When Liha Okunniwa and Abi Oyepitan met at university in 1998, they bonded over swapping beauty tips for “natural hair” and African skin.
Back then, bloggers such as Black Girl Long Hair and Afrobella, encouraging women with Afro-textured hair to boycott chemical or heat straightening products, or YouTube videos dedicated to African beauty, didn’t exist.
And so Oyepitan — a future Olympic sprint runner for England — and Okunniwa began creating their own moisturizers from Shea butter, and making African black soap, using plantain, cocoa pods and palm tree leaves.
Finally, in 2014, Liha — their own beauty line — was born.
Simple products, traditional methods
“My mum is a herbalist and aromatherapist so it has always been natural to me to mix up my own things at home,” Okunniwa, who grew up in the UK, tells CNN.
“It is quite common within African households to learn how to whip Shea and use natural oils, butters and kitchen resources.
“My paternal grandmother had a lot of skills she learned in Nigeria that she showed me.”
To make a natural moisturizer, for example, Okunniwa would whip Shea — that involves mashing up solid Shea nut — and add oil, mixing until she has a smooth lotion.
While all Liha products are handmade at their workshop in Cheltenham, England, they are heavily inspired by practices and ingredients from Africa.
“Most companies will bleach or process the shea to make it look a way that is palpable for customers used to using lotions cut with chemicals,” says Okunniwa, explaining that Liha doesn’t do this.
“We are super inspired by the diaspora and ancient Yoruba culture, which is why we put the image of Queen Idia [The First Queen Mother of Benin] on our candles,” says Oyepitan, who grew up in Nigeria; Okunniwa made frequent visits to the West African nation growing up.
“No matter where the Yoruba culture has traveled, there has been a wellspring of beauty, creativity, music and ideas whether that’s in Cuba, Brazil or New Orleans. We want everyone to know about the Yoruba beauty secrets, too.”
Who are Abi and Liha?
Social media has played a large role in the success of the Liha brand — @lihabeauty has nearly 2,000 followers on the image-sharing platform.
“All of our press and exposure has come from online. I love how Instagram has transformed people’s perception of Africa, and given amazing exposure for businesses like us,” says Okunniwa.
Okunniwa and Oyepitan have plans to add facial products to their range and will be popping up at festivals over the summer.