In the fashion business, there’s no shortage of models turned beauty entrepreneurs. The pressure to always look good – plus countless hours spent in hair and makeup – assure a comfortable expertise with what works and what doesn’t. Add some name-recognition and voilà: an opportunity for a successful product line. But Elite model (and Project Runway favorite) Camilla Barungi is putting a new twist on the theme: inspired by the interplay of beauty, nature and economics, she has found a way to bring the beauty business not just to wealthy consumers in the West, but also back to rural villagers in her home country of Uganda.

Camilla’s story:

Camilla’s Barungi’s journey into the beauty business was perhaps inevitable. A traditionally-raised colonial girl, the spirited Barungi was already sneaking beauty products into boarding school. “They were always confiscating my things!” she laughs.

Growing up traveling the world, she landed in California to study biochemistry in college, but when an agent discovered her she began modelling in San Francisco. Modelling eventually took her to New York, where Barungi was cast in Project Runway Season 3. Her outgoing personality made her a viewer favorite: “It was a lot of fun to connect with people in this way – people forget that we models are people too! – and it always surprises me how many people remember me from the show.”

But in the high-functioning fashion world of New York, the easygoing Barungi also knew she had to step up her game: “All the models are perfect here – they work on themselves all the time – I was always the one with the bad skin.”

Rather than move into her dermatologists office, Barungi went to her past: “We had always used herbs for these kinds of things, so I had my mother sending me all these things. I had to find what works for me.”

African Moringa: “Nature’s Miracle”

When her mother sent her oil and leaf powder from the African Moringa tree, she knew she had found something special – and not just for her skin complaints. Putting her biochemistry skills – and curiosity – to work, Barungi dug into the research: “The more I studied this plant, the more amazing I found it to be.”

Barungi found that African Moringa is, quite simply, the most nutritious plant source found in nature. A complete plant food, Moringa powder contains (gram for gram) 25 times the iron in spinach, 17 times the calcium in milk, 15 times the potassium in bananas, 10 times the Vitamin A in carrots, 9 times the protein in yogurt, and generous helpings of all the B vitamins, Vitamins C and D, over 22 amino acids, high levels of antioxidants, zinc, magnesium and selenium.

The leaves are hand picked, shade-dried, and crushed into a nutritious raw food powder, and the seeds yield a fine-textured, golden oil that is wonderful as a non-greasy skin moisturizer. Moringa has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine, and in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Hippos vs Cheetahs: Sustainable Agriculture in Uganda and Rwanda

But in finding Moringa, Barungi did not just find a way to take care of her skin – she found a new cause. For all its documented benefits, African Moringa was difficult to produce in Uganda. Years of colonial agricultural practices favored large-scale crops and centralized aid systems whose funds could be chipped at by bureaucrats along the way. Very little aid – or trade – makes it to the rural tribes where Moringa is grown and harvested.

As a budding entrepreneur, Barungi found inspiration in a new economic theory. George Ayittey has been inspiring a new generation of African entrepreneurs (and a legion of international TED fans) with his economic theory of “Cheetahs -vs- Hippos.” In response to the bloated, corrupt aid system in Africa which feeds on a legacy of centralized colonial rule, Ayittey encourages nimble young entrepreneurs to “go where the people are”- to trade with smaller communities where the means of production is locally owned, and the local tribal structures have more checks and balances to limit corruption. Working with the people in these more informal tribal sectors, entrepreneurs could then help their countries with trade, increasing the economic independence of the poorer rural villagers.

Moringa cultivation is ideal for this kind of entrepreneurship: it can be gown locally and harvested sustainably in tribal areas of Uganda and Rwanda. With her biochemist partner, Barungi can assure that all aspects of its production are organic, raw, and FDA certified, which is certain to please affluent, health-conscious Western consumers. By increasing direct and sustainable agricultural trade, Moringa supports local tribes directly, and allows them to bypass more centralized agricultural aid systems.

The Future of African Moringa

For now the product line consists of the leaf powder and oil – the purest forms of Moringa. There will be more products developed, though purity and a sustainable business model are key. “There is so much demand for these products – right now I just have a little mail order company,” says Barungi. But that will soon change: she is getting ready to launch the products nationally, and is immersed in a crash course on production and distribution within the US health and beauty market. While her family is somewhat leery of the perils of entrepreneurship, she says they will understand “as they see what I’m doing for people. I’m not in this just for money – after all, how lucky am I to find something so amazing that can help others too?”

As a model, Camilla Barungi stepped outside the norm as she enchanted Project Runway viewers. But having discovered African Moringa from her home country, her venture into sustainable trade in the beauty business will likely be the true legacy she leaves.

Links:
African Moringa
George Ayittey on Ted
Project Runway Season 3
Camilla Barungi at Elite