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August 08, 2016


2016 › Mali ›

Virtual Mudcloth Creation

Swahili Modern Blog and News

The Smithsonian is featuring an African Voices exhibit and has created a fun, interactive widget for creating your own bogolanfini, also known as Malian mudcloth. 

Click on the top right of the widget to make your own design. Fun!

Use of African Mudcloth in Designer Pillows

Swahili Modern Blog and News

We were recently delighted to see a piece of our Malian mudcloth transformed into gorgeous pillows by Ginny McDonald, who curates and designs textiles to sell to stores and individual designers.

African mudcloth

Ginny immediately recognized the unique quality of this one-of-a-kind mudcloth, which features a mustard dye and hand-painted dots. As a designer in Southern California, Ginny noted that the market is "flooded with Mali cloth, especially all the indigos and graphic designs."

Malian Mudcloth

We hope to work with Ginny on future projects and suggest that you view her beautiful creations on her Instagram account at

One of Our Giraffes Finds a New Home

We were recently delighted to receive pictures from a customer who had purchased an Oil Drum Giraffe Sculpture

African DecorThese art collectors from Springfield are experimenting with where to put their new giraffe and have been moving it around the yard.

African Decor Art

We think it looks good everywhere! What do you think?

Decor from Africa

These special sculptures come to us from Kenya, where they are welded together using discarded oil drums and scrap metal. Each sculpture is one-of-a-kind.

Celebrating World Fair Trade Day

Swahili Modern Blog and News

World Fair Trade Day is an initiative of WFTO that falls on the second Saturday of May of each year. The day is celebrated worldwide by all fair trade organizations, including the Fair Trade Federation to which Swahili Modern belongs.

Fair trade aims to "create positive change through all of its work: socially, economically, and environmentally. Members work with small farmers and artisans in holistic partnerships built on trust. These relationships go beyond ensuring fair wages and safe working conditions — they empower producers to strengthen their communities and grow their businesses sustainably."

Here's a great video that introduces the fair trade movement and why it matters:

To celebrate this special day, businesses all over the world are hosting events, offering discounts, and running contests to drum up support from the general public. 

We are offering 15% off this weekend only, May 13th through May 15th, in honor of Fair Trade Day. Be sure to check out Twitter for some more deals and special events, using the hashtag #FairTradeDay:

Fair Trade Swahili Modern

April 27, 2016

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Featured on The Grommet!

Swahili Modern Blog and News

We are delighted to have our Toubab Totes featured on The Grommet today! Check out this fantastic video made our behalf.

The Grommet sells "products with a purpose invented by people with stories." They have amazing jewelry, gadgets, home wares, and much more. Be sure to check out their site!

April 15, 2016


About Virgin African Shea Butter

Swahili Modern Blog and News

In South Sudan, a collective of women make raw, Grade A, virgin, African shea butter by hand using the nuts of the vitellaria paradoxa nilotica tree, which grows only in East Africa.

The women work under the Lulu Works program, which was founded in 2000 by the French non-government organization MEDIC (Medical Emergency and Development International Committee) in response to rampant hunger and need in conflict torn Sudan.

Virgin shea butter from AfricaOver the past decade, Lulu Works and its various arms have created an infrastructure for a sustainable shea butter industry for the women of Southern Sudan, ensuring the rights of Sudanese women as the traditional guardians of Sudan's lulu (shea nut) tree. Processing lulu oil is extremely labor-intensive, but with proper storage, lulu oil can be preserved year round for use. Through the careful organization of nut collection sites and oil processing centers, enough lulu oil can be produced in Southern Sudan to meet local demand and to convert surplus oil into marketable skin care products.

The Lulu Tree:
Sudan's Vital Natural Resource

The nilotica variety of shea nut tree (called lulu in Arabic) grows mainly in a narrow band of savannah extending from Senegal to Ethiopia. Lulu trees grow abundantly on the ironstone plateau and the alluvial plains of Southern Sudan. This medium sized deciduous tree rarely exceeds 15m, and is estimated to live between 200 to 300 years, with 15 to 20 years of growth required before fruiting. 
Shea butter tree

Because the tree's rich bounty of nutritious lulu nuts yields at the exact time of the seasonal hunger, the lulu tree is greatly celebrated in Southern Sudan as a vital natural resource. The economic value of lulu nuts is also extremely high, providing women guardians with income and household food security.

Nilotica vs Paradoxa:
The Advantage of Purity

The vitellaria nilotica variety of shea butter varies from the better-known paradoxa variety that has been commercially exploited in West Africa for decades. The oil from darker paradoxa nuts has to be bleached and deodorized before processing into skin care products, so the resulting butters lack the untouched purity of butters crafted from nilotica oil.
African shea butter nuts
Since nilotica oil has a naturally pure and mild flavor that requires little processing, it has become a highly coveted additive for natural skin and hair care products. Rich in olein, nilotica oil from Sudan is superior in cosmetics and is known in Sudan and around the world for its positive effects on the digestive system, the hair and skin.

