OK, so we all know what gold is, but what the heck is frankincense? Myrrh is even more of a mystery. Two of the three gifts brought by the Magi to a certain newborn king leave most of us scratching our heads, wondering if perhaps the Bethlehem baby got stuck with a couple of booby prizes.
A new Burlington-based business suggests otherwise. The three partners in Ismael Imports are taking frankincense and myrrh from Somaliland and turning it into valuable essential oils purported to calm stress, combat asthma and arthritis, and even inhibit the proliferation of leukemia cells.
"There's a reason why the three wise men brought frankincense and myrrh to Jesus," says Mahdi Ismael Ibrahim, the 37-year-old Muslim who runs the company with business partners Casey Lyon, 29, and Bill Lanzetta, 30. "Nobody thinks about what's behind it, but it was to clean; they could burn it and clear out disease."
The entrepreneurial trio may be on to something: By introducing frankincense and myrrh to the world, they hope in some small way to improve the lives of the Somaliland people.
In biblical days, frankincense and myrrh arrived in delicately carved wooden chests. Today's shipments come in large, white feed bags packed inside cardboard boxes stamped "ismaelimports.com." Seventy-eight of them -- four tons of frankincense and nearly 500 pounds of myrrh -- are piled in a corner of the Lanzetta family warehouse on Colchester Point, where Lanzetta's father builds furniture and Ismael Imports is temporarily storing its goods until a more suitable location can be found.
The frankincense looks and feels like jewel-sized chunks of granular brown sugar. The myrrh is also crystalline and sticky, but larger and darker. The process by which they're derived is more akin to maple syrup than sugar, however. Both substances come from the dried sap of three types of trees indigenous to Somaliland. Frankincense comes from trees of the Boswellia genus, extracted through an incision in the trunk and harvested after the resin has hardened into pale yellow globules. The Commiphora myrrha tree produces myrrh.
Equally fascinating is how these sacks ended up in Colchester -- and where they're going from here. Ibrahim left Somalia in 1988, at the start of that county's civil war. His mother and father stayed behind in what would become Somaliland, when the region broke away from Somalia in 1991. After studying and working in Canada and Maine, Ibrahim moved to Vermont in 1998. A few years later, he traveled to Thailand with some friends and lost his passport, which delayed his return. He lived cheaply among locals while he waited for his paperwork to come through.
"I met sweatshop families who were sewing clothes -- I saw what the reality was," says Ibrahim. He made the connection between their poverty and that of his own people back home in Somaliland, and vowed to do something about it. "I said to myself, 'What are our natural resources? I bet we have something interesting.' I knew about frankincense, but I didn't know you could make oil."
Did the ancients? Evidence suggests the Egyptians used frankincense in religious ceremonies and for meditation and adornment: Women painted their eyelids with it. Ibrahim grew up with the smell of frankincense wafting through the house. His mother burned it every morning and evening as a sort of air freshener before anyone had ever heard of "aromatherapy."
Back in Vermont, he started researching the medicinal benefits of the oils made from the resin: According to the Harvard Medical School, there's evidence that Boswellia -- a.k.a. frankincense -- possesses anti-inflammatory properties that could ward off asthma and alleviate problems resulting from Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
The New Jersey-based Sabinsa Corporation, which produces boswellic acids from trees in India, has published a study indicating that the Boswellia species can inhibit the growth of human leukemia cells. Still others have used frankincense for acne, menstrual regulation and pain management, and myrrh for mouthwash and stomach upsets. L'Oreal uses a frankincense compound in its anti-aging Wrinkle De-Crease cream.
In 2004, Ismael traveled back to Somaliland, the population of which is now 3.5 million. "I was so excited, because I realized that this could totally change the economics of my country," Ibrahim says. People thought he was crazy. "The farmers said, 'The white man told you all that stuff now?'"
After Ibrahim signed Lyon and Lanzetta on as partners, the three of them took separate trips to Somaliland to examine the Boswellia and Commiphora trees, meet with farmers and discuss prospects for trade. Ibrahim and his wife, Jamie Garvey, took a bus from Ethiopia; he says she was the first white American to cross the border by foot since the 1980s. Staying with Ibrahim's mother in Hargesia, they awoke to the smell of frankincense -- and a new vision for medicine and sustainability.
"People can't afford to take care of themselves in the traditional Western sense," says Lyon, whose own mother once gave him myrrh for migraines in Oregon. Now he splashes on a bit of frankincense oil as aftershave. Ibrahim adds a drop of oil of frankincense in his black tea every morning for his lungs. "Pharmaceutical companies are so crooked, and have doctors in their pockets because they pay them so well, have the government in their pockets," Lyon says. "Alternative medicine keeps getting pushed off as quackery, but I've lived on it my whole life."
As they get Ismael Imports up and running, Ibrahim, Lanzetta and Lyon share duties; they also have partners in France, Thailand, Japan and Ethiopia. "Right now we all have to learn everything," says Lanzetta, a former carpenter. "But I would say if you were to cut it down, I'm in charge of the distilling part, Mahdi's in charge of communications -- he speaks five languages and is talking to everybody -- and Casey's got the management and computer thing."
The "distilling part" seems pretty cushy on a recent August afternoon. Lanzetta's set up the equipment on a table outside his family's lakeside home on Colchester Point. In the bright sun, breeze blowing across the lake, the scene looks more like a barbecue than a business venture. You could easily mistake the steam distiller for a keg of Otter Creek.
But the distillation is actually a lot of work. Converting 10 pounds of resin to 400 milliliters of frankincense oil -- which they plan to sell wholesale for $1 a milliliter -- takes three to four hours. And there are four tons of resin to get through. To help expedite the process, the trio has invested in a big distiller, about the size of a brewery's beer-holding tank. It has yet to arrive.
Once they begin selling the oil, Ismael Imports plans to give 20 percent of the profits back to the cooperating landowners in Somaliland. A harvest-rotation schedule will alleviate pressure on the trees. "We're tracking what we're doing," says Lyon. He describes their approach to business as "the antithesis of capitalism: through collaboration, not just for profit but for the benefit of the people."
Ismael Imports is also working with University of Vermont botany professor Marta Ceroni, who's teaching a course this semester called "Ethnobotany: An Ecological-Economic Perspective." The class explores how gathering plants or producing plant-derived products affects indigenous rights, sustainability and community-based conservation. On September 8, Ibrahim, Lanzetta and Lyon will visit the class.
"The people at Ismael Imports are seriously committed to social equity and environmental sustainability," Ceroni writes in an email. "It seemed the perfect match for both Ismael Imports and my research interests ... Students will do research on the uses and culture that surround frankincense, as well as the harvesting methods, marketing, social structure and ways to improve the current model to benefit the local communities who depend on frankincense for their livelihoods."
For their part, Ismael Imports' three Burlington-based principals are counting on the classic supply-demand equation. They're courting a few national wholesale distributors, but don't want to "create a stir that we're not able to fulfill," Lyon says.
Still, that adds up to hours and hours of work. Ibrahim is so busy he recently left his bartending job at Red Square, where he got to know Lanzetta and Lyon and married Garvey in 2000. "I met everybody at Red Square," he exclaims, noting how his career has evolved. "I was a doctor making medication for people at night. Now it's real miracles to help people."