Interview with Tammy Nott, Mbiri Founder

Twenty-six year old Tammy Nott founded Mbiri in April 2015. We caught up with this amazing femAle entrepreneur to learn more about her line and the work she does with the Himba tribe in Namibia.

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At BeautyScapes we like to explore the roots and traditions behind everyone's individual outlook on beauty.  Tell us more about growing up in Namibia and your relationship with the Himba people as well as the inspiration and lessons they provide.

Having spent a-lot of my childhood in Kaokoalnd I learnt so much about the Himba people. Every time I would travel to the desert with my mother I was constantly reminded about how we complicate our lives and the Himba people expressed a way of living simply but fully. I was constantly inspired by how they lived in this arid and desolate place and had no notion of interest in the western world, I always feel a sense of being grounded whenever I visit Kaokoland.   

The Himba women are very proud people, and still have strong traditions that they hold dearly. Himba women are always well groomed and they also follow a ritual of applying “make-up” just as we do in the western world. Himba women smear themselves with a mixture they create at home. This mixture includes various ingredients such herbs, butter fat and ochre. Ochre comes from the ground and is a stone that is a deep red in colour. Not only do the Himba women believe that this colour beautiful but it also protects them from the harsh desert sun. A key ingredient in this mixture is Namibian Myrrh. Namibian Myrrh gives the mixture a unique fragrance. Namibian Myrrh is collected from a plant that grows only in the Namibian desert, no where else in the world. During the dry seasons this plant, Commiphora wildii, exudes a golden coloured resin that the women collect and burn into the mixture to give it a fragrance, in other terms it is what they use to create their traditional perfume. The tradition of collecting the Myrrh is passed down from mother to daughter. When a girl becomes a teenager she taught how to mix and apply the “make-up” and perfume. I have witnessed this ritual many times and the women look beautiful after applying the mixture onto their skin, it creates a beautiful shimmer and colour against the desolate backdrop of the Namibian desert - this is inspirational on its own! I hope that through Mbiri I can keep this tradition alive buy telling its story. Mbiri is not just a product, it is story of Africa. 

Just a little background, my mother works for an NGO based in Namibia and she is a plant ecologist. She did the research in Namibia on desert plants and their traditional uses. Through this the Commiphora wildii plant was discovered. She worked closely with the Himba women to find out where the plants grows, when it exudes resin, how the ladies use it etc. She then discovered that an essential oil can be extracted from the resin. She set up a community-owned enterprise which is owned by five conservancies in the area. Himba women now commercially harvest the resin and earn an income from what they collect. The resin is sent to a community factory where the essential oil is extracted. Mbiri buys the Namibian Myrrh essential oil directly from this community enterprise!

Where does the name Mbiri come from? What is the meaning behind it?  Namibian Myrrh resin is traditionally called Omumbiri by the Himba people, Mbiri is a derivative of this word. 

What was your idea of natural beauty before Mbiri and has anything changed your views on it  now that you are in the industry? 

Before I started Mbiri, my knowledge on natural skincare was very limited until the business idea popped into my head. Even though I had grown up with the Namibian Myrrh project, I never thought of it as a business opportunity, until I randomly attended a soap making course. From here the natural beauty world became my life and it has been an amazing journey ever since. I started by researching a lot on the internet and in books and making home remedies in my garage where I experimented with many different ingredients and mixtures! I attended a formulation course as well as a perfumery course. I learnt so much about good and bad ingredients, as well as finding the lies and false claims so many beauty brands make. I found myself reading all the ingredients on all the products in a shop and slowly my knowledge grew. It is all about educating yourself and not being fooled by what you told!

Mbiri is not only all natural but also empowering to the Himba women.  How do you ensure fair-trade and sustainable practices? 

This is always a tough one because I am not constantly on the ground while harvesting takes place, however I know how the project was set-up and I have witnessed many harvests taking place. Every women has to be registered as a harvester before she can harvest any resin to sell and when she registers she is given training on how to harvest sustainably. With Namibian Myrrh it is relatively easy as the resin falls onto the ground so the women collect the resin from the ground, this way the plant is not damaged in any way. I have also been to many community meetings where trading has been discussed. It is important to get know the project or enterprise you are sourcing from and the best way to do that is to spend time in the area with the people involved. I have interviewed many Himba women and they are all grateful for the enterprise as they are earning money they very much need. A survey was done to see how the women spend their money and it was discovered that they spend the money predominantly on food and medical assistance. The amazing thing about this project is that the harvest takes place during the dry seasons when families would need the money as drought effects these areas. 

What has been the biggest challenge you've faced thus far? 

To be honest my biggest challenge is very cliche however a very real challenge - finding funding or money to grow and improve the business. Mbiri has something unique to offer however it also costs a lot of money to compete against the larger corporations that are well established in the industry!

What are you most proud of and where do you hope to see Mbiri skincare go, next? Any new products in the works? 

I am proud every day, for me there is nothing better than walking into a store and seeing your product on the shelf! I am hoping to take Mbiri further into the international market not only to provide the industry with an effective, ethical product but to tell a story! We are busy working a new product which I am very excited about - stay tuned to find out more! 

Favorite advice you've been given?

"Focus on what you are good at” is the best advice I was given! We can’t do and be everything,  we need to play to our strengths and get help when it is needed!

Describe your skincare/beauty regime for us! Any secrets we must know about? 

My skincare regime is very simple, I use only natural products and I wear very little make-up. I exfoliate my face and body once a week and I always ensure my skin is well hydrated with good ingredients. Hydrated skin is healthy skin. It is so important that the skin is actually being “fed” with real and effective nutrients, just because it feels good doesn’t mean it is good. I also use body oil once a week to dose my skin with raw oils that help to revitalize the skin. Little side note - Namibian Myrrh essential oil is great for acne or pimples!

Any trends/predictions for the beauty industry?  Major differences/similarities between US and South African beauty? Favorite American brands?  Any favorite independent SA brands we should check out? 

For my facial regime I like to use a brand called Victorian Garden, a cost effective and beautiful range, and of course all natural! The only US brand I have used is Burts Bees, which I love! Especially their lip gloss range as it is difficult to find good natural lip products. The industry is definitely moving more and more towards going natural, in South Africa there is a huge movement towards going green, however I think the big problem comes with cost! Natural products are generally more expensive than conventional products and this effects consumer decisions greatly! It all about educating people about the long term effects of using synthetic ingredients and of course expressing to people that supporting smaller brands with ethical back drops will improve society as a whole rather than just making the rich richer. 

Your pictures are so dreamy, we've got a major case of wanderlust!  Any must - sees, do, go recommendations for those of us planning a trip to Namibia? 

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You have to visit Kaokoland in Namibia to see the incredible desert and see where and how the Himba people live. The pictures are dreamy because this place is dreamy! I can guarantee that the feeling I get when I go there you will also get! The feeling of being grounded and connected. There really is no place like it. A little treasure hidden in the corner of of Namibia that very few will experience, a piece of the world that still is raw and untouched.

Sable Massingill