Photo Credit: 54 Thrones
Exploring Africa's Best Beauty Secrets With 54 Thrones Founder Christina Funke Tegbe
Christina Funke Tegbe is the founder of 54 Thrones, an African beauty brand using all-natural, organic ingredients grown in the motherland. Born and raised in Texas, Tegbe is the child of an American mother and Nigerian father.
She officially launched 54 Thrones in June 2016. The brand was inspired by her paternal aunt and the strong entrepreneurial women she met during her travels throughout Africa. Growing up in suburban Texas, Tegbe recalls her aunt always persuading family visiting Nigeria to pack tubs of shea butter to bring back to Tegbe’s family in the States.
“As a kid, none of that really resonated with me,” said Tegbe. “I kind of thought, why are we getting our lotion from Africa when there’s lotion at the store? But as I got older, I looked back and realized that was her way of sharing our culture and our heritage with us, because she knew that we would miss out on a part of that Nigerian culture. That was her way of making sure we grew up with the same beauty rituals that she and my father did.”
Around 2014, Tegbe felt the urge to travel back to the continent. Having enjoyed her previous visits to Nigeria and Morocco, she felt like she needed to return and get to know her father’s side of the family, and the other half of herself better.
“In doing that, I spent a lot of time visiting countries like Nigeria, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, and Egypt. Throughout these countries, I was drawn to the women making things. I thought they were just so incredible. After about a year of traveling, I started thinking of my aunt and how she would send us shea butter, and that’s how the idea for 54 Thrones came about.”
Feeling burned out from her corporate consulting job, Tegbe made the decision to quit and start her company. It was a natural fit for her. Her mother and all her maternal aunts had been beauticians; thus, she had always been surrounded and inspired by beauty. She left her career in 2015, cashing out her 401k and vowing to figure it out.
And that is exactly what she did.
Today you can find 54 Thrones at Nordstrom as well as Sephora, where it is the first Black-owned African-inspired beauty brand sold. 54 Thrones’ African Beauty Butter Collection Deluxe Tin was also featured as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things for 2020.
As part of the brand’s September Sephora launch, 54 Thrones traveled to Ghana, visiting cooperatives in cities like Accra, Tamale, and Aburi. Tegbe looks forward to taking more trips to the motherland for the purpose of sharing African beauty rituals, straight from the source.
“Being able to share something so authentic and so dear to me with Sephora customers is amazing. I really want to continue to show and preserve these African beauty rituals. A lot of history in Africa is passed along through oral tradition, so it’s part of our duty to preserve and pass these things down.”
With the growing success of her brand, Tegbe is sure to stay true to her core values. She is intentional in how her products are created and how she procures the natural African ingredients used in them. It is very important to her to continue traveling to Africa herself, where she maintains a close relationship with the artisans, entrepreneurs, and women-run cooperatives that 54 Thrones works with.
From the beginning, Tegbe knew that she did not desire to have the type of business where she would be ordering her supplies online. She wanted to work with the people she knew and had met during her travels. Having heard different stories about how local artisans weren’t receiving fair pay and would have to sell their product for pennies, she wanted to work directly with as many of them as possible, and she wanted to pay them whatever their asking price was.
“I wanted to be very aligned with how we were painting the narrative and avoid coming across as saviors who are saving these ‘poor African people.’ I didn’t want to make it seem like we came with all this aid to help, because the people I’ve met are strong and have pride in what they do. It was important to me to really uphold what we call ‘trade, not aid.’ In my eyes, if you want to help Africa, do business with Africa.”
“There are so many problematic situations where people have good intentions but approach different countries with only aid in mind. I think the best example of that is Tom’s shoes. He started with this amazing idea to give a pair of shoes away for every pair bought. It was a great idea, but he learned that he was putting the local shoemakers out of business. The people I work with don’t want aid. They want your business. That’s how we help them grow.”
Visiting Africa and maintaining relationships with her suppliers also helps Tegbe stay connected to her brand and its mission. During her visits, she has been able to learn firsthand about the beauty rituals, which has allowed her to ensure she tells an authentic story.
“I wanted to make sure we were being responsible and doing our part to change the narrative surrounding Africa by showing all the beautiful sides of the continent. 54 Thrones represents the 54 countries in Africa. Many people still look at Africa as a monolith, and we really want to break it down and share the other stories you may not know. Even through our social media, every week we highlight one African nation and talk about the food, the culture, the history, and the beauty rituals of that country.”
Of all the diverse beauty rituals and natural ingredients the continent has to offer, Tegbe’s all-time favorite is shea butter. Known for its moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties, it is used in the 54 Thrones collection of beauty butters recently launched with Sephora.
“I’m all about shea butter. I use it head to toe. Depending on how it’s prepared, it’s actually edible, so it’s often used to fry food in. It comes from a fruit which tastes sort of like a pear. You can find shea butter in a lot of West African countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, Mali, and you also can get it in East Africa. That version is a little more rare and found in Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda, which is where we get ours.”
Tegbe’s second favorite ingredient is Moroccan blue tansy oil. Extracted from a yellow flower, the oil turns a rich azul blue color when exposed to oxygen during the steam distilling process.
“I was so happy to include tansy oil in one of our butters. It’s usually only found in really expensive products, so I wanted to put it in our hand cream so more people could access it. It’s great for sensitive skin and acne-prone skin, and helps retain moisture and your skin’s barrier. It smells amazing and has calming energy effects, too.”
Tegbe’s third favorite ingredient is kigelia Africana extract oil from South Africa. The oil is derived from a fruit called the sausage fruit, and 54 Thrones uses it in their Nejma Balancing Night Oil.
“It is a powerful oil known to help oily skin and inflamed skin. There have also been a lot of studies supporting that it helps firm breast tissue and skin, so people in South Africa and Namibia rub it all over their bodies to keep their skin firm.”
In addition to the efficacy of these ingredients being backed by science, Tegbe says the proof is in the pudding. At 75 years of age, her beloved Nigerian aunt doesn’t have a wrinkle in sight. Despite being used today as part of beauty rituals to keep skin healthy and hydrated, she points out that the majority of these products have uses originally rooted in healing.
“Centuries ago, brown and Black men and women around the world didn’t use these ingredients just to look good; they were used to heal and protect, whether from environmental things, such as the sun and insects, or even spirits. They were used in ceremonies, for example, to prepare a bride for marriage or to prepare a man to become a warrior. It is so amazing how the plants and botanicals we are using today in 54 Thrones are the same ones our ancestors used thousands of years ago to heal ailments, and that they are still as efficacious and potent as they were then.”
“We go directly to the source to bring these back so that people all over the world, but especially Black diasporans, who may not necessarily feel that connection for so many reasons, can have our products and know that these came from Africa and that they can learn about their heritage through our products. That’s what we’re trying to do.”