Zeze Oriaikhi-Sao: Following my life long dream makes the best use of my time

zeze oriaikhi-sao

According to Zeze Oriaikhi-Sao the qualities necessary for a successful beauty entrepreneur are determination, passion, instinct, financial savvy and strong communication skills. Just having a good idea isn’t enough. Zeze is the founder of Malée, a range of luxury fragrance and body care products that draws inspiration from the traditional beauty secrets found across Africa. African beauty and healing secrets don’t get their due and with Malée, Zeze updates them with modern science and technology. The name Malée itself comes from her great grandmother and is a term for a strong-willed woman in Bini language.

What pushed you to start Malée?

In 2009, I moved countries from UK to South Africa. It was the height of the recession and finding a job wasn’t easy. After halted interview processes, I decided that following a life long dream would be a good way to make the best use of my time while having a larger social and economic impact along the way. In a few words, circumstances of the recession forced me to believe that I had something to offer to not only to consumers but to the African economy.

Your brand seems to draw heavily from African traditions, is there any particular reason why you’re inspired by tradition?

I believe there are hidden gems in tradition. Unlocking those with the scientific knowledge we have now and giving a voice to cultures and traditions that otherwise don’t have one in the global market place is a passion. Africa is full of beauty and I deeply motivated to share that.

Malée is present in both South Africa and the UK, what challenges have you faced expanding your brand to other countries?

Each market brings with it a lot of learning. The most important thing I have learnt is that regardless of the country, establishing a brand takes patience, consistency in the quality of your product and service, belief in your brand/business and building a great team to help turn the vision into reality.

We have launched in the UK with 6 of our best selling products. On a stand alone basis they do what we say they should. They work!

UK_mainvisual-copyDo you have any plans to continue expanding within Africa?

Yes, the rest of Africa is definitely on the cards for Malée. I am excited about the next 5 years.

How do you unwind after a long day?

Taking time out for me some ‘me time’. My favourite routine is my at home spa, light some candles, have music playing through my bluetooth headphones then I scrub before settling into the bath, usually while reading something.

What’s one thing in your fridge you always use as a homemade skin treatment?

Lemons; they are just so versatile and harness a lot of natural benefit for the skin. My favourite remedies are my DIY facemask which can be made by mixing baking soda, honey and lemon juice. You can also use lemon to make a detox toner with some green tea and water.zeze oriaikhi-sao

How do you source ingredients for your products?

Ingredient sourcing process begins with understanding what makes up on traditional beauty remedies. I dissect these to understand what ingredients actually have long term skin care or aromatherapy benefits. We take these away and plug them into our formulations and then look for the best local suppliers who have food grade ingredients. If it is good enough to eat, it is good enough for your skin.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

African traditions:­ Helpful or harmful?

traditions igbo

In 2014, Nigeria’s Supreme Court annulled the Igbo custom that bans a daughter from inheriting her father’s estate. This marked a decisive victory in women’s rights in Igbo culture. It also serves as a reminder to the rest of the country and the Motherland that African women should be treated as equals. Harmful traditions need to be done away with.

President Barack Obama, on his state visit to Kenya which coincided with the ruling, also discussed the need to reconcile traditions with evolving societies. In one of his addresses to the country, Obama stated, “Treating women as second‐class citizens is a bad tradition. It holds you back…These traditions may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”

It’s a complex situation

Changes in a society don’t mean we need to abandon traditions all together. Each culture has its values, and some of those values should remain untouched. Forbidding daughters from inheriting their father’s’ estate was a custom that perpetuated inequality.

But, traditional Igbo culture as a whole is not one that seeks to subjugate women. We have to be able to distinguish between healthy practices and unhealthy ones.

Equality is actually part of Africa’s traditions

Historically, Igbos are democratic people. Laws were made and  disagreements were settled by popular vote. Before the colonial era, Igbo women played an active role in politics. They took part in village meetings with men. They had their own markets and business networks, their own community meetings to discuss issues affecting women. They also had the right to strike against and boycott anything that threatened women’s interests.

Women’s meetings were called mikiri and it was during these  meetings that women shared their experiences as businesswomen, mothers, and wives. Mikiri was not only a support system, but also a forum to maintain women’s markets and enforce market rules (which also applied to men). If a man was found guilty of breaking market rules or abusing his wife, the women would gather around his property. They would dance, sing, bang on his doors, and throw mud at his house to express their objection. They could even beat him up a little. This was Igbo women’s most effective form of protest and it was called “sitting on a man”.

