Liha Okunniwa and Abi Oyepitan, the duo behind all-natural beauty brand Liha, are on a mission to bring highly-prized West African beauty secrets to the UK. Now in their third year, the business partners and lifelong friends focus on small batch and sustainable production, balancing their burgeoning brand with family life. We talk to Liha Okunniwa about the pair’s work…
Hi Liha! How would you describe your brand?
Relaxing, luxurious, unusual.
What inspired you to set up Liha, and what did you both do before?
We both knew we wanted to do this since our university days in 1998, but life got in the way! I’d studied English with American studies and moved back to Cheltenham from London when my daughter was born, where I ran a successful art publishing business. Abi had studied politics and sociology and had a career as an Olympic athlete, but we had both always had been making natural beauty products on the side. When Abi had retired from athletics, we just knew it was the right time. All along, the little voices in the back of our heads would not go away! We finally gave in to it and took the leap from totally different fields. It was worth it.
Initially, we tried to do a soft launch to test the market, but the demand was so great we just had to keep pushing and it forced us to develop quicker. At the moment we are raising investment, and it is exciting to pause, map and regroup, as we take each step in growing our brand to the next level.
What is the ethos behind your business?
Minimalism is key - buy less, and choose well. This is why we make all our products multi-purpose and don't inundate people with new product lines, which can be commonplace in the beauty industry. We also take a lot of inspiration from family - we describe Liha as 'natural African roots with a quintessentially British attitude’. My mum is an English aromatherapist, and the unique mix is what makes us stand out. Much of our aesthetic - an extreme minimalism with African touches (what we call ‘Afro-Scandi’) - comes from my dad. He came from Nigeria on an engineering scholarship and ended up hitchhiking around the world in the early 60's, nearly settling in Scandinavia.
There is a West African philosophical concept, Asé-Ase, by which you conceive the power to make things happen and produce change. It’s somewhat similar to the idea of Chi. We want to show people how to take self-care to Goddess levels and keep that Asé up! All our products take a while to become familiar with - you can find your own unique ways of using them, or even make your own creation with them. They also force you to slow down – for example, it takes time for the Idan oil to melt, and you have to really work the shea butter into your skin.
Our values are also influenced by political crops and sustainability – the medicinal plants that grow in West Africa have huge potential in the west, with the correct legislature and scientific testing in place. We are aware that most people don’t associate West Africa with beauty secrets, but introducing people to shea butter is just the beginning. There’s a wealth of ingredients that have yet to be introduced to the western world which are centuries old, and tried-and-tested. A big reason we want to scale up our business is to be a true innovator in our field, by showcasing these new ingredients and wellness secrets. As we grow, we hope to transform what has been a traditionally destructive trade route (oil, gas) with new socio-economic cooperatives for West Africa.
How do the two of you work together, day-to-day?
We’re like Yin and Yang, and we work together really well. Abi is super-practical and I am more ‘head in the clouds’, but we are both very creative. We can talk about a tweak to packaging for literally months, and are both obsessive and perfectionists in different areas, which is a plus! Abi is amazing at visual merchandising and keeping up with the industry news, and I am always hunting for new ingredients and experimenting with mixes. Day-to-day, I live in Cheltenham and Abi is in Hackney, so we are constantly texting back-and-forth, but it really is essential to have face-to-face meetings as well, as that is when the ideas really start flowing.
Describe your workspace…
Our workspace is in Queens Park in a wonderful place called Kindred Studios. It’s a former college that has over 170 artists and makers in studios, spread out over two huge buildings. Every so often there are open studio days for visitors to look around and buy, which is a wonderful way to meet customers. In true 80s movie style, the developers are trying to move in on the building, so the artists, makers and supporters are all coming together to try and raise money to buy it back - hopefully this arts haven will stay safe a little longer.
Do you have a background in health and beauty?
In African Yoruba culture, making your own cosmetics is something natural that you learn at the same time you learn to cook. My mum studied aromatherapy, and my parents had shops that I grew up living above - she would test me from about the age of 8, so I've been learning a long time!
My first job was in the Body Shop in 1996; Anita Roddick came and said ‘hi’ and I nearly fainted! Then I worked for SpaceNK when I went to Uni in London - it was my mecca before online shopping, it was the only place to get cult beauty products. I’ve studied the industry for years, so when I saw there was still a gap for the idea we had been brewing for so long, we had to jump.
Where do you sell your products?
We sell in Being Content in Marylebone, Glow Bar, lots of other lovely independents. We also have a stand on Broadway market every Saturday which works as our shop for now, and we have a huge and very exciting new stockist we will be announcing soon!
Where do you find creative inspiration?
Everywhere! We try to make time to step away from working constantly, to enjoy the smaller things and let the ideas flow. I love the luxury of taking an afternoon to go to the cinema, and Abi is always losing herself in novels. It's an obvious answer, but we both love to travel too, and meditation or just good old daydreaming are essential for any creative person - and we get loads of our ideas from these!
What are the joys, and challenges, of being an independent maker?
The joys are when people say how much they love your products - that never gets old! The challenges are having to ‘make’ on top of everything else, and feeling like you never have enough time!
Which products do you most love making?
Our Ose Gidi Black soap, because it took so long to perfect the recipe and now it is absolutely spot-on. It smells phenomenal, and always takes me back to being in our kitchens or our first tiny studio in Cheltenham with no windows! It was so hard to make at first, but now it’s second nature to us. It’s so nice when you can see your hard work pay off like that.
Do you hold workshops and events?
We do bespoke workshops for up to 15 in which we teach the absolute basics of making with shea butter, these can be booked through the website. It's great to inspire people to start their own journey and give them a crash course in aromatherapy. It’s amazing how much people bond, relax and open up when they are crafting with their hands.
Where do you source your ingredients?
At the moment we are sourcing from a number of different ethical places. In Ghana we work with the Shea Cooperative, and the Nigerian shea comes from Abi's dad's town, so we know exactly where it’s coming from. As we grow, our goal is to have our own farms and cooperatives in West Africa.
What have been your highlights for Liha so far?
All of it! We wouldn't change one bit of our journey, even the tough parts.
How valuable is the online community to your work?
We are not as good at posting as we should be, but we love Instagram. I’m not so keen on the algorithm but it’s a great community for wellness and makers. Our social media followers are all very valuable to us and we believe in quality over quantity.
What does the next six months hold for Liha?
We have some really exciting things coming up and we are growing pretty fast, so keep checking back for social media updates @lihabeauty.
Any creative pastimes or hobbies?
I play music in my spare time, and Abi and I both write. Abi loves photography and we are both massive bookworms. Dancing around naked every so often is also a must for me to stay sane!
How do you approach marketing and PR?
We have been lucky in that we have never had to chase, and all opportunities have come to us directly through the website or via Instagram.
Any advice for makers starting out?
Just jump in and crack on! Trust the process and you will find your path.
Quick Fire questions:
Describe your work in three words? Satisfying, fun, amazing.
What are your making rituals? Loud music (or Radio 4 on peaceful days), old clothes, self-belief, and a little alchemy.
Tea or coffee? Tea, always.
Mountains or sea? Sea.
Night owl or early bird? Abi is a night owl, but I’m an early bird.
I wish someone had told me... It's never too late to change direction. As a kid you are taught to find a path and lock on to it. That just isn't how it works, you can always change.
See more from Liha at: www.lihabeauty.co.uk