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Somaliland’s frankincense brings gold to companies. Its women pay the price | Somaliland

“I’m not speaking metaphorically – a bottle of doTERRA essential oil can change the world,” says David Stirling, a mild, clean-cut, middle-aged man. His largely female audience cheers and whistles, as if for a celebrity. Stirling, then CEO and co-founder of doTERRA, a Utah-based multi-level marketing company that sells essential oils, is making his opening remarks in September 2021 to the packed Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City.

In a setting reminiscent of a megachurch, Stirling’s soft-spoken voice echoes. He reminds the audience that the world needs healers more than ever – “and that’s you”, he says, to raucous applause. He quotes CS Lewis, speaks of miracles and says he’s seen people turn to doTERRA in their lowest moments. People cry.

DoTERRA, which generates more than $2bn in annual sales, promises its products are better than those of other companies – the oils are purer and more sustainably harvested, workers are paid better wages and local communities are supported. On its website, doTERRA highlights its frankincense supply chain as an example of how it creates “more stable and reliable income, fairness, employment and security” for harvesters and sorters.

Frankincense, distilled from the resin of Boswellia trees found in the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s oldest traded commodities, most recognized as one of the gifts brought to the newborn Jesus by the three wise men in the Bible. It’s also one of the most highly marked-up – a half-ounce bottle of doTERRA’s frankincense oil retails for $100. DoTERRA’s website says it’s revered for its ability to “rejuvenate skin when applied topically and to promote cellular health and immunity … when taken internally”.

The mostly female “wellness advocates” who sell doTERRA’s products often say its ethical approach is what attracted them. But a two-year investigation has revealed a different reality in Somaliland, a self-declared republic north of Somalia and the source of much of doTERRA’s frankincense.

More than a dozen women working for doTERRA’s frankincense supplier, a Somaliland company called Asli Maydi, have told the Fuller Project that the company routinely underpays its workers, requires them to work in harsh conditions that are linked to health problems and is led by a politically powerful man whom multiple women have accused of sexual harassment and assault.

Presented with the Fuller Project’s findings, doTERRA said it would “temporarily suspend” its operations in Somaliland and was working to engage a third-party team to help it investigate the matter. It said it was “concerned” by the allegations of poor work conditions, which were “‘inconsistent with our current understanding of the operations”, and found the allegations of sexual misconduct “troubling”. DoTERRA “prides itself on supporting and empowering women” and plans to investigate the allegations of misconduct once it can access the country safely, the company said in an emailed statement.

Asli Maydi’s owner, Barkhad Hassan, did not respond to specific questions about the claims of mistreatment and assault, but he denied all allegations against him and said he had done much to improve the industry.

Broken promises

Thirteen frankincense sorters – female workers who divide frankincense resin by color, grade and quality – spoke to the Fuller Project anonymously about working nine to 12 hours a day, up to six days a week in a warehouse for Asli Maydi. Many say the company lured them with promises of a fair wage, food supplies and money for their children’s school fees.

According to a supervisor in the Erigavo warehouse and multiple other women, Asli Maydi pledged to build housing near the sorters’ warehouses and to provide transportation to and from work, but the offers never materialized. Another sorter says she walked two hours each way to the warehouse in Erigavo.

The women say they made 10,000 Somaliland shillings, slightly over $1 a day, for sorting 6lbs of resin. While this pay rate is typical for sorters in the region, a fair wage would be about $2.50 per pound, about $15 a day, based on what these women would need to support their families, says Amina Souleiman, director of the charity Horn of Africa, which is advocating for Somaliland’s harvesters and sorters.

One of the 13 women says the warehouse had no toilets or running water. She says women developed kidney complications and urinary tract infections from being unable to go to the bathroom. The women also say they weren’t given breaks and had to ask to use the restrooms in neighboring houses.

A bowl of frankincense resin.
Frankincense sorters divide resin by color, grade and quality. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Another says she’s barely able to walk because of back pain caused by carrying pounds of resin every day. She says she had to keep her job at Asli Maydi because her husband died and she must provide for her eight children. “You can imagine life is very hard,” she says.

On its website, doTERRA says it “supports the community by paying Somaliland women to clean and sort the resins all while ensuring fair labor conditions and promoting safe and healthy working environments free from exploitive practices, harassment and discrimination”. But several of the women complain of back pain, as well as headaches and vision impairment that they say came from sitting on the floor, hunched over dusty, raw resin and carrying heavy loads of sorted resin around the warehouse.

In its statement, doTERRA said its “highest priority is the safety and proper treatment of each of our employees”, adding: “Just as important is the safety and proper treatment of everyone in our global supplier network. All vendors are required to abide by our stringent Code of Conduct to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, fair and on-time payments and respectful and ethical conduct.”

‘I didn’t tell anyone what happened’

On condition of anonymity, three Somali women told the Fuller Project about their experiences with Asli Maydi owner Hassan and his employees.

One woman, 22, says that when she went to Hassan’s bungalow in Erigavo for a job interview last year, he asked to take photos of her in underwear. She says Hassan intimidated her by saying he already had a photo of her and could edit it to remove her clothes. She says her family is “very poor” and that she needed work, so she agreed. She says a white man who was with Hassan took photographs of her in the underwear but stopped when a woman arrived to clean the house. (A woman who also asked not to be named for fear of retribution, corroborated this account, telling the Fuller Project that when she went to clean Hassan’s bungalow during the time in question, she saw a young woman being photographed in underwear.)

The young woman says she ran to the bathroom to change and asked Hassan to delete the photos. “I never went back,” she says. “I feel shame that I did this and worry so much about the pictures.” Another woman shared a similar experience of abuse.

