Salwa Petersen’s story is one that is bound to inspire. Petersen grew up in the northern lands of Chad in Central Africa, but her studies brought her across continents. She graduated from the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne and Harvard Law School, becoming the first person from Chad to graduate from the Ivy League institution. The story goes: When the President of Chad learned that someone from his country was the first graduate, he asked to meet him—and was informed it was not a "he," but a "she." Petersen’s path as a trailblazer initially led her to pursue a law career, but she later shifted her attention to beauty. After a stint in product development at L’Oréal, the Chad native decided to launch her own namesake hair care line inspired by the Chadian women’s beauty rituals. The brand’s first product? A hair cream infused with Chébé, a powder made of indigenous herbs that women in Chad have long used to treat and grow their hair. Ahead, Petersen gives Byrdie an exclusive look into the history of Chébé, what it took to deliver The Hair Cream ($69) to market, and a few pro tips on applying the product.
Chébé is a beauty ritual that dates back thousands of years. "It is documented in millennia rock-art paintings found in the Northern parts of the country," Petersen explains. “It is also part of pretty much every traditional song, popular story, and proverb about love and beauty that I grew up with. The Chébé recipe and its rituals are passed down from generations, and I learned it from a very young age from the women of my family."
During Chébé, Chadian women utilize a blend of indigenous botanicals made into a powder and follow a series of precise application steps. "We cover our hair with the powder by alternating it with water and a blend of natural oils and butters (shea butter and sesame oil are favorites in Chad)," she tells us. "We leave the mixtures in and do not rinse it out. The key ingredient in the Chébé powder is a grain from the croton gratissimus tree. In Chad, this tree is known as Chébé, and, because its grain is the powder’s 'secret sauce,' the haircare ritual is also named Chébé."
The Development Process
Bringing the Hair Cream to market was no small feat, and it took over three years for Petersen and her team to accomplish it. She breaks down the entire development and product process below.
Filing the paperwork: "As the first brand to ever bring Chébé to modern beauty care, I had to create the 'new' ingredient and its entire sourcing from scratch," Petersen says. "This included putting together the bibliography, doing the required tests and paperwork to bring it to market in Europe and America, filing it with the Personal Care Products Council in Washington DC, all the while following the European Union cosmetic regulations, which are the strictest in the world."
Sourcing Chébé: "I brought together and worked with a team of scientists, botanists, engineers, and formulators to source the seeds from Chad in the most sustainable way possible," she explains. "We took into account not only the very best practices in biodiversity, the latest scientific discoveries in hair care, but also the ancestral knowledge of Chadian women who have been using Chébé as part of their beauty rituals for millennia."
Cleaning the seeds: "Once we have the seeds post-harvest, there is a very meticulous cleaning process performed by the women in Chad who pick by hand the very best croton gratissimus seeds," Petersen tells us. "What we do not use represents about 60% of the harvest, and it is composted and returned to nature. This way, we have the highest quality and purest Chébé possible."
Extraction: "The seeds then are packed in jute bags and travel (climate-neutral, of course) to my lab in France, where they are transformed into the most concentrated and potent extract of Chébé ever created," Petersen says. "This proprietary 100% natural organic extract that we called Chébé du Tchad is obtained through a patentable, unique, environmentally-friendly process which allows us unprecedented access to the active molecules of the croton gratissimus and enables us to maximize Chébé’s cosmetic benefits." When testing the efficacy of the extract, Petersen and her team saw that nine out of ten women had visibly healthier, stronger, and more elastic hair after three weeks of daily usage after using Chébé du Tchad Hair Cream.
Making the cream: "Once we get our Chébé du Tchad extract, we incorporate it into our Hair Cream, which is made of 97.97% ingredients of natural origin," Petersen says. "We spared no expense here and reformulated countless times to get that weightless, perfectly balanced texture using new generation technologies usually found only in most luxurious skincare formulation. The biggest challenge was getting to that kind of formulation while remaining clean and not compromising in any way since we follow the ECOCERT guidelines, and do not use silicones, parabens, sulfates, GMO derived mineral oils or other controversial ingredients." In addition to Chébé, the cream contains a blend of high-quality ingredients such as fair-trade shea butter, cold-pressed castor oil, organic sesame, sweet almond oil, avocado oil, sea buckthorn oil, and moringa.
Packaging: After nailing down the formula, Petersen turned her attention to packaging. For Petersen, having sustainable product packaging was a prime concern. "Something that proved more challenging than expected was building a high-end eco-friendly company," she notes. However, she was able to accomplish just that. All of the brand’s packaging is recyclable, all of the packaging paper is FSC-certified, and all of the packaging colors are vegetable and water-based. Peterson’s focus on sustainability also extends to production as 100 percent of the electricity used in the brand’s lab and production facility is green, and 100 percent of brand operations are carbon-neutral.
Philanthropy: The last step in Petersen’s development process was figuring out the brand’s philanthropic footprint and aligning with the right partners. "We are very happy to work with African Parks Network and its president, Prince Harry Duke of Sussex, for conservation projects in Chad,” she says. “I am very proud that we are donating one euro for every product we sell to support sustainable development in my country of origin."
How to Apply
The Chébé du Tchad Hair Cream was made with a variety of hair textures in mind. Whether your hair is natural, colored, or relaxed, Petersen crafted the leave-in to boost the strength and length of all hair types. When applying The Hair Cream at home, there are a few pro tips she suggests keeping in mind. "The best way to start using it for the first time is to start on freshly-washed, damp hair," Petersen says. "Divide your hair into sections, take an almond size amount of product, warm it in your hands and then apply it to your hair from root to tips using your fingers and working section by section."
She then suggests maintaining your hair after wash day by applying the cream as a styling aid to dampened or dry hair daily. "If your hair is excessively brittle or dry, here is a secret tip: in the evening, apply a little bit more product than usual to preferably damp hair, braid or twist your hair, wrap it in your most beautiful silk scarf, and you’ll wake up to enjoy your best hair day ever," Petersen shares.
After wearing my hair straight for a few weeks, I decided it was time for a wash day. Once I shampooed and conditioned my hair, I divided my damp curls into sections and applied the cream from root to tip. After applying the product, my curls immediately felt more moisturized. Once my hair was fully dry, I was left with pillowy soft, super hydrated, and bouncy curls. I've also used it to refresh my hair in the mornings and it instantly adds life back into my curls. I'm excited to play around with the cream some more and see how it performs with a braid-out or twist-out. The Hair Cream is definitely a new gem in my wash day routine.