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East meets West: the rise of henna

Lawsonia inermis. The flowering, many-branched shrub commonly known as henna is indigenous to the tropical, semi-arid regions of Asia, with plants renowned for being of the finest quality cultivated in southeastern Iran and northern India. In this hot climate, heavy soils trap the scarce moisture, and the dry conditions encourage the production of tannin: the rich dye which gives the henna leaf its vibrant staining properties.

A modern market

Henna has a long history of use thought to date back as far as 2,000 BC. Traditionally used to dye the skin, hair and leather, as well as for its medicinal, antiseptic and antibacterial qualities, henna is now most commonly used for ceremonial body decoration. The dye may be mixed with water or rosewater to create a rich, vibrant colour, although techniques differ depending on the region. A rare Iranian ink and watercolour painting dated back to the sixteenth century depicts a young woman applying henna to her feet with a gold basin full of the liquid dye to her side.

Yet a modern henna market has also developed due to increased customer interest in natural hair products. Between 2009 and 2013, India introduced five times as many henna-based hair colourants as South Korea, and a 2009 study conducted on the henna export market in Bangladesh recorded a rise in small scale farmers growing the plant to meet national demand. The researchers found that at least 20% of the small-scale farmers had dedicated an average 16.7% of their farmland to growing mehedi (Lawsonia inermis) for sale to middlemen.

In the same four year period, botanical and herbal claims accounted for 73% of the Chinese colourant market. Interestingly, despite many of these products being manufactured in China, sellers continue to adopt Indian packaging to add an aura of authenticity and quality.

Trade restrictions

Despite increasing western demand, economic sanctions implemented by America between Iranian and American banks make it very difficult for businesses to build a relationship without a distributor. For this reason, the supply chain for Lush’s henna is more complex than most ingredients.

Finding a distributor who could supply both the quality and transparency Lush requires was the job of Lush ingredients buyers and researchers Jo Bridger and Mark Rumbell, who currently work with a Berlin-based, botanical materials distributor to source the material. The distributors supply henna from an Iranian sister company run by the same family, because of the difficulty in establishing direct business relationships with the European market due to these sanctions.

Jo explains: “My first role in buying was as a researcher, where I was given the job of finding out information that would help buyers make better decisions. At that point, we knew very little about henna and yet it was a massive product. So five years ago I was asked to find out as much as I could about on henna, its traditions, how it was produced, and more.

“The distributor we now buy from provides beautiful Iranian henna and offers us much more traceability along their supply chains via the Iranian arm of their business. We have been invited to visit Iran many times, but we could not get travel insurance, as there was no British Embassy in the country. Likewise there was no Iranian Embassy in the UK for us to get visas. It was only in 2017, when the diplomatic relationship between our countries was restored, that we were able to go to Iran.”

With Lush purchasing over 60 tonnes of henna a year, it was an opportunity to finally meet the brothers and sisters who run the Iranian branch of the company, including general manager Ghassem and company chairman Mohammad. Both are younger brothers of Yasser who manages the German distributor, with whom Lush has regular contact.

Yet, despite being able to travel to Iran for the first time, restrictions put in place by the British Government still made Jo and Mark’s visit problematic. That’s because the best growing conditions for henna can be found in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province: the poorest region of Iran, which borders Pakistan. The Balochi people living here are predominantly Sunni rather than Shia Muslims and consequently face discrimination and high levels of poverty which has facilitated the rise of drug trafficking in the area.

Jo explains: “The British Government recommends you don’t travel to the Sistan and Baluchestan Province, and, because of this, our insurer won’t let us go. So we had to have this discussion with Ghassem and Mohammad because we really wanted to see the farms. They suggested that we go to Bandar Abbas, in the neighbouring Hormozgan Province, as, while the henna there is not of high enough quality for Lush to buy, it goes through the same process as the henna we buy .”

Back to the source

Iran is the seventeenth largest country in the world, and so while the Homozgan Province climate is still suitable for henna growing, its culture is different, with the population mainly composed of Afro-Iranians who have a different dialect, food and dress.

When Jo and Mark visited the farms, they were able to learn more about henna growing in the region, as Mark explains. “The price of henna is good but profit is low as the plants are only harvested three times a year in contrast to other fruit and vegetables that can be gathered frequently and need less land.”

He continues: “The area we were in had been growing henna for over 100 years. Red henna needs to be replanted every 35 to 50 years and can grow from a dry branch planted into the ground with 30 days of watering. After that, it’ll need watering every three to four days depending on heat. Adults harvest the crop which normally takes around one day, while the children play in the fields. The henna is then dried in the sun for two to three days within walking distance of the farm.”

But henna is a secondary plant here, grown alongside the more lucrative date crops, as Mark saw for himself. “Date trees wind-pollinate themselves and don’t require much maintenance.  An adult tree can produce 45 to 100 kilograms of dates a year, which grow in clumps, so are harvested quickly. They can also can be stored for long periods of time but are usually sold quickly due to the popularity of the sweet fruit.”

Milling in Yazd

The henna that Lush’s Iranian suppliers source from both the Homozgan Province and Sistan and Baluchestan Province go to the same place to be milled: the city of Yazd. The government has maintained the upkeep of this city’s ancient underground canal system linked to the old milling industry, and the four remaining mills still use traditional methods to sieve crops.

The owner of one such mill, Mr Turk, is a henna connoisseur, able to tell the origin of the powder with just a glance. Mark recalls: “He would use a knife just like one you would use to sample cheese, poke it into each bag and extract a little henna then tell us where it was from just because of the colour and grade. He would say things like “This henna is from this town; it’s very windy so there’s lots of dust in the leaves.”

