We were recently interviewed for WCAX’s Made in Vermont series, please find more details via: https://www.wcax.com/2023/01/16/mivt-colchester-business-specializes-frankincense-myrrh/
We support all of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the following ways and more.
By partnering with 250 Harvesters in turn
supporting over 1,500 family members.
By following fair trade practices, resin
prices have increased across the industry.
Established access to food staples
in partnership with local suppliers
via a cooperative model
Provide potable water sources to villages
in the Harvest Regions in turn helping to
establish community gardens
Educating harvesters and landowners
on the true value of their resources
Ensuring girls can go to school by providing faucets onsite
while removing the burden of water procurement for their
Providing access to clean water via solar-powered
wells, aiming for all villages in Somaliland
Setting up wells generated by solar panels aiming
to provide solar power to houses. Renewable energy
in use at our Vermont distillery
Providing stable income via a fair trade model,
paying higher prices for raw materials thus
putting pressure on other buyers to pay fairly
Driven by an ethical business model of directing
20% of gross revenue to community development
Building equal Harvester relationships,
sharing verified data to counter misinfo,
organic program improves resin value
Investing in research for a sustainable Boswellia industry,
clean energy in the harvesting region, and
supply chain transparency via organic certification
Continually educating people on fair trade, the real value
of the raw materials and responsible buying. This systems
approach increases efficiency while reducing energy use.
Solar-powered wells in Somaliland, renewable natural gas
in use at the Vermont distillery with a 2030 net zero
emission commitment from the tree to the bottle.
No use of chemicals in the production process.
Adhere to local and national regulations for disposal
of wastewater to prevent contamination of waterways.
Support local knowledge sharing internationally via
an ongoing tree health study. Findings continue to
shape harvesting best practices.
Fair & democratic partnerships,
proud to be black and woman owned!
Operate in partnership with Somaliland,
the US, clients around the globe, CFESS
and academic institutions.
We’ve had a lot of people reaching out with questions in response to the viral Vice News video, and while our instinct is to stay out of the fray, we also feel it’s important to address some key points.
Frankincense is the second largest industry in Somaliland, and there are tens of thousands of people dependent on it. The Vice video is focused on one particular corrupt businessman and a huge corporate entity who has been trying to control the frankincense trade in Somaliland for multiple years. They’ve employed (Western) academics to boost their claims of sustainability, pitted tribes against each other causing serious tribal conflicts, undercut smaller companies’ attempts to purchase resins by coercing harvesters not to sell to anyone except them, and taken other manipulative measures for their own interests. Anyone associated with them in Somaliland has drawn the scorn of many Somalis because they have purposely disrupted the frankincense sector in malicious ways for nothing more than their own bottom line (and perhaps some notoriety among the academic researchers involved in their scheme).
It is important to recognize that this whole situation has been perpetuated by Westerners who feel entitled to the natural resource of an unrecognized African country that they know practically nothing about. Most people have never (and will never) set foot in Somaliland. Aside from the fact that it’s not an internationally recognized country, many people view it through the lens of what they know about Somalia and its capital, Mogadishu, and therefore do not want to visit (a misguided and unfortunate view, but that’s a topic for another day). For this reason, it makes it even easier for bad actors to spread lies about what is or isn’t happening there. You can get away with claiming you built an entire school when none ever existed. You can claim an entire population of trees are dying, when the majority of trees are healthy and abundant. Who’s going to verify it?
The person featured in the video is in fact a corrupt business owner, and this is well known in Somaliland. He has ripped off many people, harvesters included, and gets what he wants through threats and intimidation. We can confirm this, having been on the receiving end of those threats, as well as running into difficulty securing resin for our business due to his obstruction. His reputation precedes him. It would be highly unlikely that companies and researchers who have been involved with him did so without any knowledge of his misdeeds. Draw your own conclusions for what that says about the integrity of those people or companies.
