The beauty entrepreneur on the culture of cannabis in Ghana, centering her business around Black women, and the cost of sustainability.
AS TOLD TO GOSSAMER
I feel like I’m a well balanced person, but I’m also all over the place. I have a lot of passion for people, and for creating space for learning, curation, and enjoyment. I’m a Pisces. I love to tell people my moon sign and all that stuff because I feel like it does make up a part of your identity. I’m a Scorpio moon. I’m a Virgo rising. I’m always worried that my mom is going to say, “Actually you’re not a scorpio moon. You’re on the other side.” And I’ll be like, “My whole identity is based off of this!” My parents definitely were not about astrology at all. They were like, “Girl, read the Bible and you’ll be okay.”
Right now I’m trying to figure out how I can live purposefully while also being intentional about my movement, my growth, and anything that I touch. How can I be intentional about my company? That’s core to our mission at Hanahana Beauty.
I grew up in Ohio. Both my parents are Ghanaian. When I was six months old, we went back to Ghana so that my brother and I could learn the language before going to school back in Ohio. We lived in the suburbs of Pickerington, but I grew up in a Ghanaian household, eating Ghanaian food, going to a Ghanaian church, speaking Twi.
It was a strikingly diverse area in the sense that there were very rich conservative white people and very poor conservative white people, and then a fair amount of first generation Black families. But I remember being the only Black child in my first grade class. I didn’t have another Black student until my second grade class.
In high school, I was an athlete. I ran track. I was a high jumper. I went to a pretty huge sports school and ended up being number two in the state. I was very competitive. My parents were very emphatic about being good at the things that you do. Be better at it, whether it was academia or track. In high jump, you’re never really competing with other people. You’re always competing against yourself. I think that’s something that helps me in the entrepreneurship world because this shit is crazy.
I ran track in college. I ended up going to the College of Wooster, which is a liberal arts school near Cleveland. My older brother went there, too. I got offered a lot of full ride athletic scholarships but my parents wanted me to take an academic one. I also didn’t want to go to a big school. It was an interesting place because you really start to realize who you are in college, and being around so many different types of people helped me feel more complex and understand my own identity. But I was still at a PWI—a predominantly white institution—and around a lot of ignorance.
I majored in Psych, and minored in math and education. I was a very African child like that. I interned at the Cleveland Clinic and the Summer Treatment Program, which is designed for children with ADHD and emotional behavior issues.
I ended up getting the program director position in Chicago after I graduated. I wanted to get my PhD and focus on clinical psychology work. A year in, they ran out of the grant, and I realized I’d always wanted to teach. My first job in high school was teaching piano lessons and I’ve always been around kids, so I started at a charter school as a part-time gym teacher before becoming a full-time math teacher for seventh and eighth graders.
I also taught a high school elective on women’s studies. It was 2014, I’m in my early twenties, and I was mostly just like, Fuck the man. Everything felt terrible. Working in that school really drove home all the systems of white supremacy that are in place. Within the first couple of weeks, one of my students shared with me about being sexually assaulted. I wanted to be more educated about how to handle those kinds of situations other than being like, “Me too.” So I ended up going to grad school to get a master’s degree in counseling psychology at the same time.
I was extremely stressed. My roommate, Emma, her stress reliever was baking. Mine was making shea butter. I spent a lot of time talking to my students about what they needed to be putting in their body and how they needed to take care of themselves. Conversations like, “No, Hot Cheetos. Is that really the thing that you really need to be eating every day?” But one day, one of my favorite students, Brianna, challenged me. She asked, “Ms. Boamah, do you really know every single thing you put on your body?” That made me think. I was still out here all ashy and dry putting on polymers.
I get obsessive about being good at things. So I just kept wanting to make the best product for myself.
Anytime someone goes to Ghana, they bring back shea. It’s just something you always have. At least for me and my family, I guess I can’t speak for anyone else. But I had all this shea around and so I started googling and researching and trying a bunch of different things. I had no intent of starting a business. This was purely just about learning how to make things for myself. But like I said, I get obsessive about being good at things. So I just kept wanting to make the best product for myself.
I didn’t launch Hanahana until 2017. My inspiration for doing it was that a lot of friends and family were like, “You should make this into a business. Why not?” The guy I was dating at the time, he tried the shea butter. I remember he said something like, “Yo, my sister has a beauty business. You should sell her your formula.” And I was like, “Excuse me, you don’t think I can run a business?” All these things pointed at “you can do this.”
Hanahana Beauty is a consciously clean skin care beauty and wellness brand. Our focus is looking at how you create sustainability from the producers all the way to our consumers, our community. It’s about bringing a level of humanity to beauty. We source our raw materials, such as shea butter, directly from producers in Ghana. And we pay double the asking price. We hold biannual health care days for the producers we work with, mimicking the North American system of six-month checkups. At the same time, we’re creating products that do exactly what they say they do.
From how we work and partner with different vendors, to the ways we create space and educate through our pop-ups, experiences, and conversations, to our products, we always keep Black women top of mind. I want to make sure that the women who continue to sustain this beauty industry with their dollars are always at the forefront of our intention.
Honestly, I was quite naive about everything. I didn’t know people didn’t go straight to the producers or source. I didn’t know about contract manufacturing. So I thought what I did was normal, because when I first started making products, shea butter was the main ingredient and the only way I knew to get shea butter was from Ghana. I was just like, I’ll get it from my aunt. And then I was like, “Well, where are you getting it from? I just want to pay the person.”