British rule lead to the end of female institutions like mikiri in Nigeria. Back then British culture did not recognize women in its own political institutions. So, its colonial administration failed to recognize the culture of women’s participation in politics in Igboland. They wrote it off as another “savage African practice”.

Igbo traditions and values like democracy and mikiri that promote equality. These values should have stood the test of time, rather than the laws that prohibit a woman from claiming what is rightfully hers.

So what can we do?

There’s clearly a need to decide which customs hold us back and which ones benefit our  communities as a whole. Maybe we should follow the example of the recent Nigerian supreme court ruling. We should compare our traditions to our constitutions. If a cultural practice encourages inclusivity, it should stay. If it violates the rights of a particular group, it should go.

Women should be part of Africa’s growth story. Sustainable development is only possible when everyone gets a seat at the table. We should all be active participants in socio‐economic and political initiatives.

How to be career focused and not disappoint your mother

It started as a conversation with my friend. We were talking about topics we’d love to read about and I said I wished someone would write a manual on how to not disappoint your mom.

Mothers…bless their souls, we love them but there’s something about knowing you’ve disappointed your mother that leaves an indelible mark on your consciousness. A mark you’ll continue trying to obliterate or make amends for -both exercises in futility really because how do you fix what you didn’t set out to ruin?

See I’m 26 and I’m a single girl living and working in Lagos, far away from the comfort of my family. That on its own is enough to cause most parents to worry, my parents don’t live in Nigeria.

Thus the responsibility of parenting me has been outsourced to a gaggle of well-intentioned, if incredibly parochial, aunts whose reports about my actions are the only things my parents have going for them right now.

This unfortunately means that over the last year and a half since arriving in Nigeria, every other phone call to my mother has been an episode of ‘New Ways to Break a Mom’s Heart’. Often due to one aunt or the other complaining about something I’ve done to her.

By all accounts, the aunties have valid cases against me. My job means that I work long days that often become longer nights; and on days when I simply can’t go home, I stay in hotels.

When you factor in that according to Nigerian aunties, only a certain type of lady regularly patronizes hotels, you begin to understand why my innocuous actions are an affront to their quiet sensibilities. By focusing on work, I disappoint their expectations of proper Nigerian womanhood.

I get it, I don’t agree with it but I get it.

I used to obsess about my work-life balance and how I was not fulfilling some arbitrary Nigerian ideas I believed I had to satisfy. But now I step away from it all. It’s really just BS. I came across an article once that argued there shouldn’t be anything like work-life balance.

The writer stated that this way of thinking doomed us into thinking it was a zero sum game. They instead chose to think of work and life as a delicate relationship that although might sometimes appear to be skewed, are in reality both being satisfied in different ways. This helped me understand that I do not disappoint, and neither do you.

I’m still not sure how to balance my work with my life or perhaps more importantly how to ensure my mother doesn’t get disappointed with me (everyday). Yet if there’s one thing I know, it’s the inevitability of mistakes.

Sometimes, your work will appear to take precedence for months on end and you won’t always do what’s right by mom. So, maybe don’t obsess over assumed failures?

These days, when I get to steal time away from work to gossip with mom over phone about bosses or new opportunities, I can hear her pride.  I feel how proud she is of my ability to make things work in my career despite not being the daughter she might have wanted me to be. That’s really all there is to it at the end of the day.

Efena Otobo: It is not how you get knocked down but whether you get back up

Efena Otobo

Perseverance. Determination. Willpower (PDW). To a person without struggle or strife these words are merely scribbles on a blank piece of paper or some abstract notion or a catchy mantra on the walls of a gym.
However, when life suddenly takes an unexpected, drastic turn and plunges you into an abyss filled with mind-boggling agony, emotional turmoil and a seemingly bottomless pool of despair, one truly has a stark realization and a deep understanding of PDW.

When you feel like you are drowning, trying to gasp for air as waves of struggle keeps pushing you below the surface – the challenges facing you, constant tides pulling you in all sorts of directions – the sheer force of will to swim against the current is the very definition of persevering.  

Setting the scenes

Two years ago, one single moment caused a ripple effect and altered the course of my life in an unimaginable way. On the 21st of April 2014, Easter Monday, an unnecessary car accident in Yaba, Lagos, Nigeria involving two drivers and one passenger shifted my understanding of the world. Immediately after the crash, I looked down at my misshaped, lifeless legs and I knew that something had gone terribly wrong.

