The popularity of petroleum jelly as a skincare product has spanned many decades. The process to distil the jelly from a by-product of the crude oil refining process was patented in 1872 by Robert Chesebrough, a chemist in the US. Zimbabwe-based entrepreneur Gus Le Breton, however, believes that an opportunity exists to grab market share away from the Vaselines of the world by providing a natural and sustainable alternative.
“The biggest, most widely-sold skincare product today in Africa is petroleum jelly,” says Le Breton, CEO of B’Ayoba, a Zimbabwean company that processes the fruit from the baobab tree into powder and seed oil for export.
He highlights there are people who are concerned about the safety of using traditional petroleum jelly, which is neither natural nor sustainable, and that similar products could be produced from organic, wild-harvested sources.
Le Breton is also the CEO of Bio-Innovation Zimbabwe (BIZ), a non-profit, membership-based organisation that comprises private companies and NGOs with an interest in developing the commercial potential of under-utilised plants.
“We can make a very similar product (to petroleum jelly) from mongongo nut oil, from marula nut oil, from baobab seed oil, etc. It is natural, locally made and you don’t have to use any imported ingredients. It is beautiful,” he says.
“At the moment the market in most African countries is geared towards petroleum jelly. Mothers put it on their babies from birth, and babies grow up to put it on their babies,” he says.
Le Breton, however, does not believe that it would take much to convince the African market that alternatives to petroleum jelly are a better option. He says the economic benefit to local communities from the agro-processing of these plants would also be significant. “I’ve just not had enough time in my life to do something about it,” he states.
BIZ is currently busy developing the commercial potential of several indigenous plants in Zimbabwe. “We are working on bringing two new products through the European Union novel foods approval process,” says Le Breton. “Marula oil and Bambara nut oil, which grows all across Africa,” he says.
“The global wellness revolution, the shift away from synthetic towards natural, is creating demand all across the globe for the types of products that we are producing – organic, natural, wild harvested. The market is global, yes, but the local market is also going to be huge.”