An award winning olive oil producer with a talent for innovative packaging, combined with a passion for supporting women-owned businesses.
My story starts at our company, RIO LARGO, in 2010 but before that I was involved in many fabulous projects. I married my husband Nick Wilkinson, which is a great love story in itself as we knew each other at school but only reconnected when we were in our thirties. I was an owner builder in 1989, pregnant with my first child and Nick and I agreed an amount I should spend on the building project. So I did it my way with a Spanish builder who spoke very little English. It was a project unheard of amongst my friends at the time, and we sold the building for triple its value three years later when we moved to Malawi.
I was involved in many projects in Malawi, but the project I most enjoyed was making wicker furniture. In fact, my friends said at the time that if Nick stood still long enough I would have had him made in wicker too! Furniture was difficult to get in Malawi in 1990 so I had a team of wicker crafters, carpenters and wrought iron makers and I furnished my entire home in the most tasteful way. I could have turned it into a business as my friends kept asking me too, but I wanted the glory to go to the artisans and so sent my friends directly to them, and guided them but not for gain. They all took their businesses to another level when I left for Zambia in 1997, each one of them coming out of the villages where they stayed, to make items that would happily have sold in larger markets. However, we all knew how much we could cope with, given the economies of scale there at the time and transport costs out of Malawi. I still have much of that furniture in my homes today!
“If you are considering being an entrepreneur, do it for all the right reasons, do what resonates, and ultimately, just do it.”
I also started a nursery school during my time in Malawi… called HAPPY DAYS…. where I nurtured many beautiful young souls until my husband was transferred to Zambia. I qualified as a teacher in 1981 and taught for over 24 years in total. We then moved to Zambia in 1997 and I got a post teaching two year olds at the American School of Lusaka. It was an interesting few years as our daughters were at the same school !
"It has been a fabulous success for which we feel extremely blessed."
A few years on and we moved to a farm 4 hours out of Lusaka where I once again took on the task of being the owner builder of the estate home for the company. I took on unskilled labour from the village nearby, folk that had never seen a window that opened, a bath, or staircase. I used to sit on the floor and show them magazines with pictures of homes around the world where all of this was commonplace. Together with a fabulous guy who had trained under an Italian builder, we built a 5 bedroomed mansion. It was probably one of my most challenging but fabulous projects to date!
We moved on 3 years later( I KNOW!!) as we found ourselves back in Lusaka. I was seriously depressed as I had really enjoyed my time on the farm, but never one to sit back too long, sat one day with a friend of mine and said, how about doing a brochure on the lodges and hotels in Zambia? There were beautiful lodges and hotels in Zambia but no one knew about them,… not even our own countrymen. So we set about this new business with NO background knowledge as to what we had to do. We approached the lodges and asked them to believe in us … but NOT TO PAY UNTIL THEY SAW THE FINAL PRODUCT!! Imagine!! We worked tirelessly learning about graphic design , printing, marketing lodges, financing projects and so much more! But the end product was a real success and we managed to do a second edition before I left for South Africa in 2010. It was sadly a project I could not continue with, as it was too difficult to do from the Western Cape.
"Nick took our new harvest to the olive awards in Paarl... and to everyone’s surprise won a TOP award ... a double gold award, never before bestowed on a South African Olive Oil. What a surprise! How wonderful!"
And so in 2010, I found myself on an olive estate in the Western Cape. Nick had found this estate after many months of looking for his dream. My Mum had just passed away, our daughters had both left for university, we were back in South Africa where we were both born but been away for over 20 years, so no one really knew us,.. .. and I had yet another house to make a home, number 13 since marrying Nick in 1987! Even with shingles to try and stop me, I got up and looked at what we had around us. How blessed to be on this estate! Nick took our new harvest to the olive awards in Paarl... and to everyone’s surprise won a TOP award ... a double gold award, never before bestowed on a South African Olive Oil. What a surprise! How wonderful!
So I started on my journey to share this wonderful product with the world,.. and what a journey it has been! All the past experiences I had previously had, played a part in what was to be the most enjoyable project I had taken on.. I knew (a little) about printing, graphics, advertising, design, and with my teaching background was able to convince so many fellow consumers to TRY our product! It was amazing, working from 4 am at times till late at night, with Nick literally dragging me away from my computer… just one more email Nick, you never know who this reaches>>> and on and on.
We took on the bag in a tube project, whereby a larger quantity of olive oil can be sold to each consumer without compromising on quality! It was just fabulous. I worked with Frans Groenewald to develop a fabulous label – FREEDOM OF THE PRESS.. which was embraced by the consumers. It was a new concept which was hard to change as most folk want their olive oil in a bottle. We are now being copied by numerous estates.. and consumers have seen the value in this product!
Whilst Nick was happy to produce some of South Africa’s TOP olive oils, I took the product to a new level with this packaging. We are now exporting the tubes, never before seen, and are inundated with corporate gift orders each year, whereby we design a personalised label for the company, which is a great gift - the gift of health, as well as something the consumer has on the kitchen counter for almost a year and is used daily! It has been a fabulous success for which we feel extremely blessed.
I have a couple of projects in the pipeline for the future in packaging quality olive oil, but it will all happen in good time. We are also working with a lady to develop her olive oil based soap and also with another on an olive oil balm to add to our range - all women-owned businesses…. With the love of our products and the desire to educate our consumers as to what they are buying and using in their homes, the driving force behind us. It cannot be about price when quality is at stake!
So much still to do….
Why LoA Loves it....
We just love Brenda Wilkinson and her amazing team at Rio Largo. Not only is the olive oil they produce simply amazing (you have to try it!), but Brenda is a woman after our own hearts, a real passionate supporter of women entrepreneurs. She mentors, she promotes, and she chooses to do business with emerging women entrepreneurs in her community - a real lioness of Africa. --- Melanie