Sustainable skincare brand, LXMI, focuses on enabling local Ugandan women lift themselves out of poverty.
by Aisiri Amin
LXMI was founded by Leila Janah after the chance discovery of Nilotica, a rare relative of Shea butter and the brand’s primary ingredient. Launched in 2016, the luxury skincare enterprise is rooted in Leila’s vision to create fair-wage jobs for marginalised women in Uganda and popularise climate-conscious skincare products.
Earlier this year, the 37-year-old entrepreneur passed away after battling with epithelioid sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. To take her vision forward, Anna-Maja Björkenvall, who has seen the enterprise grow, stepped in as the new CEO. For Anna, LXMI (pronounced “luxe-me”) brings together the three things she’s been proactive about: chemical-free and natural skincare products, social impact and climate action.
The enterprise emphasises on the potential of organic ingredients used by indigenous communities for generations. “There is so much power in nature that we don’t have to use fancy labs and a lot of chemical additives to create these products which can be a powerful change,” Anna says.
LXMI is named after Leila’s favourite Hindu goddess, Laxmi, a tribute to her Indian-American roots. Laxmi is thought to personify prosperity, liberation, morality, and love, with two giving hands and two receiving hands.
LXMI takes a holistic approach to support low-income communities and strongly believes in helping women lift themselves out of poverty. Anna explains: “The common approach is to build a well so that people get water and sanitation or build a school to make education accessible. While these definitely have an impact, there’s still a lot of overlooked problems. For instance, what if the kids can’t afford school uniforms or school books because their parents don’t have a job?
So, by giving work, especially to women, we are trying to combat these issues on a deeper level, in terms of education, healthcare and even democracy. Often, if you have a job, you have a voice in society.”
LXMI ensures that the harvest of Nilotica enables the producers to earn at least three times more than the local wages.
INKLINE had a conversation with Anna-Maja Björkenvall on the importance of creating dignified work opportunities for underserved communities and how LXMI is supporting the fight against climate change through daily skincare habits.
INKLINE: How did the discovery of your key ingredient, Nilotica, become a way to empower marginalised women in Uganda?
Anna-Maja Björkenvall: Our founder, Leila, was travelling a lot to Africa for work related to a tech AI company she had founded in her twenties which focuses on creating dignified work opportunites for women and young adults in Uganda . She discovered Nilotica in the market and experienced its transformational effects on her skin and realised she should start a company with this.
So, with that thought, she decided to apply the same work model as the tech company and partner with women’s fairtrade cooperatives and marginalised communities in harvesting Nilotica. Although Nilotica is our primary ingredient, we also work with other types of medicinal and rare botanicals found in remote areas. They’ve been used by indigenous communities but they just have not been exported to the West. The foundation of our work is making meaningful, dignified work accessible for them. Leila always said everybody should have a chance at a better future regardless of where you live.
I: How are you integrating climate action in these skincare products?
A: It’s so important to focus on climate change right now. I think it’s a holistic type of model to engage the modern consumer in this. It’s good to see that today the beauty space is changing and there is awareness about clean beauty which is toxin-free and cruelty-free. There is consciousness that what we put on our skin and how that enters into our bodies and our systems. We started this four years ago when it wasn’t that common. We were the first fairtrade social impact skincare brand that was sold on Sephora.
By working with the local communities, we are ensuring that we work with nature, not against it.
I really appreciate that the clean beauty movement is making modern consumer also conscious about how the production of products is affecting the environment. I am terrified of where the planet is going and how we’re treating the environment, and constantly looking for a tangible solution that I can incorporate in my busy schedule. For that, LXMI provides a way to check these important boxes. By just taking care of your skin in the morning, you are creating dignified jobs for marginalised women in Uganda and taking care of the environment.
Moreover, through our harvesting process, we’re giving the local communities a financial incentive to preserve the biodiversity in the region, and in that way limit deforestation and habitat loss for wildlife. So, not only create work opportunities, but also fight climate change.
I: Have you noticed how your Give Work model has impacted the producers you work with in Uganda?
A: Yes, absolutely. So, for example, Sarah, this incredible soul, has been working with us since the beginning. She’s from Northern Uganda where a raging civil war was going on for decades as a warlord brutalised the country and kidnapped and killed a huge number of people. And in that process, there was a situation where a rebel group came to her village, shot her husband in front of her and they were about to kidnap her daughters to take them as slaves. Somehow she managed to go in between and convince them to let them go while her husband was lying there bleeding to death.
She has this immense power in her. I don’t understand how someone recovers from something like that. But she was one of the first ones that we worked with in the area and now she leads one of the women’s cooperatives that we’re working with.
The same goes for a lot of the other women we work with. They build houses for their families with the money that they’re getting from this and send their kids to school. And it’s amazing how the smallest opportunity can have such a huge impact. And, you know, it’s also kind of shifting our view in many ways. I mean, especially with marginalised communities, it’s so easy to see them as kind of helpless in need of handouts and donations and foreign aid but they want to work, feel productive, and be able to provide for their families. Moreover, it’s important to give that type of power to women in the region.
I: What’s something you have unlearned during this journey?
A: When I was younger, I would see all these big leaders and I would have a hard time relating to them as they seemed to have it all together. They had taken the linear path and they just knew everything. When we look at leaders they’re often portrayed as these superhumans and are up on a pedestal somewhere.
Leila and I had the same view that this isn’t healthy. I definitely believe more in the human side of leadership and being authentic and being vulnerable, not just emotionally, but also in the business space, communication and conversation with the community.
I think it’s okay to show your vulnerable side as a leader. It doesn’t always have to be awesome. And you don’t have to have it all figured out all the time. And, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know exactly how to manoeuver this, but let’s figure it out.’ And I think it is important to have more examples of that in this public space, especially, you know, for young female leaders because I think we need more female leaders in the public space.
I: If you could give a piece of advice for young entrepreneurs what would that be?
A: I think it’s Bill Gates who said that ‘most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.’ And I can relate to that. When I was younger, sometimes even to this day, I’m getting very stressed about time moving so fast. And there’s this notion that we should be doing certain things at certain times and approach our lives in set ways.
I went to school rather late in life. I took the time to travel, lived in different countries and got really exposed to a different type of knowledge. I would say it’s street smart and that has definitely helped me in so many different ways. Although, that might have not been the most traditional path, especially in the US, I see that many people follow the same linear approach of ‘you do this and then you do that and get a job at these type of firms.’
I would definitely want to inspire and instil hope, especially in young female entrepreneurs, that if the linear path is what you truly want, then absolutely go for it, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s okay if your path looks different. There’s a lot of pressure and stress around following the same path as everyone else. Just know that you don’t have to.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.