Date: Thursday, 12 May 2022
Nina Sasu Tesfamariam in her shop. Photos/ Willy Mucyo.
There is nothing more thrilling than doing something you are passionate about after retirement, more so when it involves travelling from one country to another, right?
Such is the case of Nina Sasu Tesfamariam, the founder of Fab African Things, a manufacturer and distributor of natural and organic African skin and hair products, based in Kigali.
Fab African Things is a brainchild of Tesfamariam, born in Eritrea but grew up in Ethiopia and lived most of her adult life in the United States.
“My Master’s was in applied sociology. So, after working and living in the U.S for about 10 years as a gerontologist, I decided to go to Ethiopia and start something for elders, which I did. I started an NGO that took care of the needs of elders, especially people with dementia,” says Tesfamariam.
Having done that for a while, she made a decision to retire and travel to different parts of Africa. The first African country she visited was Djibouti. Though the country was beautiful, the weather turned out too harsh for her, affecting her skin.
To cure her damaged skin, Tesfamariam embarked on research to find out the best products to use, not just to repair it, but also restore it.
“The first thing I learned was about Qasil Oil, which is what a lot of Somali and Djibouti women use for their face and they have amazing skin in the process.
“So, I decided to try that for myself and it helped somewhat. My introduction to natural skincare started with qasil. After Djibouti, I went to Tanzania where I was introduced to baobab oil and the baobab fruit also. I fell in love with baobab,” she says.
Tesfamariam continued her journey, relocating to Kenya from where she discovered other amazing products like coconut, moringa and neem, which made her even more fascinated with natural skincare products.
Moving to Rwanda
At this point, Tesfamariam decided to share the amazing products she had discovered with the rest of the world, but that dream did not materialise until she moved to Rwanda in 2017.
“It took me a while to decide how to do it until I came to Rwanda. I really didn’t know how I was going to use the information that I gathered because for me it’s like a woman in Djibouti would not be able to access baobab oil because it’s in a different country.
“Tanzanian women cannot access qasil oil because it’s in a different country and they don’t even know about each other’s products.
“So, when I came here, I thought maybe we should have one store where we can have different African natural products. That’s how Fab African Things was born,” Tesfamariam says.
The first products she wanted to introduce were from Rwanda, particularly essential oils.
“We have amazing essential oils from Rwanda and also a few other cold-pressed oils for the skin. Most people were not aware of the benefits of these products.
“My mission, therefore, was to create awareness on the benefits of using African natural products and making these products available in one store at affordable prices. That’s what we do here,” Tesfamariam says, taking us around the store.
Today they have a wide range of oils including moringa oil, African wild calabash oil, chia seed oil, passion fruit or maracuja oil as well as a variety of essential oils.
They also have products from Uganda such as shea butter oil, baobab oil from Tanzania, cocoa butter from Congo and qasil powder from Djibouti, all under one roof.
Tesfamariam, who carries American citizenship, stopped over in Rwanda and fell in love with the country. She has never looked back.
“I came to really see just another African country except I fell in love with it and, the fact that I could start a business with little money, you know, it was very easy.
“Other countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Djibouti require a lot of money to invest. In Rwanda I wasn’t required to do that. In fact, I literally started with six bottles of oil,” she says.
Why natural products?
Tesfamariam believes it is important to create awareness on the benefits of using African natural products as opposed to chemical infested products imported from abroad.
“They’re good for our health, for our skin. We don’t have to use foreign currency to get them because they are African. My mission is to accomplish that and make them affordable so that everybody can use them. They are not just for women or men,” she says, adding that the products are not just for women as it is thought.
Tesfamariam says their products are meant to provide a solution to most skin conditions. For instance, all products made by Fab African Things are moisturisers which make the skin soft.
“Turmeric oil is good for that. Black seed oil from Egypt is excellent for that as well. They treat different ailments but as I said all of them are moisturisers.
“Some of them, like qasil oil, for example, are also cleansers. So, they serve different purposes,” she notes.
It hasn’t been a smooth journey though, as they face some challenges regarding the ingredients, mainly the oils, they use to make the products. Having started small, however, Tesfamariam was able to navigate the challenges, buying products in small quantities.
In most cases they have to import some of the products such as qasil and baobab oil from other countries where they can be found. Not being able to buy in big quantities in itself was a challenge, as well as lack of standard packaging.
“You have no idea how many times we’ve changed packaging. First of all, natural products should go into glass bottles, glass jars, or biodegradable plastic, because you can’t just put it in any plastic,” she says, adding that most times they have to import packaging materials from China.
To ensure quality control, Tesfamariam says they only buy products they use from trusted and regulated sources, mostly sources approved by standard bodies in the respective countries.
Currently, Fab African Things targets the Rwandan market but Tesfamariam says they look to get into the export business, based on the demand. She is also looking to get into full scale manufacturing but the plans were delayed by Covid-19.
“Our biggest seller I think is Nilotica shea butter. It is from the Nile River and it’s really of a higher quality,” she says, adding that the process of making it is equally therapeutic as they have to whip it after buying it.
Other best sellers include moringa oil, castor oil, turmeric oil, macadamia oil, ginger oil and many others. The store currently sells 18 different kinds of oils, including cold-pressed ones such as avocado, baobab oil and shea butter oil flavoured with lemon grass.
They also specialise in medicinal oils such as neem oil, which is said to cure 40 different ailments, flaxseed oil, argan oil and blackseed oil, all from North Africa.
Fab African Things recently introduced a new product called fenugreek oil. They also make handmade soaps in different flavours such as lavender and African black soap for acne skin, which are also fused with the oils. Fab African Things is located at Ubumwe House, KG 5 Avenue in Kimihurura.