By Kristie Snyder,
Yve-Car Momperousse and Stéphane Jean-Baptiste are all too familiar with the predominant image of Haiti in the US media: poverty, destruction, and desperation. But that's not how the owners of beauty-product company Kreyòl Essence see it. Their Haiti is a land of beautiful mountains and beaches, a culturally vibrant Caribbean nation with vast untapped potential. Their company aims to connect eco-conscious consumers in the US with traditional Haitian products that have fabulous health and beauty benefits, to create jobs and markets, and to empower Haitian communities along the way.
Kreyòl Essence was born following a "hair catastrophe." While straightening Yve-Car's hair, a stylist applied too much heat, causing permanent damage. Yve-Car and Stéphane, both Haitian-American, remembered that their families used to turn to Haitian black castor oil as an all-purpose, traditional remedy for hair and skin troubles and a host of other ailments. Living in Philadelphia at the time, Yve-Car sought out the product to strengthen her hair as it grew back, and came up lacking, even in the Haitian neighborhoods. She expanded her search to New York and Boston, but still found nothing like what they both remembered — high quality, hand-pressed, additive-free, and unrefined castor oil. She called on her mom in Haiti to ship her an emergency bottle, and the ensuing conversation led to a decision to bring the product to America. From that beginning, Kreyòl Essence now manufactures hair pomades and milks, body soufflés, soaps, and candles using the black castor oil along with other high-quality and responsibly sourced ingredients.
The couple relocated to Ithaca around two years ago when Yve-Car was offered a job as Cornell's Director of Diversity Alumni Programs. They brought the fledgling business with them, and have since left their jobs (Stéphane worked in Ithaca College's School of Business) to run the business full-time. With combined backgrounds in marketing, communications, activism, business consulting, development, and non-profit management, they have sought to create a new kind of business — commercially viable, but with core social tenets. Rather than donate profits back to Haiti, Yve-Car and Stéphane followed a different path. They sought out Haitian farmers to grow the castor beans and hired local people to process them into oil and manufacture beauty products.
It turns out that black castor oil is more than just an old folk remedy. Loaded with fatty acids, the oil is a rich moisturizer and anti-inflammatory, useful for a myriad of skin, scalp, and hair conditions, as well as for wound healing and the treatment of arthritis and joint pain. The unrefined oil is extracted by hand from castor beans, which are ground into slurry with mortar and pestle. The cultivation of the beans themselves contributes to Haiti's ecological health. The plants, occasionally grown in North America as ornamentals, reach the size of small trees in Haiti, where they combat soil erosion, a huge problem in a country where only two percent of the nation's trees are left. The plants can be intercropped with local food crops as well. "These trees create income," Yve-Car explained. "We never stop getting calls from people who want to plant trees now."
Kreyòl Essence creates jobs at every step of the process — planting, harvest, dehulling, oil extraction, and manufacturing. Most of the employed are women, and they are paid three to five times the norm for Haiti. The difference between being paid and receiving charitable aid is crucial. "People sometimes ask, 'How much of your proceeds are you giving?'" Stéphane said. "In Haiti there's a history of subsidies that have essentially crushed the agricultural market. So a lot of smallholder farmers have been out of work. We're helping create self-sufficiency through commerce, and business. If I employ you, you can do a lot more with that than with the ten percent of the proceeds that I might give you."
"Anytime you're trying to solve problems, it all comes down to economics," Yve-Car added. "Haiti needs exports — it's great that people have sent food, sent aid. However, it cripples the local economy, and it doesn't allow people to take care of themselves. Business is what will create long-lasting change. And, it's fun to help the world through beauty products!"
Yve-Car and Stéphane's introduction to GreenStar came during their first house-hunting visit to Ithaca, when they stopped in at the Dewitt Mall location. "We thought, 'Ithaca is perfect for us!'" Stéphane said. In 2013, they began selling at the Co-op. "GreenStar has the same quality expectations that we have. We feel like it was a match made in heaven," Yve-Car said. "And now," Stéphane added, "I go in to deliver products ... and buy desserts." They have done several successful in-store demos, allowing shoppers the chance to sample products and meet the business owners. They also recognize that their products are important to GreenStar shoppers of color, who may have different hair- and skin-care needs. "At Ithaca Festival, we met a lot of people in the African-American community who are already shopping at GreenStar, so they were really happy to hear our products were there."
Yve-Car and Stéphane are enthusiastic Kreyòl Essence customers as well as owners, and their skin shows it. Stéphane favors Caribbean Spice Body Soufflé, a deliciously scented whipped body butter made with a blend of black castor oil and shea butter sourced from a women's co-op in Nigeria, for long-lasting, all-over skin moisturizing. For hair, he chooses Pomade Kreyòl, a hair pomade made with black castor oil and Haitian-sourced aloe, coconut oil, and pine nut oil. Yve-Car relies on Haitian Shea Butter, a best-selling blend of black castor oil and shea butter, as her two-for-one hair and body moisturizer.
At GreenStar, shoppers can purchase Kreyòl Essence products including Haitian Black Castor Oil, Pomade Kreyòl, Moisturizing Hair Milk, Haitian Shea Butter, and Moisturizing Body Soufflé, in Chocolate and Caribbean Spice scents. Other products (scented black castor oil, soaps, and candles) are available on their website, www.kreyolessence.com.
Their next offerings will be shampoo, conditioner, hair thickening products, and facial cleanser, all being developed. A recent crowdfunding campaign, in partnership with Muhammad Yunus, the father of the microcredit movement, and microfinance website Kiva.com, has offered the business a $100,000 loan to expand their manufacturing and distribution capabilities in Haiti, creating 300 jobs.
"We'd like to be the socially conscious Procter and Gamble," Yve-Car said, "sourcing traditional ingredients from parts of the world that we don't think about. We're challenging the notion that there's only one way to do business."