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Abi Oyepitan and Liha Okunniwa

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The beauty world is full of success stories, but none quite like that of LIHA. Founded in 2017 by Liha Okunniwa and Abi Oyepitan, it wasn’t industry pedigree that propelled it to the top (Abi was a professional athlete and Liha worked in publishing). Instead, a commitment to natural ingredients, a passion for sharing Yoruba culture and a keen intuition for what people really want on their bathroom shelves has turned LIHA from kitchen-table start-up to bona fide cult brand.

When we catch up over video call, it becomes instantly apparent why Abi and Liha are so good at what they do. Even through the Zoom screen, the duo emit the kind of glowing radiance that comes from years of attentive skincare. However, their mandate isn’t solely about the external. Every LIHA product is formulated with attention to how it makes you feel and the ritual it can inspire. This is beauty blended with wellbeing – a formula on which we are entirely sold.

The success trajectory of LIHA has been incredibly impressive. Where did the idea start?   

Liha: We were always getting asked what we used on our skin and realised there were all these African beauty products and secrets that people weren’t aware of. We wanted to introduce them to a wider audience and share the amazing stories behind Yoruba culture. Our whole ethos is: buy less, buy better. We all have way too many plastic bottles on our bathroom shelves, so we want to empower people to know that they can take one tub of shea butter (which is the base of all your creams and conditioners) and use it to replace eight or nine products, minimising waste.

In Yoruba culture, beauty isn’t like we know it in the Western world, it’s more ritualistic. There’s a reason why you do everything.

What lessons have you learnt from steering a young brand through the pandemic? 

Liha: We were due to scale up; we’d just got an office and were in the middle of a raise, then Covid hit and everything had to be made small again. We had to go back to basics, being a skeletal operation and communicating directly with customers. There have been so many learnings from that. You have to learn to enjoy the journey; there’s always going to be challenges, there will always be failures. That’s been really hard for me, coming from a background where if something goes wrong you can’t afford to eat. But being able to accept that things don’t go to plan, but you can prepare for that, and stepping back to look at the bigger picture, has been important. 

Not only are you co-founders, you’re great friends. How did you meet and how do you blend friendship with business?

Liha: We met at Brunel University in 1998 – the year Lauryn Hill’s first album dropped. Abi was really trendy because she lived in west London and had all these vintage clothes, and I was fresh from the country and a bit of a slacker. We bonded over the fact that we both had natural hair, which was really rare back then; I think there were three of us on campus.

Abi: Working together is like being in a marriage. Everything becomes intertwined and you know each other better than anyone else. Having open and honest conversations is essential. We see things differently but that helps, it’s better than ‘yes-ing’ each other all of the time. It’s just about finding that synergy.

Our whole ethos is: buy less, buy better. We all have way too many plastic bottles on our bathroom shelves.

For those new to the brand, if they were to start with one LIHA product, which one should it be and why?

Liha: The Gold Shea Butter. It’s so rich in vitamins A and E that it’s wonderful as a balm and can really help with eczema and dry skin. You can use it as a base to make your own products, too. It’s so versatile, that’s why it’s called Woman’s Gold in West Africa.

LIHA advocates the importance of self-care, something that can easily be overlooked in busy lives. What are your tips for working it into the everyday?  

Abi: Self-care is about being intentional, it’s about having a ritual, not a routine, as you really have to be present. I’m not perfect; I have a toddler running around, so any type of daily ritual is nearly impossible. But I do try and check in with myself daily, to see how I’m doing, and have at least 5-10 minutes of meditation time in the morning.

What’s in store for LIHA in 2022?

Liha: So many exciting things! We are launching on to some new retailer platforms and will have some exclusive products dropping on the site later in the year.

When LIHA launched in 2017, its use of vegan ingredients was ahead of its time. What was the motivation to create in this way? 

Abi: Over the last 10 years the internet has democratised the beauty industry. Now consumers are able to find out what’s in their products and the skincare benefits of ingredients for themselves. That’s made a huge difference to what they want. We saw there was a demand for vegan products, but not much was on the market. We don’t want to alienate anybody, so whether you’re vegan or not, you can use the products, and they work. 

