Model-Activist-Entrepreneur Sabrina Elba: ‘People Should Start Looking To African Founders As The Experts…’

Published 17 days ago
Sabrina Elba; image supplied (1)
(Image Supplied)

Tall and in colorful five-inch Louis Vuitton heels, epitomizing grace and success, Sabrina Elba, the model, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), activist and founder of S’ABLE Labs, was in Johannesburg on March 8, when she spoke passionately to a packed ballroom of female powerhouses at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit, on the challenges of being a black female founder, about African botanicals and her work with husband and Hollywood icon Idris Elba.

A multi-hyphenate, Sabrina Elba launched S’ABLE Labs with her husband Idris Elba, aware that quality products for melanated skin were lacking. Her company works to build a more ethical and transparent supply chain focused on the wellness of the planet and its people by partnering with local farmers in West Africa, Somalia, and South Africa, among others. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Q. You’re from Vancouver, now based in London with Idris Elba. You are of Somali heritage and Idris Elba’s parents are from Sierra Leone and Ghana. Besides the shared history, you have common goals, such as climate change, farming and food security in Africa and been on several platforms together. How have you both managed to revitalize your interest in Africa?

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A. We’ve always been passionate about Africa, and it’s actually one of the reasons we connected the way we did; him being from West Africa and myself from East Africa; we always had this passion to give back. I came back to visit a lot and he did too; we were in love with Africa. And the reason we actually ended up in agriculture together, is because we both have this mission, this big dream to see Africa for its full potential. And it’s one of the reasons we work with IFAD as well, because we both agree that the aid model can be very cyclical. And IFAD is just one of the amazing organizations that looks at adaptation for rural people, that has long-term solutions, that builds independence, that presents Africa as an investment opportunity, and that was something we were super passionate about. So, we actually bonded on this, which is crazy that we both get to do the work together now. And I’m so thankful to be back whenever I can. It’s funny because everyone’s like, ‘oh, don’t you just love going East?’, I’m like, ‘no, I love going everywhere’. I genuinely love the continent. It’s such an amazing place, and we love Johannesburg!

Q. You’ve been married for over five years now – we’ve all seen pictures of that beautiful ceremony in Morocco. You have said before that you’ve always been encouraged by your husband’s entrepreneurial sense. You’re also a celebrity who cares, because you have set up not just ‘another beauty project’. You’re using African ingredients, going back to the roots of our traditions, for your skincare brand. Tell us how this journey has been, inculcating African culture.

A. I’ve definitely grown an entrepreneurial bone. I didn’t think I had one. I wanted to be a lawyer my whole youth. And then of course, I met this amazing guy and was like, ‘maybe I’ll go to London for like two years and see what that’s like’; I never went back to Vancouver. And I watched Idris be his own boss, start business after business, because he was so passionate about the things he was doing he wanted to do it himself to have that power and control to navigate the spaces he was in, in a way that has fundamentally built his personality, his persona, and I admired that. But when it came to starting the skincare business together, I was in a place where I had done so much work with agriculture before, with IFAD… And I was in a place where I came around to beauty as a concept because I was so frustrated with my skin and being now able to showcase these amazing botanicals from all over the continent, and showcase them in a way that really boosts their efficacy with other ingredients.

For example, we have the African resurrection plant in one of our new products; combined with okra and retinol, people get this beautiful marriage of botanicals. Science has become such a passion of mine. And African botanicals are so powerful. They exist in the harshest climates, and are more powerful than other antioxidants we’re seeing around the world. So, it’s this notion that people should start looking to African founders and black founders as the experts that lead in a lot of these issues around skin. And I’m excited to see that change. There’s this weird conception that ‘oh, there’s a black founder behind this brand, I guess it’s only for black skin’. Just because it’s a black founder doesn’t mean you put our group of consumers in this tiny hole. If you go to a retailer in the U.S., you’ll find products catered towards African skin or black skin or black hair in a separate section… So, the retailer’s then telling the customer ‘these products aren’t for you; it’s for a different set of people’. And I think that has done more harm than good… We discovered, through the work we’re doing, how abusive the agricultural sector is. If you look at shea in West Africa, it’s unfair wages, unsafe working conditions.

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I mean, people are dying, children are dying. For what, for shea beauty products on our bathroom counters? It was the silliest thing I’ve heard, and we didn’t want to contribute to that. So, we do our own sourcing… we do clinical studies for each of the products so we can show how efficacious they are. So, it’s not just a farmer walking into a room saying ‘buy my ingredient because it’s this powerful’, he can actually have clinical data sheets to now back up how powerful it is, which was so important to us, because most brands will come in and test the formulation together, but we really wanted to show the strength of these ingredients on their own and then the strength of the product. And then, we have these amazing results and people tell us ‘your new product [leads to] 120% reduction [of ] hyper-pigmentation, how do you do that’ and we say ‘it’s African botanicals’… that’s become such a point of pride for us to be able to sit in a room and talk about how okra is good for your skin. We’re just trying to give it a bit more light, shine and context in what we’re doing. Because if you look to your auntie, your great grandma, they know what they’re doing when it comes to skin and wellness. They are true innovators.

Q. What were or are the challenges of being a black beauty founder?

A. Sometimes, I walk into a big meeting or an investor meeting, and they won’t see me as the CEO, they’ll want to have a meeting with Idris. And I’m like, ‘no, no, I’m right here, what do you want to talk about, I can talk numbers too’. But it’s just that you really have to step up your presence to be able to hold your own in rooms like that. I am privileged also to say the brand has had a lot of traction, because it is founder-led. Although, sometimes, that can work against skincare, when there’s a celebrity every week launching a brand. And I’m like, ‘just go away, if you’re not passionate about this, go away’. But at the same time, it’s given us access through a lot of doors, and I’m forever thankful for that. And we’ve been able to grow the brand. And I say we’re moving at the speed of trust, because we have these small conversations in rooms, and we really talk about how the products are efficacious. And, and how we look at hyperpigmentation, a holistic view, and we have these amazing, intimate conversations, and we build a bigger community. And then we take that same method and have a great intimate conversation again, it’s a lot more work, but I think that’s the way to do it. And I think with a skincare brand, you have to really trust the brand and understand the ethos because you know, you are putting it on your face.

Q. Would you and Idris move to Africa and live here?

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A. It’s in the 10-year plan for sure, but the hardest part is, where? Because I’ve been to so many amazing places in Africa. And still, I’m probably not 50% of the way through it because it’s so huge, just massive… I think the way South Africa has been so accepting of Idris and has put Idris on this sort of platform, you’ve shown so much love to him. Really, Johannesburg is in his heart, it honestly is and I think it makes me love it even more. I spent all day yesterday at Woolworths and Pick n’ Pay. And because you’ve the best snacks, and I’m not kidding, I’m taking back speckled eggs by the pound. They are so good. People don’t realize how good the food in South Africa is overall, but the snacks and the chakalaka, so good… But we have to come back together, Idris is definitely a bit jealous that I am here.