The Somali frankincense supply chain has functioned steadily for hundreds if not thousands of years, and weathered major fluctuations in demand. The corruption and chaos that we’re seeing today is a phenomenon that began in 2016 when a large Western corporation joined forces with a corrupt Somali businessman and Western researchers with the goal of controlling the Somali frankincense supply chain. Since then, they have thrown the sector into disarray by pitting tribes against each other, paying millions of dollars to a business owner who operates through illegal tactics such as theft, coercion, and intimidation, and worked with Western researchers to create a manufactured crisis all with the effect of stirring up chaos in the supply chain. We’ve been sourcing frankincense from Somaliland since 2004, and prior to 2016 never encountered the chaos, misinformation, and instability that we’re now dealing with.
What we want people to know about frankincense harvesting in Somaliland is that it has been ongoing for many generations without Western intervention. The trees are passed down generationally within a family. They are never for sale. Not even to a huge American corporation. Somalis hold a deep reverence for these trees and know that protecting them and harvesting them properly is of vital importance to the future of their children, grandchildren and beyond, who will also make a living from harvesting them.
We’re going to continue operating as we have all along by working directly with harvesting families, building those relationships of trust and respect, asking them what they need and doing our best to deliver. We’re going to continue to support Somali-led research of the frankincense trees and sustainable harvesting practices. We’re small compared to some of these other export companies, so our resources can only go so far and we work with a small number of farmers, but our success is largely due to the fact that we’re Somali owned, and all of our sourcing is done by Somalis who speak the language, live the culture, understand the clan structure and how relationships work within those structures. It’s vital to operating there, and those who don’t ultimately end up disrespecting the culture and the customs, and then come out and say everything is messed up there because it’s not functioning the way their Western mentality thinks it should. Just being more aware of these bad actors, not giving them your support, and not amplifying their false narratives can go a long way in helping to change the situation. It’s up to you to take all this information and draw your own conclusions when deciding where to purchase your frankincense oil. We wanted to be sure that it is clear to our customers what our values are, how we’ve navigated this situation, and that we’ve held true to our values since our inception 18 years ago, long before most of these companies were even in existence. Thank you for listening.
The Boswellness Team
Life moves fast, especially when you’re running your own business. We can get bogged down in the day to day operations, particularly as small business owners who wear many hats. Once in a while, we need to step back and look at the big picture as a reminder of where we began and where we are heading.
This week, as we celebrated the Labor Day holiday, we had a chance to reflect on the hard fought rights for workers over the centuries. And while this was a holiday being observed in the US and Canada, the idea that workers deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity is a universal truth. This prompted us to analyze the progress of our partnerships in Somaliland and with our clients. Being the data driven nerds we are, we decided to create an impact report. In the past, we’ve created different reports measuring different types of progress, including a sustainability report. But this feels more encompassing. It feels more impactful.
We were both humbled and amazed to see the figures associated with our little enterprise which began from a dream Mahdi had. And grateful because no matter how hard we worked in our 9-5 jobs in the service industry, or the tech industry, or whichever of the many positions we’ve held over the years to self fund this vision, we could have easily failed in the mission Mahdi had of giving back and helping his people rebuild and thrive. Stepping out of our comfort zone and into the unknown has given us this opportunity. If it weren’t for all of our clients supporting this endeavor, this dream might still be just that…a dream. As we enter our 18th year of business, we want to thank all of those who have supported us thus far, and give you a glimpse into what was made possible because of your support.
For months leading up to November 3, 2020, Americans were bombarded with subtle messaging to outright insistence the election would be hacked, rigged, or in some way invalid. Non-partisan analysts within and outside the US government expressed confidence in the integrity of the systems and subsequently the veracity of the results. A mob unhindered by truth came to DC seeking to overrule the voice of the people to maintain the power structures in which they believe and on which their privilege depends, much like was seen in the Southern States after the American Civil War. In response, state legislatures have been debating and passing voter suppression and disenfranchisement laws to provide the voting minority more tools to overrule the will of the majority. These laws are being touted, much like their forebearers in the form of voter ID, poll taxes, and literacy tests, as necessary to safeguard the integrity of voting and the very Republic.