Initial sieving and quality tests take place at Mr Turk’s factory, where the henna leaves are  flattened by a large, 50-year-old stone wheel. These ancient wheels are incredibly durable - typically lasting 70 to 100 years. One concession to modernity has been the use of a mechanised wheel rather than one powered by a camel or donkey.

Jo and Mark learned that since the recent conflicts in Syria and Iraq began, Mr Turk’s exports to other Arab countries had been reduced to 10%, putting Lush’s buying into perspective. “We’re a really big customer for them”, says Jo, “but actually we’re only a big customer because of what’s happened. So that was a sad, poignant thing to think about. As a company we have so much purchasing power within the henna market and that’s scary.

“I said to Mr Turk, ‘Now that Britain and Iran have a diplomatic arrangement, we [Lush] can visit but how has this affected your life? And he gave a really lovely answer (I later found out that he was a spiritual man) and said, “If you live in a narrow alley, then you have to have a good relationship with your neighbours.”

Quality control in Kashmar

Once processed, the henna is then transported from Yazd to a factory in Kashmar, east Iran, run by Ghassem, Mohammad and further family members. Here, employees sieve it more thoroughly, perform microbiology and quality control tests and package the henna for a European market.

General manager Ghassem established the business at the age of only 23, while studying at university, and describes the startup process as challenging: “It was initially very, very hard because we didn’t have any money and we started with very low capacity for work. Iran has the climate to grow many plants, and, on the other hand, Europe has lots of potential to use these products but not the weather to produce the plants. We looked to customers in Europe who want quality and quantity. At first we had no experience but now we have much more. We can touch this industry now.”

Ghassem’s younger brother Mohammad, who is a chairman of the company, describes the process the henna goes through at the Kashmir factory: “We buy the henna that has been milled, and use an instrument to sieve it again, and package it because the milling in Yazd is very traditional and not the highest quality. If, for example, one of our customers needed henna which was milled down to a different size, we would produce this for them.

“We also have a laboratory where we test the henna for colour, quantity of dust, moisture and size, all of which are very important. We can also analyse pesticide usage there.”

Learning about the range of tests and additional services available was of particular interest to Mark, who explains: “If you grow tomatoes in your garden, you can’t expect the same number and the same quality each year. It’s the same with henna. Because of this, Lush get a sample from every batch of henna we order before we buy, which we test for colour and microbiology. But now we know that you can also buy henna that has been sieved once, twice or not at all, we’re going to get some samples to compare.”

A family business

Their factory may be characterised by extremely high standards (both Mark and Jo’s shoes were mechanically deep cleaned before they looked around) but running a business based on traditional family values is incredibly important to both Ghassem and Mohammad. The former explains: “Family is very important in Iran. When you have a business family, you see them everyday and you are in connection with them all the time. We like to eat dinner and speak about work; it is very good for us. We enjoy our business all the time.”

Indeed, Ghassem’s motivation for selling to a European market was also based on principles he learned from his father. He explains, “We wanted to make more jobs for other people and European people use these products a lot. We work not just for ourselves, because it was the way of my father to live for other people. It was very important that we help other people and so when we started up I thought about ways we could employ more people and colleagues.”

He continues: “Many farmers in Iran are illiterate. They only know agriculture as corn, but corn [growing] is from many many years ago. The world of today is different and we have new products, like liquorice, eucalyptus and mint. So we pay part of our money to train farmers to grow their knowledge so they can harvest other seeds. Training other people is a very important policy in our company. These people are our friends and family.”

This family ethos is felt by employees too. During the visit, Jo was pulled to one side by Azade, the factory manager who had been in charge for two years. She recalls: “She took me to one side and told me ‘Four months after I first got this job I found out I was pregnant, and the way they’ve treated me is amazing.’

Jo was touched by the gesture: “I had no insight of what a woman’s experience of life was like until I spoke to her. But she felt comfortable enough to say that and wanted to say that.

Women, their bodies and what they wear are always lazily used as markers of how ‘free’ a country is, so to hear from Azede about her life, job and family gave me more insight, than just the pictures on the internet I had seen - of nameless women wearing chadors.”

Buying responsibly

While the barriers in place make direct trade with henna farmers impossible, visiting the people who make up the different links in the supply chain is essential to the buyers, as Jo explains: “Of course, the supply chain isn’t completely integrated. The farmer sells to the miller, the miller sells to the processor, but they all know each other. Of course, there’s profit to be made. If we ask the factory to do microbiology testing, it only adds value at the top layer, it doesn’t affect the farmers at the bottom.”

There are also other factors to consider, according to Jo:  “Last year we used approximately 60 tonnes of henna and 30 tonnes of indigo powder worldwide. When you’re buying that much material, especially as Lush’s business grows, resources could become finite, particularly with the rise of climate change. If there’s a crop failure, or it comes from a country where there are ethical social issues, what is our role in that?”

These difficult questions shed a little light on the complexities of being an ingredients buyer and navigating an industry of increasingly limited resources. Finding the right supplier provides an opportunity to regenerate struggling ecosystems and work with local communities. Business decisions then have the potential to have a massive impact on people and place.

Jo concludes: “When you are able to have a close, trusting relationship with suppliers, you can make improvements because other people, the farmers especially, have more autonomy and your supply chain can become more sustainable - perhaps even regenerative.

“That’s where Lush need to be, not just for the sake of our business but for the sake of the small farmers we work with all around the world.”

Images (taken by Jo Bridger) in order: Mr Ibrahim inspects the henna crop in the Hormozgan Province, quality controller Masooma in the lab at Kashmar, the henna mill in Yazd and mill owner Mr Turk inspecting henna samples from different sources.

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