Frankincense Carteri: Ancient resin harvesting practices in a contemporary setting

Frankincense needs almost no introduction as a valuable essential oil. Boswellia trees have been tapped for their resin for thousands of years, with multiple uses, like incense and as an essential oil. This post focuses on one form of Boswellia tree resin in particular, Frankincense Carteri, which Soli sources from the wadis of the Sanaag region of Somaliland.

Soli is narrowing our sourcing so that our carteri resin comes from a specific mountain wadi, Dabmanjo – “the hot place”, and using blockchain technology we can trace our resin back to this specific farm and wadi. In tandem with the Dayaxa Frankincense Export Company (“DFEC”), FairSource Botanicals and ProvenSource, we are working with harvesting families to GPS map farm locations, use uniquely identifiable bags for resin that we can trace from source to bottled essential oil, and simultaneously prove we’re paying harvesters a good wage for resin collected. This is all as a direct response to the myriad issues currently damaging this ancient supply chain: widespread exploitation of resin harvesters and women, and threats to the underlying ecological sustainability of these trees. By working as part of a consortium with LUSH and Pacha Soap Co we’re able to deepen our impact and create a response at an industry level, rather than as one brand in isolation.

Frankincense resin has always been sought after, but demand for resin has rocketed and mirrored the growth in the personal care and essential oil market in the last few decades. Increased demand has meant more money flowing into the supply chain, but in many cases, this has only reached as far as the gatekeepers: resin traders. As the major producers of frankincense resin are Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, there are a linguistic and cultural barriers for western companies sourcing resin, meaning almost all use intermediaries rather than invest time and resources into direct sourcing. Resin traders now wield far more power, and some use this to set devastatingly low prices for resin; evidence also continues to emerge of some in the supply chain committing gross acts of violence against women with relative impunity.

Low prices for resin drive harvesting communities into poverty, and asks them terrible questions: either to overharvest trees to alleviate poverty now, at the expense of ecological sustainability for the trees, or to accept existing conditions and suffer. Either option exacts a heavy toll on these communities, and regenerative practices cannot sit in isolation – both the trees and the communities that tend them work symbiotically.

This paints a troubling picture of existing practices in the frankincense carteri supply chain, but one that can be changed. And it must be changed rather than abandoned. Harvesting communities rely on resin as their primary source of income – cancelling frankincense would have an even more damaging effect. Instead the power and reach of resin traders must be balanced, with payments going direct to harvesters whilst the supply chain demands changes to working conditions, particularly for women. Save Frankincense is working very closely in resin houses to listen to women there, provide simple personal protective equipment, chairs and tables for sorting, and working collaboratively to improve working conditions

Our consortium of partners is working to embed ourselves and build trust with frankincense communities, by paying good prices for resin direct to them, whilst setting up forums to hear and reach the whole community. Demanding that frankincense you buy can be fully traced to source forces companies to adopt more sustainable practices, and at Soli we’re proud to be supporting the production of pure frankincense carteri oil through regenerative and transparent sourcing practices.