Similarly in the Frankincense industry, a predisposed conclusion was formulated and broadcast, then leveraged to maintain a status quo which serves established power structures and a privileged few.
In 2016, after two weeks in Somaliland and even less in the Harvest Region of Sanaag, a so-called researcher making promises of large payouts via an unaffiliated USAID program had garnered enough “data” through unverified and anecdotal in person interviews to declare the Boswellia trees in the region to be in crisis. Within this timeframe, this person who had actually been hired as an independent auditor for the initiation of a tree health study, successfully undermined and replaced the Somaliland leads of the study with a single “researcher” claiming to be a PhD but later found to have forged credentials. Late 2016 and early 2017, these findings were published globally across print and online reports as substantiated fact.1
After the goal of sounding the alarm – receiving funding from interested businesses – was in hand, these parties began a publishing spree. Typically their reports quote their preceding reports to create the illusion of impartiality and historical relevance. Some reports have been sent to “pay to publish” journals which herald themselves as peer reviewed. If a report is published within weeks of its date of writing, how vigorous would you consider its peer review to have been? As with the initial unverified interviews, these publications have served to create an echo chamber while acting to shore up the poor methods and erroneous conclusions upon which stands this house of cards.
It is from this unassailable high ground, this group has pronounced the only way forward is to rely on blockchain.
Let’s begin by unpacking what blockchain is: a linear distributed database using hashes for verifiability.
So in simpler terms, this is a way to record data in order of occurrence that becomes harder to change as time passes and the more copies there are.
In other words, time based entries are chained together with each link having a way to verify it has not been changed after its creation.
While these mechanisms can be automated for things that only exist in the digital space, how can blockchain be effectively applied in the physical world?
Let’s consider an example. Toyota, the world’s largest automaker and originator of just in time (JIT) inventory, has spent the past 4-5 years to evaluate implementing blockchain for components that are made in a handful of known locations by known suppliers serving long standing contracts. Many of its components originate via its partially owned subsidiaries such as Denso. Toyota is the 10th largest corporation in the world with exceptional computational and IT resources. This speaks to the financial, human, and energy resources needed for blockchain use. Initially, they anticipate using this technology for data sharing such as for maintenance records and to aggregate vehicle sensor observations with other automakers towards the goal of autonomous operation.2,3,4,5
Now let’s compare this robust physical and digital infrastructure to the millenia old art of oleo gum resin harvesting in East Africa. Annual collection takes place in rural and rugged terrain, typically the Boswellia trees are visited 5-6 times over the course of a six week harvest. IT infrastructure is non-existent save for an occasional mobile signal. The harvester touching each tree is the person who is expected to digitize the tree ID, harvest date, yield amount and so forth. Furthermore, it is vital to understand these regions have no formal electric grid. At most residents rely on intermittent diesel generators or some small scale solar panels to recharge phones or perhaps run a radio. This inherently means any servers holding blockchain data will be housed elsewhere, limiting accountability to the communities reliant on these resins. Considering this, we can begin to see how blockchain as a “solution” to sustainable harvesting is deeply flawed.
And yet this fails to address the hundreds of years of upside down supply chains which have siphoned and continue to suck the resources of a continent to sustain post-colonial economies without regard for the impoverishment these activities perpetuate. Not to mention, ignores the input and expertise of the landowners and harvesters who have been stewards of these trees for generations. Who truly believes frankincense harvesters, the majority of whom don’t even use email and may have a non-touch screen pay as you go mobile phone, are going to adopt this new technology successfully?
So why try to shoehorn a technical solution onto an ethics problem?
