Idris Elba and Sabrina Dhowre Elba are on the move. Within the last two years, whether together or apart, the power couple has been busy: in London, celebrating the launch of their multifaceted wellness brand, S’ABLE Labs; in France, speaking with President Emmanuel Macron about funding sustainable agriculture in Africa; in Sierra Leone, meeting with farmers about the impact of the rural poor stimulus facility they launched with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in 2020; in Egypt, convening with leaders in the fight for climate justice; in Hollywood, posing on red carpets for movie premieres and award shows; in Washington, D.C., discussing the future of Africa.
When the two met, in 2017 at a jazz bar in Vancouver, the frenetic momentum of their future partnership was not on their radar. Sabrina was a model and a former beauty queen, whose Canada-based family hailed from Somalia. Idris, the son of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian immigrants to the United Kingdom, had already been married before. Prior to meeting Sabrina, he famously admitted that he was “done with love.” But love has a way of never being done with us.
So what began as a bright spark in the middle of a dark jazz bar became a long-distance relationship. The couple’s biggest initial hurdle wasn’t just distance but time—in other words, how to deal with their hectic lives. “I actually could not believe one person could do everything that he was doing. I thought, He has to have a twin hiding somewhere,” Sabrina joked over Zoom in December 2022 about those early years. “It just meant that we had to be way more cognizant and way more aware of each other’s feelings and emotions at any given time, so that we knew the other person was feeling good regardless of what we were out doing.”
By 2019, this intentional approach to their relationship had culminated in a stunning wedding ceremony in Marrakech. Because of the couple’s respective roots in East Africa and West Africa, Morocco—which is based in North Africa—felt like a natural neutral meeting ground on the continent that they love. In the years since, their numerous passions and ambitions have coalesced around this shared love, into a keen dedication to humanitarian work tied to Africa.
When I first speak with the couple, they are, of course, in movement, in a car headed to the airport after their trip to D.C. The last several days have included a photo shoot, meetings, introductions, speeches. Only hours before, Idris gave an address at the 2022 U.S. Africa Leaders Summit, where he spoke about the need for innovation and investment—not just aid—in Africa. When I ask him about the summit, he talks about how amazing it was to see that so many people throughout the diaspora and beyond are interested in the growth of Africa.
“When I was 16 or 18 years of age, Ethiopia was dying from one of the most devastating famines caused by drought, and the whole world turned on aid,” Idris recalls. “The whole world turned to incredible generosity and did what they could to reduce the impact of that famine. But 35 years on, we are still seeing the effects [of famine and drought], in not only that part of the world. I could tell you that there was a lot of money generated through aid, but that money didn’t actually solve or future-proof the problem. And that’s where innovation comes in.”
There is a “time and place for aid,” Sabrina adds. “But I do believe that model is somewhat old. We need to look for sustainable ways of helping people take care of themselves through government and through means of entrepreneurship, so they can live off the land that they own.”
In 2020, the Elbas were appointed U.N. Goodwill Ambassadors for IFAD, brought on to help advocate for issues related to food security, climate change and environmental conservation. Through their work with IFAD—which they first learned about through Sabrina’s mother, Maryam Egal, who is also a humanitarian—they’ve become passionate supporters of rural farmers, who face the clear and present dangers of climate change head-on.
Sabrina, who visited Kenya last May to spread awareness about the threats of climate change, COVID-19 and war in Ukraine on the lives of small-scale farmers in Africa, says she was struck to learn that the majority of rural people, particularly those working in agriculture, are women. “They’re the custodians of Earth, and they’re facing the brunt of climate change more than we can even appreciate in the global north, because we only see such a small amount of it, and we think it’s bad,” Sabrina explains. “You can’t imagine how bad it is when someone has to go through drought and famine, and all of the stuff that they’re facing, without weather warning systems, and with none of the supplies.”
