop for various brand photo shoots, including one that Janah DIY’s on the spot (her photographer forgot to get his yellow fever vaccine). It’s a place where the Nile billows over rocks like clouds, where monkeys and baboons stalk the roads, and wild game, from lions to elephants to giraffes, exist in abundance. It’s also a place where I was attacked by one of said baboons (he just wanted my banana peel); visited in my glamping-tent by a bat; and where a mouse chewed my phone charger in half before proceeding to give birth in my tote bag.
In short, Uganda is wild. It’s incredibly ecologically diverse, a rare country where you can find both the aforementioned gorillas and big safari animals; and home to over 1,000 species of birds. It’s also agriculturally rich, supplying coffee, tea, and corn to neighboring countries like Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. But despite its natural treasures, subsistence farming is by far the largest national occupation, and most Ugandans earn less than $2 a day.
Janah is determined to change that statistic, with LXMI as a vehicle. “I've spent so many years in Africa seeing how the traditional charity model has failed people, especially women,” she explains. “So it's inspiring to see what these women are able to do when we give work, rather than handouts. They build homes, send their kids to school, invest in businesses, and participate in the economy as equals.” Indeed, where LXMI is concerned, beauty is much more than skin deep. Click through, above, to see photos from the trip.