As has been evident the past decade with greenwashed marketing messages or starting decades before with single percentage contributions to social responsibility initiatives: providing an unnecessarily complex solution to a simple problem serves to appease the buying public while confusing the real underlying issues so corporate bad actors can continue to pillage unabated.
The proven mechanisms providing economic justice over the past century include:
- Organized Labor: this can and must be expanded among rural producers.
- Collective Bargaining: as fair trade principles look to establish annual sustainable pricing, organized producers can do the same with or without paying per product to international auditors.
- Corporate Accountability: including supply transparency such as source, cost and upstream value. This must become required of all public companies and encouraged for all private.
- Profit Sharing: companies know the net profits from their products, these profits must be shared with those producing the ingredients for these products if we want to create an equitable world.
- Oversight: government and NGOs roles are to ensure these tools are used as intended and to fine or shame bad actors.
These common sense solutions are available to ensure producers share in the wealth of their goods while applying ethical standards to corporations regardless of size.
Any solution which is applied on behalf of growing and harvesting communities without their vision and voices is more likely to further disenfranchise and impoverish than to reverse global inequities.
The history of these resins shows time and again how multinational concerns use their market position to drive prices down at the source in order to accumulate wealth for themselves.
While I’m happy to discuss my decades of Systems Engineering experience beginning during my undergraduate studies, the point is: Applying technology for the sake of technology has no inherent value.
Much like providing self-serving solutions to a manufactured crisis does not benefit the greater good.
The goal of Boswellness is to empower indigenous producers leading the way forward in both ecological and economic terms. We have the opportunity to amplify and uplift the voices of those touching these trees and other plants while creating inclusive solutions.
- CITES Twenty-fifth meeting of the Plants Committee Online, 2-4, 21 and 23 June 2021. Specifically pg. 2 section 4.2b, pg. 7, pg. 9 section 15B, pg. 14 Annex 6 section 1. https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/com/pc/25/Documents/E-PC25-25-Add.pdf
- Toyota Motor Corporation, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota
- Toyota pushes into blockchain tech to enable the next generation of cars, Tech Crunch, https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/22/toyota-pushes-into-blockchain-tech-to-enable-the-next-generation-of-cars/
- Toyota Blockchain Lab, Corporate Press Release, https://global.toyota/en/newsroom/corporate/31827481.html
- DENSO Corporation, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denso
Please enjoy this article about Boswellness from Seven Days (a Vermont weekly publication): https://www.sevendaysvt.com/vermont/vermont-based-boswellness-uplifts-african-communities-that-supply-frankincense-and-myrrh/Content?oid=31896724
Frankincense and Myrrh: A Distiller’s Story
Creating a successful business with a positive social impact is no
easy task. Jamie Garvey, co-founder of a company importing
and distilling frankincense and myrrh resins from Somaliland,
reports on the challenges.
We thoroughly enjoyed giving a tour to a group of Certified Aromatherapists at our distillation facility. One of them, Kc Rossi, who is also a talented business coach, wrote this wonderful piece about her visit to our distillery.
Boswellness–in collaboration with Somcable, Omaar Int’l, Mount Kenya University (MKU) and Centre for Frankincense Environmental and Social Studies (CFESS)–is pleased to announce a conference assessing 21st Century Challenges and Opportunities. This Somali-led conference, the first of its kind, will take place October 7 & 8, 2017, in Hargeisa, Somaliland, bringing together scientists, sociologists, harvesters, land owners, business owners and other stakeholders. The focus of the conference is supporting research and education for sustainable frankincense production. We are very excited about it!
We don’t post enough about myrrh. Here you go!
What Is Myrrh? What Are Myrrh Uses?
In the horn of Africa, a small native tree, covered in spines, grows in the arid deserts. When the bark is wounded through to the sapwood, the tree exudes an aromatic, oily, yellow oleo gum resin that eventually hardens into a hard yellow-reddish opaque globule that can be easily harvested. The resin has an evocative smell and has been widely used in ceremonies and (Click here to continue reading…)