A third woman says that in the winter of 2016, when she was 16, she heard about a job opportunity with Asli Maydi. She says two Asli Maydi associates drove her from her home in Erigavo to what she was told was the work site in a neighboring town. (In rural Somaliland, there’s limited public transportation and women often have no choice but to rely on strangers for rides.) When they arrived, the site turned out to be a private house – the scene of a party hosted by Hassan and other Asli Maydi employees. The woman says she accepted a non-alcoholic fruit drink called Rani. After she drank it, she says she doesn’t remember what happened. The next day, she woke up in another house and knew she’d been sexually assaulted.

Over the next few days, she says she was held there and raped multiple times by two men. Five other teenage girls, all of whom had been promised jobs, were also assaulted by 10 men – including Hassan, she says. When some of the men finally agreed to take the girls home, she says one man threatened them: “He showed us his pistol and said, ‘If I hear anything, this will make holes in your head.’”

She says that after the assaults, she considered suicide. “I was so devastated that I didn’t leave the house for a long time … I didn’t tell anyone what happened to me.”

Hassan did not respond to specific claims, but called the allegations “ridiculous” and said in an email: “I’m not a rapist.

“I have never been known to be violent to any female or to have sexually threatened or assaulted any woman in my life,” he wrote. Hassan said that because resin export is “one of the country’s largest trades” in Somaliland, “there are powerful people” who “badly want to replace me as an exporter. They will stop at nothing to see me replaced,” he wrote.

Hassan said before he was involved, workers in the frankincense industry were treated terribly and paid less and they are better off under him. “I have changed the industry for the better.”

Anjanette DeCarlo, a sustainability consultant who formerly worked as a contractor for doTERRA, corroborates part of the woman’s account. She says she was in the town near Erigavo, attending a focus group hosted by Asli Maydi, and that evening she was urged to leave so the men could have a party. When she asked if she could join in, she says an employee told her: “No, you can’t stay for this kind of party.” The next day, they smelled of alcohol, and she asked how the party was. She says one of the men laughed and said: “Girls.”

None of the three women say they reported the incidents to police or clan elders – they said they were too afraid of what Hassan and his men would do to them.

Sexual violence is prohibited under the Somaliland penal code, but rape is rarely reported, according to Erica Marsh, an independent researcher of humanitarian issues in Africa. Police presence is scarce in rural Somaliland and clan elders usually handle cases of sexual violence, she says. Women often are ashamed to speak about sexual assaults, let alone report them. And under Somali customary law, alleged rapists may be required to compensate the victim’s family – often her male relatives, since traditional law treats women as legal minors. On occasion, clan elders even order victims to marry the perpetrators.

Somaliland recently came close to passing a bill criminalizing several forms of gender-based violence, including rape, but in 2020, parliament introduced a regressive new bill that would penalize women for “false” reports of rape, punishable by up to five years in prison, and women who use “witchcraft to obtain sex” – punishable by death. Nafisa Yusuf, executive director of Nagaad Network, a nationwide community of women’s advocates, says incidents of rape are on the rise.

An employee’s allegation of rape

Asli Maydi has demonstrated “a pattern of exploitation of women”, says DeCarlo. A recent Vice documentary told DeCarlo’s story and gave a platform to male doTERRA harvesters who say they were never paid in full or were paid in food. Since then, sources say little has changed on the ground.

DeCarlo describes her time working with Asli Maydi as “chaos”.

In November 2018, on the last night of one of DeCarlo’s trips to Somaliland, she says Hassan invited her to his home, where a group was gathered. Under the guise of showing her frankincense resin in another room, DeCarlo says Hassan locked the door, pushed her to the ground and raped her.

DeCarlo says she didn’t report the assault to authorities because she was traumatized and was leaving the country the next morning. The US doesn’t recognize Somaliland as an independent country, and its embassy in Somalia is more than 600 miles away. “There’s nowhere to report it that I know of,” she says. DeCarlo told people close to her about the incident, one of whom corroborated her version of events.

“When I got home, I wasn’t in good shape,” she says. “I wasn’t really functional for a few months.”

In 2019, DeCarlo says she reported the assault to doTERRA.

“I felt that they should know who they were dealing with,” she says. “I was, like, ‘if he could do that to me … imagine what he’s doing to local girls.’”

In its statement, doTERRA wrote, “when we learned of the allegations, we encouraged [DeCarlo] to report the matter to law enforcement. As is company policy, we investigated the matter to the extent we could, however, we do not have the authority or investigative powers needed to fully investigate these allegations. We continue to encourage and support law enforcement’s efforts to fully investigate the allegations, as we would for any victim of alleged assault.”

More than a year after DeCarlo says she reported the alleged assault, she says Hassan sent her abusive text messages, screenshots of which she shared with the Fuller Project.

In one, Hassan wrote: “Does [that] mean some fucking mad bitch should try to ruin my life, after ive been nothing but good to her. Is that how u treat people. wow. Talk about being ungrateful.” DeCarlo says she tried to get him to admit to what he’d done by telling him he’d hurt her. He responded: “I’m sorry. It was naughty.”

DeCarlo hasn’t returned to Somaliland, and no longer works with doTERRA. The company continued working with Hassan for at least three years after DeCarlo reported the assault.

“If [Hassan] wasn’t so powerful, he wouldn’t be able to do this to so many women,” DeCarlo says.

Critics say doTERRA’s funding and support has empowered Hassan to grow wealthy and influential over local clan dynamics in Somaliland, which according to the US thinktank Freedom House has few institutional safeguards against corruption.

“People are scared of Barkhad Hassan and his gang,” says a sorter. “We are living a life of hell.”

The Guardian is publishing this article in partnership with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to the coverage of women’s issues around the world. Sign up for The Fuller Project’s newsletter, and follow them on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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