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Photography Shitanda

The Black-owned beauty brand mixing Scandi minimalism and African tradition


TextLakeisha Goedluck

Join AASAI as they travel through their native homeland sourcing traditional ingredients and production methods for their farm-to-skin products

In the midst of the pandemic, Brenda Roslyng was stranded in her native Kenya without her usual rotation of skincare products. Roslyng had moved to Denmark with her mother and stepdad as a child, so was accustomed to using western, chemical-based products to treat her acne-prone skin. When her mum suggested using traditional, plant-based and hand-made African products on her face, it improved her acne so much she was inspired to launch her skincare brand AASAI

Bridging the gap between Roslyng’s two home continents, AASAI sources traditional ingredients from Kenya and Uganda to create products that offer Scandinavian beauty fans an alternative approach to skincare. 

Having recently landed the opportunity to scale-up their production thanks to Ganni, the team are now set to take their ethos of “from farm to skin, from skin to soul” worldwide. With plans to expand, Brenda and her co-partner Joseph Ekoko decided to take a trip back to Kenya, two years after that first formative stay, to discover new production techniques. Photographer Shitanda was on hand to document their journey.

In our conversation below, the duo talk about travelling back to the source, using traditional African beauty methods and how connecting with your roots makes for better business.

As a brand founded by Black people and existing within a western context, how do you position yourselves?

Brenda Roslyng: We market to everyone because everyone can use our products. Danish people are a bit sceptical because it’s an African brand. If we were two white Danish people who had gone off to Kenya and brought something back, I think the attitude would be different. My chemist here is great but he hasn’t even worked with black soap before. He’s often like, “Is this safe?”

Joseph Ekoko: I think the foundations of the brand are very authentic, hinging on Brenda’s family and their farm. A lot of [white-owned] brands are trying to replicate this from a Fairtrade angle, in terms of trying to show people [of colour] making the products. But AASAI has been able to be direct; we’re branded as a family business, which is hard to replicate.

However, we do want to be more directly inclusive, so people won’t think that AASAI is only for Black people. It’s important to consider how we position ourselves in-between worlds: remaining unapologetically Black African but knowing our market.

You recently took a trip to Kenya to figure out the next steps for the brand. Why did you decide to head back to the source?

Joseph Ekoko: Originally, my family are West African, so it was important for me to see where AASAI comes from. Brenda said maybe you should come to Kenya because it’ll give you a slight push – so I can find my space better within the company. To mature and confidently wear the title of entrepreneur, I needed to be there. It’s also powerful going back to the centre of the brand. And, it was important for us to spend time together and get to know each other on a deeper level.

Were there any African beauty secrets to discover?

Brenda Roslyng: There were no ‘African beauty secrets’ as such but rather a myriad of traditions and ways to use common products that have been in widespread use across the continent for centuries – like using black soap and shea butter. In Lamu, where religion and tradition are very strong, we were able to learn about this minimalist attitude towards skincare. This emphasis on simplicity has a lot to do with pre-modern-age knowledge. [There are] customs that have been abandoned and/or erased during colonisation but are still being used in small rural communities.

Joseph Ekoko: Personally, I’ve since drastically reduced my use of soap and creams in general. I shower every day but put soap on my skin only twice a week, use water and baobab oil on my face and shea butter on my body. I’ve realised the more you use products on your skin and hair, the more your skin and hair need products to remain healthy. The skincare industry creates a lot of unnecessary dependencies.

What traditional techniques do you use to make your products?

Brenda Roslyng: Making our Nilotica Shea Butter is usually a two-day process as the nut has to undergo several stages of preparation before we get the final product. After the nuts have been washed, sun-dried and pounded, we slightly roast them. The nuts are then placed on a large stone and a smaller stone is used to grind the nuts while a specific hand technique is used to get as much oil out [as possible]. The paste is collected into buckets and has to harden overnight before we begin the process of beating the oil out of the paste.

Did you learn any new techniques while you were there? 

Brenda Roslyng: One of the key reasons for going on this trip was to meet up with this guy in Lamu. He’s a product developer and we want to introduce new products this year. The chemist I have in Denmark doesn’t understand African products in the same way.

Joseph Ekoko: We also have this format ‘SKINROADS’ on our website that’s about centring diasporic creatives who inspire us from all over the world. We hoped to feature someone very talented and genuine who maybe is undervalued within Nairobi and present their work to our mainly Danish audience. We met a sailor from Lamu who shared his life and vision with us and showed us his father’s land. 

Brenda Roslyng: That’s the goal, to have a farm.

Tell us more about that.

Brenda Roslyng: In Denmark, my stepdad owns a farm and we’ve already started some projects there, like growing lavender. The goal is to own a farm in Kenya where I can be most of the time. We’re planning to start making more soaps, so it’s like, where can we grow ginger or turmeric?

We want to own each and every part of production – or try to, at least. Being [in Europe], we’re now collectively getting into the mindset of being more sustainable and using natural products, while in Kenya they’re experiencing late westernisation. Now, they’re just getting access to ASOS and MAC – and you can’t convince people to go for one over the other.

Speaking of sustainability, did you learn any ways to make your products more environmentally friendly?

Joseph Ekoko: [We’re hoping to] develop a hand soap made from natural oils and compounds, so we learned a lot about the cleansing and antibacterial properties of carrier oils like coconut, jojoba, baobab, etc. Indigenous communities used oils as a way to wash and clean their skin and hair before the arrival of modern shampoos. So, we know that it’s possible to come up with a soap that has all the properties of a modern industrial one but without any chemicals or additives in it, but we’re still in a trial-and-error process to come up with the perfect formula. 

What was your biggest takeaway from the trip? 

Joseph Ekoko: We may be Black and our parents are from Africa but we’re very privileged in comparison to a lot of people who still live in Kenya, so it’s like, what is our position as diasporic people? Both in Europe and Africa, Blackness is a hot topic that can be very divisive. I think that going to Kenya has helped us humbly consider our position within a global system. We were reminded of the nuance that you can sometimes forget in Europe, where you almost romanticise where you come from. Travelling home encourages you to have a reality check: both as a brand and from a personal perspective.

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