I went to Ghana that July. I’d spent a lot of time in Accra and Kumasi with my family and cousins, but I had never been to Tamale, which is up north and where most of the shea is produced. People just don’t really go to Tamale unless you’re from there or you have a reason to. Even my parents were like, “You don’t need to go. Just buy the shea in Accra. Why do you need to go to the producers?” But my aunt connected me with a taxi driver there who she said knew some women who were producers.
So I flew up to Tamale early in the morning and Pa, the taxi driver, picked me up and he was just the kindest man. I remember him looking at me like, Who is this girl with big hair and this nose ring, just moving around in Tamale? And I was like, “I would love to learn from the women who make shea butter. I want to buy some shea. I have money ready to purchase. I don’t have a lot of money, but however much they want, I will pay. And I know I can make a really good story. I can take photos and share their names.”
I just felt like I had to do something because the price was so low that it felt wrong. And that’s where our mission came from.
He took me to the Katariga Cooperative, which is the same cooperative we still source from today. I remember meeting Samantha and Memunatu, who are two of the women I’m still very close with. They took the time to show me the full process of making shea. After I was like, “Okay. One, can I pay you for that? But two, can I buy some shea butter?” The price they gave me made no sense. It was less than a dollar per kilo. I think I was buying 50 kilos so I said, “Can I at least double the amount?” It’s funny, because they were like, “I mean, if you want to, but this is what we’re selling it for.” I just felt like I had to do something because the price was so low that it felt wrong. And that’s where our mission came from.
By December, we had formalized a relationship. Later that spring, I graduated from grad school and moved to Ghana. I would go to Tamale monthly and I kept thinking about what else Hanahana could offer that would make this system sustainable. I kept coming back to health care. I’ve worked in health care. I’ve worked in a clinic. I’ve run a clinic. I’ve also been a therapist before. I don’t know the specifics around the health care systems in Ghana, but I felt comfortable attacking it.
Around the same time, Pa, the original taxi driver who was helping us, passed away. However, his son had just finished nursing school and was looking for a job. He was like, “I know you need a translator,” because I speak Twi, but I don’t speak Dagbani. He started helping me translate, and for nine months we worked on our plan for a bi-annual health care day. We built an outreach team with different nurses in Tamale. The first day, we were able to treat maybe 80 or 90 women. The most recent one had 350 people.
When you think of the indigenous women and people who are producing these raw materials, they are literally supporting an entire industry. But the industry is not supporting them in return.
Part of it is funded out of Hanahana, and then the rest is from different campaigns. This year we’re working on a docu-series around the women we work with, and now we have a social impact lead, Teni, who works with me on all our initiatives.
There’s just so much we have been able to do, and so much more we can still do. We now offer monthly health care education. Our whole thing is about offering access to health care. It shouldn’t be a privilege. When you think of the indigenous women and people who are producing these raw materials, they are literally supporting an entire industry. But the industry is not supporting them in return.
The thing is, sustainability is very expensive. This whole brand has been bootstrapped from my funds and from our sales. And I want to make sure we continue to grow and support our initiatives. But to do that, you need money. And so I am fundraising right now, which is literally hell. You can quote me on that.
I smoke weed every day. I think one of the reasons I left teaching and mental health is because I struggle to turn off my emotions. I have an anxious personality. But cannabis really helps me calm down and it also helps me focus. It allows me to remember that I don’t have to do everything, but that I can actually just focus on the things that are important. Sometimes that’s work, and sometimes that’s just chilling. And sometimes it’s sleep.
I try to be really intentional about my use. I’m not just trying to get high to be high. If I’m trying to get high to do work, I’ll add some lavender. If I’m on my period, I might add raspberry leaf, or something higher in CBD. I continue to try to educate myself on how I can use it. It’s not that I feel I need to have it, but I recognize that it’s very helpful for me, and for my mental health, and that I should be okay with that.
The issue with marijuana in Ghana goes deeper than weed. It’s about the legal system and how people are treated.
It’s still extremely stigmatized in Ghana. I think there’s just this general approach all drugs are the same and all drugs are bad and all drugs are marijuana. Someone could be on meth and they still think it’s marijuana. It’s all one drug. There’s nothing else. But people do smoke in Ghana. They just don’t want to talk about it.
I think what’s really interesting is that marijuana was recently legalized in Ghana for production use. Which is really sad, because then the only people who really have access to it are outsiders and expats. The money is going to the companies who are able to produce and go there.
But I’ll speak really openly about this: the issue with marijuana in Ghana goes deeper than weed. It’s about the legal system and how people are treated because the police are not paid well. So they are stopping people and making money off of citizens who are smoking. It’s a whole thing that everyone knows about. I mean, I’ve gotten stopped in Ghana. I had lavender on me and they said it was weed. It’s bribery. They’ll drive you to the ATM for you to get the money. And then you’re on your merry way. And it’s sad because no one talks about it. There’s a whole community of growers in Ghana. And there’s so much possibility to use the plant to create opportunities and jobs. I hope the space won’t be exploited.
Some of my greatest accomplishments have been done while high. Honestly, most of them.
I’m feeling more confident speaking openly about my own weed use because people can also read about me in Forbes. Just because you smoke weed doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. I love the account Black Girls Smoke. I’m a Ghanaian girl. I respect my abilities. And I’m out here lighting up joints. I was recently on a trip to Jamaica with some of my girlfriends and we’re all working. We’re all making moves. But we’re also smoking weed. Some of my greatest accomplishments have been done while high. Honestly, most of them. My business plan! So I guess I just don’t really see it as a big deal.
I’m so inspired by musicians and creatives. I think of my brother, who is an artist, and the amount of time and intentionality an artist puts toward their craft. I look at entrepreneurship the same way. This is a toddler business. This is really only the beginning.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Abena Boamah photographed by Alina Tsvor in Chicago. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.