15.09.2017

Cosmetic Desert Secrets from Nature’s Garden


Some products of the Desert Secrets body care range. (Photo: Desert Secrets)

Sophia Snyman (middle) and two of her employees at work. (Photo: Brigtte Weidlich)

The scent in the exhibition hall of the tourism trade fair is irresistible. The two middle aged ladies, obviously tourists with their winter skin, rucksacks and cameras, turn left and stop at a small stand. Amidst small bottles and round tins of various sizes, rests a rose-shaped solid substance. 

Both ladies point their fingers at the pale-coloured rose. “Perfume?” they ask simultaneously with a strong German accent. The young sales lady smiles but shakes her head. “Lotion, hand cream from Namibia”, she says and rubs her hands together as if distributing lotion on the hands. “Ah, Creme,” the other tourist says in German. 

But that beguiling scent! The two ladies pick up the tin and take a quick sniff at the rose. “Seife mit Parfum, nicht Creme (soap with perfume, not a cream)”, they agree and buy a few tins. “Souvenirs”, they say. 

Despite the language barrier all three ladies were happy with their purchases. The rose-shaped “soap” is in fact a solid cream, which melts when rubbed between the hands: an experience of a very different kind. The tourists explore more products at the Desert Secrets Namibia stand. A lot of “oohs” and “ahs” can be heard and even an “aha” as they try out the products. They leave with a big bag full of soaps, creams, body lotions and lip balms. 

Their tour guide joins the two ladies. “These products are handmade cosmetics using natural ingredients from indigenous plants growing in Namibia, with natural preservatives” he explains.

Desert treasures and their secrets

Sophia Snyman, has in past years unravelled the secrets of indigenous plants like Namibian myrrh, oil from fruit of marula (Sclerocarya birrea) and mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane), and Kalahari (tsamma) lemon seed oil (Citrullus lanatus var. citroides). Some of these plants grow in the Namib Desert or in the Kalahari desert; the marula and mopane trees grow in northern Namibia like Kaokoland, now known as the Kunene Region. “The garden of Mother Nature is so rich, we just have to unlock the potential of how to use the plants, shrubs and trees” says Snyman. “We can learn a lot from the ancient wisdom of the local indigenous people, which they have collected over many generations.”

Snyman grew up on a farm near the small settlement of Aus in southern Namibia, at the fringes of the Namib Desert, where the famous feral desert horses are found. After winter rain showers, the various plants had more intensive scents… herbal, fresh, sweet or flowery. As a child, Sophia’s mother took her on walks across the farm, making her daughter aware of nature’s treasures. Drying and pressing different plants, experimenting with scents by distillation became a hobby over the years. 

Life-changing career

Snyman’s love for nature also shaped her career path. After completing her studies, she worked several years for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET). The Ministry successfully explored community forest management for rural people as well as rural conservancies. These initiatives allow people in rural areas to sustainably reap and harvest natural resources like devil’s claw, fruit and seeds from indigenous plants and earn an income from them.

Later, Snyman worked for a commercial bank and completed an MBA degree. The love for plants, scents and essential oils remained. “I participated in a course in South Africa where we learnt how to make natural soap and other body care products. I was completely hooked”, remembers Snyman. The family kitchen became her experimental ‘laboratory’. Blending and mixing lotions, oils and other ingredients became a passion.

In April 2013, an unusual competition took place: to boost the use of indigenous plants participants had to make body care products with distilled oil of the Namibian myrrh (Commiphora wildii). Namibia’s Ministry of Agriculture had set up the Namibia Indigenous Natural Products Innovation Fund with support from the Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich in the United Kingdom. The Fund promotes sustainable use of indigenous plants and developing products from them. Financial support came from the US Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), a development support programme of the US government for Namibia.

Snyman took part in the competition and was one of two finalists. Part of the award was further training in body care products with indigenous ingredients. 

The finalists also had to showcase their products at the annual Tourism Expo in June that year. It was a breakthrough! People wanted her products and after the Expo she started selling her range, juggling a fulltime job and production in her kitchen. By October 2013, she quit her banking job and started her small business, Desert Secrets Namibia. She never looked back. A female friend designed the company logo and the characteristic ochre colour shades for the diverse products. “However, my husband ‘complained’ about the kitchen becoming a production hub, so I moved to the garage,” she chuckles. 

A little bit of Namibia

Tourism lodges and guest farms became interested in the various products. “Tour guides phoned to ask if they could bring their tourists, who wanted something special as a souvenir from Namibia before they flew home,” says Snyman. “I was told the tourists want to take a little bit of Namibia back home. When they open the small containers und use the products, the lovely scents remind them of Namibia.” 

The demand increased. Bigger premises had to be found. With three employees, the scented business has moved to premises in Windhoek’s Eros suburb. 

Sourcing indigenous ingredients

Having worked with rural communities during her years at the MET, Snyman revived her contacts. She buys myrrh from Ovahimba women in the Kunene Region from the distillery at Opuwo. Marula oil comes from the Eudafano cooperative of rural women at Ondangwa. “The good thing is that from source to finished product only women are involved and earn an income,” Snyman points out. Other rural women produce oil from Kalahari melon (tsamma) seeds, and are regular providers.

Sought after internationally

After barely four years, Desert Secrets body care products are sought after locally, but also in South Africa and Europe. The business has added an online shopping service drawing more international customers. The product range is growing with soap for men added recently and a rich body cream with the oil of Namibia’s Ximenia americana (sour/wild plum).

“I am happy that my love for scents and oils has grown into a business and enables many rural women to earn money from our country’s diverse plant life,” says Snyman. “Our body care range will remain niche products; the desert’s secrets are, after all, special.” 

Brigitte Weidlich


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