The Sanaag region of Somaliland is not easy to get to: the capital Erigavo takes around 12 hours by road from Hargeisa, and requires special permission as well as the accompaniment of two SPUs, armed security officials. This, coupled with no internationally recognized independence from Somalia, makes for an extremely limited tourism sector. The staggering beauty of the Daalo mountains to the north of Erigavo, separating the regional capital from the sea, emphatically demonstrates what international tourists are missing. Here, nestled in the wadis of these mountains, frankincense trees grow wild, and have been tapped for millennia for their resin. Multiple species of frankincense grow, but the most valuable is Boswellia carteri, and it is for this resin that we travelled to visit the Dayaxa Frankincense Export Company (DFEC) - a company fundamentally altering the way frankincense resin is sourced.
The frankincense resin supply chain is a particularly opaque one, the isolation and inaccessibility of the trees acts as a veil, making it simpler for companies sourcing resin to use intermediaries instead. Simultaneously frankincense resin is extremely valuable and demand has rocketed in the last 30 years with the growth in the personal care market. This should mean that the resin harvesters are able to realize a high price for their resin, but the complete lack of traceability means the very opposite is happening. Resin traders extract all of the value and force resin tappers to accept prices 1/10th of those that traders are paid. With such power, resin traders have been given free rein to act as they wish, and abuses in the supply chain range from corruption to sexual assault. Coupled with the devastating human consequences of this abuse, consistently low resin prices put pressure on over-tapping of trees, and very little data exists on the how sustainable current production levels of resin are.
Until now it has been extremely difficult to know where frankincense resin is coming from, how much money is being received by harvesters for their resin, and what practices are really being supported. Against this backdrop the DFEC was formed, and working in partnership with FairSource Botanicals, ProvenSource, Pacha and Soli, are working to provide complete traceability and transparency in their frankincense carteri supply chain using a blockchain traceability platform. Working with the resin harvesters, every farm and resin cave is GPS mapped, and tagged bags left for resin to be collected in. Payments are made direct to harvesters via mobile banking, and receipts are all stored on a blockchain ledger. The bags of resin are tracked from caves, across Somaliland, to where the resin is eventually distilled into essential oil, with every step is recorded on the blockchained ledger. For ecological conservation, tree mapping surveys are carried out by randomly selecting segments of land and tallying tree numbers, characteristics and health. A sample of trees are also logged into the blockchain system to enable future analyses of tree health, and to ensure that over harvesting is not occurring.
By working in partnership, brands can leverage their purchasing power to fundamentally alter how problematic supply chains are sourced. This is best done in consortium: rather than individually trying to create, scale and brand a differentiated supply chain, the way to drive real change is for brands to work together, in partnership with supply chains, to commit to structural change. This way there is less risk for communities providing the frankincense resin, their success isn’t tied to one brand but many, and brands can work to drive improved practice at scale. At Pacha we’re proud to be working in the frankincense supply chain with LUSH, who share our passion for ethical ingredients and sustainable change. By collaborating together as brands to tackle issues in the frankincense carteri supply chain we can really scale our impact through the supply chain partners FairSource Botanicals and ProvenSource. Our hope is that more brands join this coalition to help be a part of transforming the supply chain.
Our sourcing team’s trip to the Sanaag region, specifically the village of Doonyaxa, coincides with the first GPS mappings of exact resin cave locations and provides a first-hand glimpse into the punishing level of fitness required of resin harvesters. Setting off at 4am, after a night under the stars, the team visits 8 resin cave locations on a walk of around 25km, before returning in the evening. Harvesters spend around 3 months living in resin caves during the harvest season, and harvesting resin takes all day on slopes that our team was only able to scramble up on all fours - it is an extremely tough profession. During our team’s visit, they noted groups of trees that have been left free from tapping this year to enable them to rebuild their resilience, a clear sign of sustainable farm management. The goal of this project is not to teach communities how to tap trees sustainably, the skills have been passed down for generations, it is to remove oppressive structures that promote destructive practices as the only option for harvesters to escape rural poverty.
“You’re the only company owners that have come and sat down with us. The others always send an intermediary, they never come themselves. If you come here to source resin and see the farms, all we ask is that you pay us a fair price. Do not try to pay us less than everyone else is paying. Come and sit with us, and tell us what you are doing on the farms. Do this, and you will always be welcome here.”
Doonyaxa Village Elder
The solution to the issues in the frankincense supply chain are deceptively simple. It is not easy to map farms, particularly as communities exploited by global markets are wary about revealing harvesting practices. Only through building strong links with these communities has DFEC embedded itself fully and become a trusted partner. For companies that want to source sustainable traceable frankincense carteri, it often doesn’t require significantly higher prices for resin with so much value being stripped out by resin traders. Furthermore, it is critical that the frankincense carteri trade isn’t stopped because of existing flaws in the supply chain. Harvesters rely on resin as their primary income source, and are increasingly dependent as climate change puts added pressures on pastoral livelihoods, the other income source in the region. To stop sourcing resin would devastate these communities, and also damage tree stock: were frankincense trees to stop being economically valuable for their resin the other immediate use for trees is as charcoal.
Full traceability and good wages are the first step: DFEC is setting up a number of formal consultations with the community, to identify longer term priorities. They plan to invest profits into community development projects that tackle access to water, education, alternative income generation schemes and addressing the dire working conditions for women working in resin sorting houses. One partner, Save Frankincense, is working to create women safe frankincense by providing access to personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks, seating for the women and pushing for independent verification of working conditions. By working respectfully with these communities we can fundamentally change the supply chain to become regenerative, and that sees a symbiotic relationship between communities and trees that nourishes ecosystems.
Frankincense carteri resin can be ethically and sustainably sourced. Communities here have done so for millennia. Companies sourcing resin simply have to demand full traceability and transparency in their supply.