The U.S. essential oils company doTERRA sources most of its frankincense oil from harvesters in Somaliland, but workers say the company does not practice the ethical approach it preaches. More than a dozen women working for doTERRA’s frankincense supplier, a company called Asli Maydi, say that the company routinely underpays its workers, requires them to work in harsh conditions that are linked to health problems and is led by a politically powerful man whom multiple women have accused of sexual harassment and assault.
For this two-year investigation, co-published with the Guardian, The Fuller Project spoke to thirteen frankincense sorters (women who who divide frankincense resin by color, grade and quality), three alleged sexual harassment victims, and a former U.S-based sustainability consultant who accused the supplier, Barkhad Hassan, of rape.
“People are scared of Barkhad Hassan and his gang,” one woman said at the time. “We are living a life of hell.”
Reporting this story was difficult in a culture that made women ashamed to speak about how they’d been victimized. One woman kept describing how she “felt terrible” and was not herself after one of the incidents in question — she was too ashamed to say the word “rape” aloud to our reporter, the translator explained. She later talked more explicitly about the assault in a written statement. Our reporter earned her sources’ trust by continuing to show up — speaking with them several times for months before formally interviewing them, periodically checking in with them throughout the process, and being dedicated to the story despite publishing setbacks.
The story’s impact was swift and powerful. Presented with The Fuller Project’s findings before publication, doTERRA said it would “temporarily suspend” its operations in Somaliland and was working to engage a third-party team to help it investigate the matter. Within weeks of publishing, the sorters had formed their own cooperative and are now working for their own company. The supplier appears to have left the country.
The Fuller Project’s reporting drew attention for the first time to the exploitation of women sorters by a company that says it champions community investment and competitive wages. doTERRA markets to women, engages mostly female “wellness advocates” to sell their products, and counts among its influencers prominent female athletes and celebrities including singer/songwriter India Arie Simpson, professional tennis player Sloane Stephens, and Olympic Gold Medalist Jamie Anderson, according to their website.
U.S. customers expressed dismay and disappointment that doTERRA wasn’t implementing the ethical practices it promised. This story helped them make an informed choice about the products they were purchasing and gave them the ability to vote with their wallets.