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A Return To Roots: Black Flamingo Beauty Co-Founders Mona Gulaid And Mariam Abdillahi Have Created A UAE-Based Natural Skincare Brand That Pays Homage To Their Native Somaliland For sisters Mona Gulaid and Mariam Abdillahi, natives of Somaliland, indigenous beauty secrets have helped create a visceral bond with the nation they didn't get to grow up in.

By Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

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Black Flamingo Beauty

There's something about imbibing beauty and skincare regimes that have been passed down through generations before us that helps many among us stay connected to the traditions of our homelands. For sisters Mona Gulaid and Mariam Abdillahi, natives of Somaliland, indigenous beauty secrets have helped create a visceral bond with the nation they didn't get to grow up in. Indeed, it was a connection so deep that it eventually led to their joint entrepreneurial venture: Black Flamingo Beauty, a UAE-based natural skincare brand.

"As Somali women, entrepreneurship is embedded in our DNA, and we were surrounded by strong women in our family, like our mother, who had a few of her own businesses," the sisters say. "But the idea of specifically setting up Black Flamingo Beauty came from Mariam's own experience, when a bad reaction to a medication caused severe hyperpigmentation on her face. She was searching for a natural solution, which drove her back to our Somali roots, and tried-and-tested natural skincare ingredients. We saw a growing demand and a gap in the market for highly effective, clean natural products, so we decided to take a leap and launched in Dubai, our second home."

Traditional Somaliland beauty regimes, however, cannot be discussed without first introducing qasil- a natural substance that has offered medicinal and dermatological benefits for hundreds of years. "Qasil is the powder produced from crushing the leaves of the gob tree, which famously grows in the Horn of Africa," Gulaid explains. "The name 'qasil' was derived from the Arabic word غسيل (ghasil), which means to wash or clean. The Gob tree -native to the southern Himalayas- migrated to the fertile lands of East Africa 2000 years ago. For centuries, qasil has been a staple beauty and hygiene ingredient for Somali nomadic women, thanks to its antibacterial properties and nutrients. At Black Flamingo, we're bringing you a skincare range based on a centuries-old secret of East African beauty. The leaves are sundried on the land, and then crushed into a fine powder by the local women of the town. This natural, clean authentic process has been passed down from generation to generation."

Claiming to be the first contemporary qasil-based skincare range in the MENA region, Black Flamingo Beauty launched its debut collection in 2021. Currently, it offers three products: a pure qasil face mask, a qasil and turmeric face mask, and a qasil and pink clay face mask. "The collection is 100% natural, organic, cruelty-free, and paraben-free," Gulaid says. "All of it is ethically sourced. Most importantly, the products are highly effective in solving a wide range of skincare issues, and they work on all skin types and colors for men and women. Given its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, women traditionally used qasil to even treat things like psoriasis and eczema. Aesthetically, it is used to leave the skin soft, smooth and glowing. In short, it works. It has worked for centuries!"

Black Flamingo Beauty's Pure Qasil Face Mask. Image courtesy Black Flamingo Beauty.

Now, it is perhaps easy to grasp that an ancient tree's leaves form the main ingredient of a skincare routine- it is an occurrence not uncommon to many other cultures around the world. But the significance of qasil in Somaliland runs deeper than just beauty purposes. "Culturally, Somali women also come together to cook, clean, and socialize with qasil in their hair and on their face, often mixing it with other natural ingredients such as turmeric," Gulaid explains. "One of the things we enjoy is the smell of earthy green qasil paste which reminds us of nature, our grandmothers, and our aunties. There is a certain feeling of 'home,' and that's this sense of connectedness while nurturing your skin that we're sharing."

Growing up, Gulaid and Abdillahi were able to create such a bond with their mother owing to a weekly self-care day they shared every Friday- a practice that they now hope to inculcate in the lives of Black Flamingo Beauty's users too. "The Friday ritual my mother taught us is something her mother and grandmother did too," Gulaid recalls. "It was passed down from generation to generation, and it was not unique to our household. A weekend self-care day, where family members and friends come together and use qasil face masks together, is a wonderful opportunity to slow down, and bond with family and friends. It's something that's always been valued in Somali culture, and that's something we would love to see spread to other cultures. Already, many of our customers are now sharing this ritual with their families, daughters with their mothers, wives with their husbands, and even among friends, who are starting a self-care day with their loved ones."

