10/16/2020 5 Comments
By Terrence Irving
“My whole purpose is...if you can’t eat it, you probably shouldn’t have it on your skin.”
It’s a warmish fall day and I’ve just arrived at the suburban Willimantic studio of Isankofa Natural Skin Care, owned and operated by Sahra Deer. She greets me outside along with her marketing manager. Kids, including Sahra’s daughter, are outside enjoying the weather. The smell of leaves is in the air, but so is something else. Something really, really good.
Not even a Covid-19 mask could prevent the first impression that Isankofa inevitably leaves its visitors: the wonderful scent of the products that await inside. Ingredients such as apple, peach, and pumpkin are autumn-appropriate.
Once we get started, Sahra quickly makes it clear that Isankofa is about much more than just nice smells.
THE ISANKOFA WAY
We’re in the studio now and the source of the enticing aroma is before me on several rustic wall shelves. The professionalism and care is obvious: everything is neatly organized and aligned. The products are carefully labeled with a description and list of ingredients, complete with Isankofa’s branding. Sahra also accepts online orders that can either be picked up in person at the studio or shipped directly to customers.
Early on in our talk, Sahra points out a subtle fact about human anatomy: our skin is our largest organ. When asked about Isankofa’s “why,” Sahra expands:
“The company started for [a] couple different reasons. My mother, and a few of my cousins, and one of my aunts had breast cancer.”
Questioning the concept of conventional deodorants and antiperspirants, which are well known for containing chemicals which aren’t exactly healthy, Sahra’s outlook on self-care evolved. She took action, gaining an interest in natural skin wellness, then developing her own deodorant.
Eventually, her resolve was only strengthened by one of her children’s skin conditions: “And then when my daughter was a little bit older, she ended up having horrific eczema…[Her prescribed treatment consisted of] all these chemicals that never seemed to help. So then, that’s how the body butter started.”
MORE THAN JUST A NAME
Sahra’s father is a Rastafarian who used to be an antique dealer in her native Jamaica. Naturally, then, she admits an affinity for mixing old with new in her business.
Her strong connection to (and fondness for) the island nation is evident beyond her accent. It also explains the “I” in “Isankofa”:
“The Rastas don’t believe in the you, the me, or the we, they believe in just the ‘I’,” she explains.
Enter Iyaric, the Rastafari English dialect. A manner of speaking created to combat oppression, convey piousness, and maintain African roots, Iyaric makes extensive use of “I”, both as a word and as a concept.
With the “I” portion of her business’s name, Sahra goes on to explain the rest. The Rastafarian culture, popularized in America by the late and great Bob Marley, is widely associated with Jamaica only. Few are aware of its African roots, including the West African nation of Ghana. Enter “sankofa,” an ancient concept born there. The exact definition varies slightly depending on where you look. Sahra’s does great a great job of conveying the point:
“‘Sankofa’ means...to look into the past in order to have a prosperous future.”
Sahra is very up front about Sankofa’s influence on her business philosophy and product development: she borrows from ancient self-care methods and recipes, modernizing them for her customers. She puts it frankly:
“Sometimes I feel that people have gotten so smart that they need a 360, back to stupid.”
In other words, when it comes to keeping your skin healthy, simple is best. From Africa to Asia to North and South America, people have been caring for their skin naturally for millenia. Figuratively, then, the Isankofa brand challenges us to ask ourselves, “Why fix what isn’t broken?”
“My whole purpose is...if you can’t eat it, you probably shouldn’t
QUALITY YOU CAN SENSE
Meeting Department of Consumer Protection standards in Connecticut isn’t easy. Sahra takes great care to ensure that Isankofa’s facility, ingredients, and production methods do so.
“I am making [each product], so my name is out there on the line...I try to use locally-sourced, organic, fair trade...and most of all, food grade, ingredients. Even down to the lye that we use,” Sahra explains.
I already described the pleasant effect Isankofa products have on your sense of smell, so we can scratch scent off of the list.
Let’s move on to what you can see. The products are clearly packaged well; Sahra also makes it a point to use biodegradable shrink-wrap on Isankofa’s soaps. This stuff isn’t mass-produced, so you can see just about every speckle, hue, and swirl of the unprocessed ingredients used to make them.
Touch is an easy one. Isankofa is primarily, after all, a small business focused on natural skincare products. From oils to balms to butters to soaps...with actual grains of rice in them. The list goes on. Everything here is created to keep your largest organ feeling and looking healthy.
And what about taste? A bar of “Aren’t Figs Rose-mantic?” soap literally looks like pudding. The reason is that it actually contains, well, food. Figs, olive oil, and coconut.
Perhaps noticing that I was staring at the soap as if we were in a pastry shop, Sahra offers a lighthearted dose of reality:
“It’d be really nasty, but yes, you could eat it.”
STAYING ON COURSE
Like many other small businesses around the state, Isankofa was hit hard by this year’s Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to in-person retail, Sahra is used to inviting customers into the studio for classes as well as attending markets with like-minded vendors.
She explained, “Last year was a really great year for the business. It grew leaps and bounds. And I felt like...finally, 2020 was gonna be my year...and that did not happen.”
Still, Sahra remains optimistic and focused on the Isankofa’s mission of continuing to provide quality skincare products that respect our bodies and our environment. As of this writing, new email list subscribers are eligible for a discount as well as those who return Isakofa glass bottles to the studio for recycling.
“I want to make sure that I have an affordable, natural product...for people that look like us...I tell people all the time: I don’t expect you to drink the [natural skincare] Kool Aid. But, try one thing [before writing it off].”
So what are you waiting for? Give Isankofa Natural Skincare a try today. Your skin—and your conscience—will thank you for it.
Click here to visit Isankofa Natural Skincare's website.
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