As it was for so many people, much of the Elbas’ lives over the last two years was shaped by March 2020. During the pandemic, while Sabrina did yoga using videos she found on YouTube and Idris escaped into video games to pass the time, the importance of wellness became abundantly clear. Holed up in their London home, they talked. They talked about their routines, about mental health, about how the isolation from their loved ones was affecting them. They talked about the idea of “coupledom,” the alchemy of sharing and building a good and purposeful life with another person. From these conversations, the idea for their lifestyle and wellness brand, S’ABLE Labs (“Elbas” spelled backward), came about.
“I’m thankful for our dynamic. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it really does work for us.”
Sabrina Elba (above) wears a Schiaparelli coat, Shine Like Me ring and Stylist’s own gloves. Photographed by Keith Major for EBONY Media at Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens.
So far under the S’Able Labs umbrella, they’ve launched an Audible-exclusive podcast called Coupledom, featuring interviews with all kinds of couples—not just other married people, but mothers and daughters, and business partners. They’ve also launched a genderless skincare line. In a skincare and wellness landscape that feels saturated with celebrities and influencers hawking the same five serums, the Elbas wanted a more purposeful approach. “The wellness conversation in itself is way too narrow,” Sabrina explains. “We felt very excluded, as two people of color, from the narrative.” And so, the line presented another opportunity to shine a light on Africa.
“Because of the work we do with IFAD, [S’Able Labs] needed to not only speak to issues that we have as people with melanated skin, but also carry on the values that we have as Goodwill Ambassadors,” says Sabrina. It was important to the couple that the line include African ingredients (such as baobab, shea and moringa) that were sourced from farmers with whom they could speak directly.
“We felt A-Beauty wasn’t getting its spotlight. We had no idea how abusive the industries are that these ingredients are sourced from,” continues Sabrina. So the couple teamed up with Farm Africa, an international organization that helps rural farmers build their income sustainably. In addition to educating the Elbas, Farm Africa connected them directly with farmers in East Africa. (S’ABLE Labs has pledged 5% of the profits from all product sales to Farm Africa, with a minimum donation of £15,000 a year.)
“We felt A-Beauty wasn’t getting its spotlight. We had no idea how abusive the industries are that these ingredients are sourced from.”-Sabrina Elba
Sabrina describes the visit to Kenya to meet with these farming groups as “one of the best trips of my entire life. I was crying,” she says. “It was so funny, because they were so inviting and so warm. Literally out of their generosity, they made me cry. And in true Kenyan fashion, they were like, ‘We’re so sorry, we’re so sorry.’ Why are you sorry? I’m sorry. I’m like, embarrassing… Oh my God, why am I crying?”
“We need to look for sustainable ways of helping people take care of themselves.”
Idris Elba (above) wears Dzojechen blazer and shirt. Photographed by Keith Major for EBONY Media at Hillwood Estate Museum & Gardens.
The Elbas are clear that they don’t want to be the “face” of Africa or to represent the continent. Rather, they want to advocate for Africa and to encourage the world to invest in it. (Idris has a project almost four years in the making that is launching soon that will promote tourism and multi-sector investment in West Africa.) When I ask what they envision for the future of the continent, Idris says that he wants to see Africa grow, for its leaders to adapt more transparent, progressive ways of thinking, and for the massive disparity between rich and poor to end so that “everyone can at least eat and be healthy, and live in a lovely home that’s warm and dry.” In other words, the basics.
“I really don’t feel that Africa deserves to be, in this day and age, the poorest of the poor when it has so much to offer,” Idris adds. “And the rest of the world, for centuries, has taken everything: its people, minerals, everything. And yet still we’re in a situation where we’re all scratching our heads as to what we can do to strengthen Africa. I want people to visit Africa and not feel like they’re scared of it. Like the way I visit a new country and I’m just intrigued to find what I can learn about the culture. That’s what I want for Africa.”
With so much going on in their work, the couple continue to develop their personal life. When they met, Idris says, they lived very different lives in different countries: “We adapted to be together. We adapted so that we could actually grow this love.” Part of that growth was becoming interested in each other’s ambitions and dedicating themselves to helping each other—and to building a family business that allows them “to work together, to be together, to dream together, to achieve together.”
