Atlanta-based company makes castor oil with a cult-following

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

As a child, Lois Hines was the only one in her family who could be counted on to regularly venture to Marley Hill in the South Manchester region of Jamaica to visit her grandmother. Ansa, as they called the older woman, was deeply rooted in African practices -- some of which she shared and some which she didn't.

The two would pick herbs and sing religious songs as Ansa introduced her granddaughter to art of natural living. Hines enjoyed her time with her granny, but she wasn't always a believer in her remedies. "When you are a child you think your granny is crazy but I loved spending time down there because I had a love for the land and for her," she said.

Decades later, Hines would think back to those days with her grandmother as part of master plan. Twenty-five years ago, she and her late husband, Michael, launched Tropic Isle Living's Jamaican Black Castor Oil. The product, which started on the fringe of the health food industry, gained a cult-like following during the recession in 2008. Business really boomed when the natural hair movement -- women of color who chose to wear their hair in its natural state -- began to spread on social media platforms.

"It was an all-purpose healing oil then suddenly it’s the hottest thing on the hair market," Hines said. "That catapulted us into another platform."

They had begun adjusting to their new popularity and were growing the company when Michael received a devastating diagnosis. He had brain cancer and doctors told him he had three months to live.  He would stretch that time to a year and a half before his death in 2016 and during those final months, Hines garnered the inspiration to continue building the company they had created. "It was the best and worst time of my life," she said.

Hines met her husband when she was just 16-years-old. A friend introduced them after she mentioned that she was bored and wanted someone to talk to. Michael Hines was a 20-year-old hometown boy attending school at the University of Georgia. For months, they talked by phone. When they met during a school break, he took one look at her and said she was too young. "He said well, if we are still talking when you are 18, then we will date," said Hines.

By then, Hines had moved to New York. And soon Michael followed. He had always loved Caribbean foods and Jamaican culture and in the 1980s, even in New York City, both were in short supply. Michael began working with a man who would become his mentor. Brother Rashan Abdul Hakeem had roots in the Maroon tribe -- members of Jamaican society who staged a slave rebellion, annexed from the British system and created their own community deeply tied to the rituals of their African ancestors.

"He rekindled in us a love for our culture and to be proud of where we are from," said Hines. "It was amazing and it felt right. In that environment, I remembered what my grandmother was teaching me," she said.

Brother Rashan encouraged them to form their own business and in 1992, Tropic Isle was born (they would later add "Living" to the brand name.) The goal was to bring the therapeutic Jamaican castor oil to health food stores in the U.S. In Jamaica, the oil, made from seeds of the Castor tree, was used to treat ailments ranging from constipation to skin issues. The seeds undergo an extensive process of harvesting, shelling and parching to preserve the nutrients, said Hines. Then the oil is boiled and skimmed to remove any water that could cause the oil to go rancid.

In the early days, Hines would travel to Jamaica and bring a gallon of the oil back with her. They wanted to make sure consumers knew the difference between castor oil in the U.S. and the oil grown in Jamaica, so they began calling it Jamaican Black Castor Oil.

Michael was the visionary and Hines was the do-er, she said. She was still working other jobs to support the business and their two children when they relocated to Atlanta in 2005. Hines worked for an interior design company, but when the recession hit, she began working full-time with Tropic Isle.

Then one day, Hines got a call from California.

The woman on the line asked Hines if she sold Jamaican black castor oil. "I asked how did you get the number? She said, ' There is a woman online spreading the word about Jamaican black castor oil,'" Hines said. A blogger had written a post about the benefits of Jamaican black castor oil describing how it helped in managing her natural hair.

Hines and her husband had been plugging away for more than a decade and suddenly their product was in high demand. Sales quickly tripled.

Hines and her husband bought more farms to increase their supply of oil. They also began buying seeds from other organic farms. They flew large shipments over from Jamaica but even with their increased efforts, there were times when they couldn't meet the demand.

"Sometimes when we can't fulfill an order quickly. I say let our weakness be our strength. We are not going to mass produce it and change the integrity of the oil. If you want the good stuff you have to wait," said Hines.

With business solid and a plan in place to grow the company organically, they took much-needed vacation to Montserrat and Antigua. During the trip, Michael fell ill. After several tests, Hines elected to have him flown back to Atlanta. The cancer in his brain was so advanced, doctors weren't sure how he was functioning.

At age 50, Michael was told he could expect to live about three months. Together, they planned how to move forward and Hines made the effort to show her husband that she would be able to manage without him. He died knowing that he had left a legacy for his family, she said.

While the oil remains at the heart of the business, Hines is following through on their plans to grow Tropic Isle Living into a lifestyle brand. Many of the new products they have developed, including shampoos, conditioners, and pomades for hair as well as scrubs and butters for skin, have been in response to customer demand. There are also plans for a lifestyle publication, a podcast and a line of clothing.

"We built the foundation on the product and the product will take us to the living part where we can share with people what it really means to live naturally," Hines said.

Last year, the company moved to a manufacturing and storage facility that is double the size of their old space. The U.S. is the largest market for the products, but the company also does business in South Africa, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Dubai and Lagos, Nigeria.

Hines is pleased, she said, to see the brand take root with women worldwide, just as the traditions she learned during those early days in Jamaica with her Ansa, took root in her heart.