The Guardians of Life

Over the past century, the secrets of the lulu shea nut butter have been unearthed and passed down by Sudanese women, the traditional guardians of the lulu tree. The women share a symbiotic relationship with this life-giving tree, eating the fruit, processing the nuts into oil and enjoying the tree's cool shade. The nutritious oil was particularly important during Sudan's civil war and is still a main source of food security during the yearly dry season.
Making African shea butter

Turning Nuts into Oil

Wild-crafted, non-certified organic lulu nuts used to create African shea butter are collected and fully dried, then pounded into a mash using a large mortar and pestle called a funduk. Women push the mash through a hand-powered cold press mill that squeezes the oil from the nuts, retaining the nutritive properties and yielding a clear, lightly scented oil that transforms readily into a creamy butter. The women add beeswax and essential plant oils to convert the lulu oil into naturally pure soaps and lip balms.


Lulu Works: The Company behind the Lulu Life label

In 2005, Lulu Works Ltd., the parent company of the Lulu Life skin care brand, established training projects that teach women better techniques to alleviate the intensive labor process and helped set up processing and nut collection centers. Lulu Works integrates lulu groups working in isolation of each other, using the capacity of the group to give each woman access to otherwise unreachable markets.

handmade shea butter 

Lulu Life Trust: Profits for the People

The Lulu Life Trust is the financial arm of the Lulu Livelihoods program that ensures that profits from Lulu Life brand products return to the workers at the 40 women-owned-and-operated lulu butter processing centers. As a non-profit trust, Lulu Works sees that fair trade income reaches a total of 800 women in Southern Sudan, helping them maintain a healthy household with money for food, clothing, education and medical care. Sustainable living coupled with a wide variety of productive investments is contributing greatly to the development of the local economy.

A few of the ladies shared their thoughts about working with Lulu Works:

Elprida Gamba
I used to walk all day or all night to get to a market and sell my harvest, for very little money. I didn't even have enough money for clothes or shoes. My children could never go to school. Now all my children go to school. With this work, the women in our village have been bringing a lot more money in the family than the husbands, so much that the husbands now come to beg the group to employ their women.

Rebecca Ukuol
I cannot read or write. I have three children less than 6 years. I used to earn money by making beer and alcohol but now I do not have time to do this. I wanted to do other work that did not mean I was to make drinks. Lulu work pays me money so I can do things for my children. I want to build my own home. I love my work and do it well.

Unia Singajoo

My biggest dream is that all my grandchildren get an education, so that they can get a good job and they can then look after me and I can rest in a good home. I thank Lulu Life for helping me get closer to that dream.

Swahili Modern and the Lulu Life Label

In spring of 2008, Leslie traveled into Sudan to visit several of the Lulu Works shea butter processing centers. At every location, she was greeted by smiling, dancing, ululating ladies dressed in matching aprons and head wraps. Leslie shared our appreciation for the opportunity to represent Lulu Works in the United States and spent a few moments explaining the part we play in seeing that their skin care products make it to appreciative customers in the U.S.
Swahili Modern shea butter
Leslie's journey into the remote reaches of Sudan emphasizes our adherence to fair trade interactions in Africa. Whenever possible, we strive to meet face-to-face with as many of our artisans and producer groups as time allows. The exchange of ideas and goodwill communicated in these meetings can only truly occur during face-to-face interaction, so we believe that every uncomfortable moment spent bumping along unpaved roads under the heat of Sudan's equatorial sun is worth it, hundreds of times over.

Lulu Life in a Nutshell

The Lulu Livelihoods program offers a mutually beneficial way to directly empower the women of South Sudan with fair trade income from the production of virgin shea butter. By purchasing Lulu Life brand skin care products, you not only treat your skin to some of the best nutrients the earth has to offer, but you also help bring economic stability to Southern Sudan, enabling families to provide their children with an education and a bright future.
African travel
Below are more photos for you to enjoy. These images were taken during out last trip to Sudan and reflect the fascinating process of making shea butter by hand.
African shea butter nuts
Sudanese shea butter
Making African shea butter
Women of Lulu Life
Lulu Life shea butter
Shea butter nuts
Drying shea butter nuts in Sudan

Leslie Becomes a Board Member of the Fair Trade Federation

Swahili Modern Blog and News

The owner of Swahili Modern, Leslie Mittelberg, was recently voted in as a board member of the Fair Trade Federation. We have been a member of the FTF for over 10 years and are delighted to be able to more deeply participate in this wonderful organization. 

Leslie's tenure goes into effect on April 26th at the FTF Annual Conference, held this year in Burlington, VT. Please stop by and saw hello if you get the chance!

Fair Trade

About Leslie: For more than 20 years, Leslie has dedicated her life to the celebration of African artistry, cooperative design and reliable business practices. Swahili, the company she founded in 1995, has grown to represent harmonious exchange between 11 African nations, a diverse network of artisans and export agents, a talented U.S. support team and thousands of retail establishments that value handmade products and the success of their creators.

Empowering artisans to achieve personal and professional success inspires Leslie's work through Swahili and challenges her team and her to constantly adapt to an evolving marketplace. We tailor our development practices in Africa by the principles of the Fair Trade Federation, and we work tirelessly to keep our product line fresh, relevant and inviting. The inclusion of our products in some of the nation’s most respected retail chains and catalogs supports our belief that well-designed handmade fair trade goods can compete in the marketplace. 

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