The phrase “couple goals” has often been used to describe the Elbas. Ever since their first red carpet appearance, in 2017, their glamorous image has become synonymous to some with “Black love,” with the concept of the A-list power couple. Celebrity is fascinating, not so much because of the glamour of it all, but because of its potential use as a tool for something beyond glamour. If there is such a thing as a power couple, then perhaps their power is best used to empower others. But with all the interest in their love story, do the Elbas ever feel pressure to be perfect?
“We don’t feel that pressure,” Idris asserts. “We, like every couple, go through ups and downs… So we don’t feel the pressure to actually be a shining example to everyone. But at the same time, we realize that we are, to some degree, an example of what partnership could look like. And the best way for us to illustrate that is to be transparent about who we are.”
“The rest of the world, for centuries, has taken everything from Africa: its people, minerals, everything.”-Idris Elba
Neither Sabrina nor Idris seems to be chasing perfection. Instead, the couple is in pursuit of something far more interesting, and far more sustainable: They’re learning from each other. Sabrina says that she has endless admiration for her husband’s accomplishments, both professionally and as a human being. In fact, to some extent, he’s shaped the way she works.
“Before I met him, I never would have thought I’d start a business,” Sabrina says. “I’m so thankful for our dynamic, actually. It wouldn’t work for everyone, but it really does work for us. And yeah, we’re not perfect, and there are times when I just want him to be home cuddling and not filming, or whatever he’s doing. You have to look at the bigger picture and think, This is someone who really makes me [feel] like the luckiest girl in the world. And I have to appreciate that, as opposed to nitpicking it.”
2023 will be a year of expansion for the Elbas. Sabrina is excited about broadening S’Able Labs and the upcoming trips related to her philanthropic work. “We’ve had a lot of small wins, especially for IFAD,” she says. “And I’m excited about that, because I feel like people are starting to care, particularly about Somalia.”
In March, Idris will return to play his iconic, titular role in Luther. He also has a slew of music projects on the horizon, including with his record label 7Wallace, which collaborated with Slick Rick on a project coming out later this year.
But most of all, 2023 seems poised to be a year in which the pair can lean as much into family as they have into their work. “I’m also excited about Winston,” Sabrina says. “Idris’ 8-year-old is turning 9 in April, and 8 is officially the cutest age ever. I can’t wait to see what 9 is. He’s just so polite and so sweet.” Just then Winston phones, and Idris takes the call from his son.
It sounds like their car has reached its destination—time to move on to the next thing. But not before Sabrina shares how, in spite of everything the world has experienced the last few years, she can’t wait for what’s next. “We’ve all been through so much with the pandemic; we didn’t know what was happening,” she says. “It still feels like the world is on fire. But I feel like this new year, I’m kind of going in with a positive light.”
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING MARIELLE BOBO
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN BROWN
PHOTO DIRECTOR/PHOTOGRAPHER KEITH MAJOR
ASSOC. CREATIVE DIRECTOR/HEAD OF VIDEO STEVEN CORNELIO
VIDEO BY MEGA MEDIA
DIGITAL PRODUCEER ARTHUR WOO
GAFFER NATE AIREY
SOUND MIXER NICOLE PHILLIPS NAYLOR
VIDEO EDITOR MEGA MEDIA
PHOTO ASSISTANTS SAONI FORTUNA, BISCOE SAVOY
STYLIST ALEXANDER-JULIAN GIBBSON
STYLIST ASSISTANTS CHLOE LUCAN, PARKER HARWOOD
TAILOR MINERVA DIANN SAVOY
HAIR STYLIST ANTOINETTE HILL
MAKEUP ARTIST RENEE GARNES WITH OPUS BEAUTY
GROOMER JESSICA SMALLS WITH THE WALL GROUP
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS
ON SET PRODUCER PAMELA MATHIESON
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT SHANICE MARTIN
RETOUCHER DIGITAL 805 RETOUCHING
LOCATION SPECIAL THANK YOU TO HILLWOOD ESTATE MUSEUM & GARDENS AND ROSEWOOD HOTEL, WASHINGTON, D.C.