How does sustainability manifest in the brand? 

Liha: We’re both very environmentally conscious, so it was important that everything was completely reusable and recyclable. We started the brand in our kitchens, where Abi and I handmade everything, but as we’ve grown, we’ve been careful to select small, family-run factories, so that everything is still handmade in the UK. We’re currently going through the process of becoming B Corp certified, which is really exciting and will ensure that no matter how big we get, all of our ethics and sustainability processes are in place, from production processes to employees. 

What have been the challenges of launching a brand into the beauty industry? 

Abi: There have been a lot, but one of the things that helped us initially was not knowing anything about the industry. We didn’t have a big plan and that naivety meant that we didn’t see any challenges, we just thought: ‘We can do that’. 

Liha: I think we weren’t prepared for how fast it took off, and how much work is involved when something snowballs. When you grow really quickly there’s a gap between what you can and can’t do financially, so you have to look into investment, and that was a baptism of fire. Learning that people can walk into a room with an idea and walk out with two million pounds, was like, ‘Oh my God!’.

Have you always felt spoken to by the beauty industry and have your personal experiences had an impact on LIHA and why you started it? 

Abi: Personally, I didn’t feel catered for by the mainstream. I always knew where I could get my shea butter and African black soap from, but as a kid, there was a sense of having to make do and improvise. I remember seeing a hairspray on TV and buying it to make my hair stay slick, thinking it was for me, and it certainly wasn’t. Even with make-up, I always wanted to go into Boots or Selfridges and get that high-end product that had the right texture and look.

Liha: That was a big part of where LIHA came from. By bringing something to the market that you and your friends and family want to see, it means so many other people discover it. It’s not just for Black skin, it’s an amazing beauty secret that works for many different people. 

LIHA is a celebration of Yoruba traditions. Can you tell us a little more about the importance of sharing these?

Abi: In Yoruba culture, it isn’t beauty like we know it in the Western world, it’s more ritualistic. There’s a reason why you do everything; you might use shea butter at a certain time or mix black soap with palm oil to venerate a god. A lot of those things were stigmatised because of colonisation, and we wanted to venerate those more traditional goddesses and practices. 

Liha: A lot of wellness ingredients that have been discovered in West Africa have historically been destructive to both the economy and the environment. By bringing these ingredients to a wider market, we can transform those trade routes and make them less harmful. There’s one ingredient we are introducing soon that isn’t known about in the UK at all; it’s brightening and the colour is beautiful – we’re really excited.

What beauty rituals did you grow up with?

Liha: My mum was an aromatherapist and she had this big abalone shell in the bathroom that she’d mix oils in every morning. She’d put in some jojoba and then add in whatever other oils she needed for that day and massage it into her body. That’s always stuck with me.  

Abi: In West Africa, we’ve got a natural loofah made from soft bark shavings, which you put soap on when you’re in the bath or shower. My mum used to scrub us down with this then douse us in shea butter. In Western culture, we’d call that a ritual, but in Yoruba that’s just how we wash!    

Can you talk us through your daily skincare routines?  

Liha: I like to use acids (I use Murad) and I always use either our Oju Omi or Orinrin cleanser. I give myself facials once a week and use an LED face mask twice a week throughout winter, to keep my skin tone even. Aside from our own products, I couldn’t live without Caudalie’s instant detox mask and Holika aloe vera gel, which I apply as a serum.

Abi: I’ve got oily-to-combination skin and had a big breakout a few months ago, which left me with quite a few dark spots. So in my night-time routine I’ve started incorporating Paula’s Choice BHA salicylic acid after I cleanse with our Oju Omi Cleansing Mud. For my morning routine, I use our Osé Gidi Black Soap to cleanse my face, spritz with rose water and then apply Pai’s rosehip oil.

What must-have ingredient should we be incorporating into our beauty regimes? 

Liha: Jojoba oil is wonderful for facial massage and so underrated. Facial massage is a great way to check in with your skin, see what it needs and act accordingly. Just do it while you’re watching TV.

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