In a matter of minutes, I was carefully lifted out of the car and placed on a little chair. Amid the chaos, voices and confusion, a scary feeling gnawed at my soul – life, as I knew it, was never going to be same. I spent the next five days flat on my back in excruciating pain, the kind of inexplicable agony that is difficult to comprehend, in four different local hospitals from Victoria Island to Igbobi to Ikeja. I was poked and prodded, underwent several medical tests, scans, endured sleepless nights, hunger, thirst and incompetent doctors.

The knowledge and the hope that an ‘angel of mercy’, in the form of an air ambulance bound for London, England, would save me from the torrent of suffering gave me the determination to grit my teeth and survive the medical purgatory I was in.

On Sunday, the 27th of April 2014, after a five hour back surgery, I found out I had sustained a complete T4 spinal cord injury caused by a T12/L1 fracture. In plain English, I had broken my lower back which rendered me paralysed from just below my chest all the way down to my toes and here’s the punchline – there was very little chance of ever walking again.

The First Act

Efena OtoboDebilitating pain became the norm but I knew that finding strength through adversity was the only path to take. I had to summon every ounce of willpower to relearn how my ‘new’ body worked and moved. Imagine being taught the ‘art’ of rolling over in your late twenties, being instructed by an occupational therapist the best way to put your shirt over you head or how to sit up straight and balance so you can feed yourself. How undignified do you think I felt? How could I possibly survive and move forward?

The answer is simple, yet complex – “The toughest steel is forged in the hottest fire” (Unknown, Chinese wisdom). With this new mindset, physiotherapy was not an obstacle but a challenge to build up muscular strength. Meetings with the neuropsychologist presented opportunities to equip myself to battle depression and emotional conflict; the confines of the hospital was not a prison but rather an avenue to foster positive relationships that enhanced my mental stability.

The soul-crushing diagnosis from the doctors was a suggestion, not a declaration or conclusion. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I was going to not only walk, but run, skip, jump and dance again.

The Second Act

Ask any young woman today to regale you with tales of her most trying times in life and how she emerged victorious, the replies will definitely have certain things in common. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes of struggle takes perseverance, determination and willpower. One has to harness the innate ability to utilize strength through adverse circumstances.

It is not how you get knocked down but whether you get back up. Focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel culminates in what I like to call the Spirit of Invictus; in other words an unconquerable force to be reckoned with.  

Going to rehabilitation five times a week, in spite of the constant neuropathic pain in my legs and back – in order to build upper body strength, learning how to execute a safe multi level transfer from the wheelchair to the plinth and figuring out the best ways to manipulate my restricted mobility to achieve a desired result, required a level of perseverance beyond the ordinary.

Enduring extreme discomfort became the ideal persevering tool I needed to succeed and excel, to rebuild what I lost and overcome the insurmountable challenges that lay before me. In essence, to achieve the extra-ordinary, one has to push beyond the realm of normalcy and endure the physical pain, mental torture, sleepless nights, financial struggles and emotional turmoil otherwise known as the uncomfortable and unwanted sacrifices that come with the territory associated with the extraordinary.

Efena Otobo

Curtain Call

In the face of all the anger, disappointment, agony, confusion and dismay, my faith and hope burned brighter than ever. I was determined to not allow the wheelchair define who I was. Living life to the fullest once again became a top priority.

Wine tasting in the vineyards of Napa Valley, sitting in awe at the San Diego Comic Convention, appreciating the beauty of nature in Carlsbad, hoping to spot a celebrity in Beverly Hills, screeching with delight at the dolphins in Sea World, marveling at the millions of Christmas lights at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, clutching my sides from laughing too hard at the jokes in The Book of Mormon production at the Fox Theatre on Atlanta’s Broadway, being gobsmacked at the wonder of ocean life at the Georgia Aquarium and getting lost in worship at the Bethel Church in Redding, California are just some of the glorious adventures I have embarked upon thus far.  

Life may throw you a curve ball that may seem to break your spirit temporarily but reaching deep within and using a combination of faith, hope, perseverance, determination and willpower to obliterate the obstacles in your path, I believe that you will emerge from the war victorious.  

My battle strategy is to overcome paralysis – one step at a time.