But as much as Black Flamingo Beauty is about bringing Somaliland to the world, it has also been about giving back to the nation itself. "Our homeland is a huge part of our identity, and growing up, we knew we one day wanted to do something to help the people of Somaliland economically," Abdillahi says. "Sourcing quality qasil from there is one way to do this. It helps to provide jobs for local women, in particular. But there is also such a wealth of other natural resources in Somaliland, that one of our longer-term goals is to purchase our own farms, set up factories, create jobs for the local communities and bring these natural East African wonders to the world." But the siblings' philanthropic efforts don't end there. "Last Ramadan, we partnered with the Hargeisa orphanage, one of the largest centers for orphans in Somaliland that houses over 500 children, to raise awareness about its work," Gulaid reveals. "As part of a larger community enhancement and employment plan (focused primarily on women), we are looking to provide training and employment for young adults that are leaving the orphanage as they come of age."

Now, while Gulaid and Abdillahi hope to build up their enterprise's presence in their homeland, they have headquartered Black Flamingo in the UAE- a decision that the sisters hope will prove to be fruitful for their long-term plans. Indeed, Black Flamingo Beauty's growth comes at a time when there has been a sustained growth in the number of African-owned businesses in the nation. As per a June 2022 report by Dubai Chambers -a non-profit entity that empowers businesses in Dubai- a total of 26,420 African businesses have entered the market by registering with the Chambers. But Gulaid and Abdillahi note that for the UAE and the wider Middle East to continue welcoming African businesses, some stereotypes first need to be shattered. "We see great strides being made in the tech, fashion, music, and beauty industries- the UAE is doing well in that regard, but there's still a lot more to be done, especially in the rest of the MENA region," Abdillahi says. "I think the greatest challenge is changing the perception of Africa and African people from those in mainstream media, constantly showing wars and starving children. And rather, getting people to realize that each African country has its own rich, unique culture to share. There is much the Middle East can learn and gain from respectives African countries."

Black Flamingo Beauty co-founders Mariam Abdillahi and Mona Gulaid. Image courtesy Black Flamingo Beauty.

As Gulaid and Abdillahi work towards Black Flamingo Beauty's expansion, they remain aware that they too are tasked with the responsibility of breaking some preconceived notions. "For us, Black Flamingo Beauty was about bringing something from our birth home to our current home," Abdillahi says. "So, the challenge we face lies in the fact that we are entrepreneurs who are bringing something new and unknown to the region. Everyone knows shea butter and argan oil, but qasil is not known in this region; so, educating people has been our greatest challenge. We want to make qasil the next shea butter or argan oil, coming out of Africa!"

Bootstrapped as a startup so far, the co-founders are confident that Black Flamingo beauty can grow its presence beyond the MENA region. In particular, they hope to move into the United Kingdom- a country that is currently home to the largest Somali diaspora in all of Europe. "We are very pleased with our progress," Abdillahi says. "We have a solid brand identity, a quality product, great packaging, and big achievable plans. As we launch into the UK and grow our product range, we may look at a range of funding options to help expand our growth and scale up. If and when we are looking for funding, we think investors will be impressed with the brand we're building, and the quality and enormous potential of both our current and planned product ranges. We are the first UAE-based company to introduce qasil skincare to the market, and globally, we are very much ahead of the curve with not only qasil, but other tried-and-tested natural, organic skincare products we have planned, that hold huge appeal for the younger generation."

Indeed, the co-founding duo already have more ideas in the pipeline for the year ahead and beyond. "We have so many plans!" Abdillahi exclaims. "After expanding to the UK in the summer, we'll be looking at launching Black Flamingo Beauty in Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the end of the year. Once we're up and running in those markets, we'll be looking at the USA, hopefully early next year. Late 2024, we are also looking to launch a new product line we're busy working on. Stay tuned!"

Related: Shining A Light On The UAE's Culture: VIP & Protocol Events Management Makes A Mark As The First All-Emirati Events Management Company

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed

Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Aalia Mehreen Ahmed is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.

She is an MBA (Finance) graduate with past experience in the corporate sector, and was also co-founder of CyberSWIFTT- an anti-cyberbullying campaign that ran from 2017-2018 as part of the e7: Daughters of the Emirates program.

Ahmed is particularly keen on writing stories involving people-centric leadership, female-owned startups, and entrepreneurs who've beaten significant odds to realize their goals.

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