This is the story of one woman’s journey to create a unique, luxury, natural beauty and skincare brand that has a uniquely African story and essence.
In Malee's words....
Malee Natural Science was inspired by my relocation back to Africa after having lived in the UK for about twelve years at the time. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place at the time, if I am to be completely honest. I had just moved to South Africa at what was the beginning of a recession in 2009, and no-one was really hiring at the time, and I needed something to do. I had always had a passion for lotions and potions, combined with a love of fragrances, and I felt like there was nothing in the African space that had a soul, that told a story, and that got people connecting with the continent in an interesting way through such products. So I thought there was a good opportunity to put the two things I love together into a natural, premium skin, bath and bodycare business.
"In terms of what gives me personally the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur today, it is still when a person likes and appreciates what I am doing, what I am producing. It is as simple as that."
When I was looking for inspiration for a name for the new business, everyone said that I needed to create a brand that was completely personal to me, something that was a reminder of what I was doing everyday. I couldn't use my name for the brand because it translates as ‘busy bee’, which didn't really seem appropriate, so I thought I had to use something that I felt was gracious, represented strength but in a different way, that appreciated beauty. I had grown up with my great grandmother being recognised as a great pillar of strength in my family, and personally not really knowing much about her except for the many tales that were told, because I had never met her, but my own mother and family always spoke so highly of her, and she felt like the epitome of African beauty to my young eyes. So, the name Malee means in my language a term of endearment for a learned woman, such as my grandmother. It seemed the perfect name to sum up the ethos of my business in South Africa. Malee Natural Science was born as a company at the end of 2009.
In terms of challenges faced by Malee as a startup business, there have been a few along the journey to get us to where we are today, but I have appreciated all those challenges because I think they have helped me to become a stronger businessperson. I guess to speak on one challenge that is more universal is really learning to give your craft, your skill, your business, the time that it needs to grow and develop. You are not going to start out and immediately be perfect, as much as you might try. Often, the trick is learning that it is okay to say no, recognising that you do not have to leap into every opportunity that presents itself. In the early days, you need to raise money, you are trying to start a business, you are working so hard to create something that you want everybody to love when you launch, and as a result, in the early days you are tempted to jump at every opportunity with the hope of growing. It is not always the best way to go. The other challenge is to remember to have fun, because you do get bogged down with the day-to-day routine of running a business. People write all these books about starting a business, but no-one writes about what it is like waking up each morning and working 7 days a week to build that business, and just how tired you feel much of the time, but how worthwhile it is to actually do something you love.
I do feel that the African business landscape has changed tremendously in the last five years in terms of having the support for businesses. Some of the initial challenges I faced when starting out on my business journey seem a little outdated today, such as trying to find people to work with who could help to create a natural beauty and fragrance, working with people who understand the need for you to be heavily involved in the creative process right from the onset. So, although these types of challenges are outdated today, they were definitely the ones I faced when starting out in business. Also, finding funding is a challenge in the early stages of developing a business, although in a way not having a huge amount of money in the business at the beginning when you are starting out can be a plus, as it forces you to be more creative. It is a useful part of the entrepreneurial journey because what comes later is not the same experience as when you first start, and with later success you often look back and miss those early, exciting, fresh business beginnings.
"In a way not having a huge amount of money in the business at the beginning when you are starting out can be a plus, as it forces you to be more creative. It is a useful part of the entrepreneurial journey."
In terms of what gives me personally the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur today, it is still when a person likes and appreciates what I am doing, what I am producing. It is as simple as that. In the beginning, when I was starting out in business, I got huge satisfaction from someone just knowing about Malee and our products. However these days, I love it when someone picks up one of our products and says how much they appreciate it, or the fact that customers pick up on the subtle nuances of things we are doing with the Malee brand which probably took a lot of thought and energy to develop and finally bring to the marketplace. It is great when customers see this, particularly when long-standing loyal clients who have bought the brand over the last three or four years still have a passion for what we do and love our brand and products. That is really satisfying and my heart smiles as a result. It puts into perspective all the hard work and makes it really worthwhile.
One of the highlights of my entrepreneurial career came very early on when I was featured on CNN African Marketplace. At that time, I had just got the keys to what was to be my new office, I had started to pick up a few pieces of furniture here and there to put into the office, but I wasn't ready. Yet, within 48 hours of getting the keys, I had an office and had done a global interview with CNN. In that moment, for someone who had worked hard for a year yet no-one knew what I was doing, for a global prestigious show like CNN to feature me and think that I had an interesting story to tell, was just so moving. Another key highlight was when Malee won its first product award from Fair Lady Magazine, I just couldn't believe it at the time. In fact, we had three products that made it into the different categories of the awards, and no-one could have prepared me for that, as it meant that not only were people connecting with the Malee brand, but also industry leaders and consumers thought that I had created something special in terms of product formulation. These were in categories where Malee was up against international, highly established brands that had been around for over 100 years. So, that was really special recognition for a real labour of love, creating the Malee brand and products.
Over the years, the Malee team has grown, shrunk and then grown again. At the moment, we have three full time staff that are employed across the operations and on the marketing side of Malee, then on the manufacturing side of the business we have five employees working at our plant in Pretoria, South Africa. All our products are manufactured locally in the country. We source our ingredients here locally too, and try to employ people in communities wherever we operate, because I do feel there has to be a positive impact on the African continent. Whether it is employing people, or in fact inspiring other women entrepreneurs to go out and start their own businesses, or providing an opportunity for women to earn their own income to support their families. I think perhaps as women, we do think about this impact more in our businesses.
Best advice for other women?..."Everyone starts their business from somewhere, so just start and get your business out there. It is better to have a product or business out there in the marketplace with feedback, rather than a perfect business without. So just go out and do it - if you have a great business idea, then believe in yourself, have faith, and just do it."
So, what is next for Malee? National distribution of the Malee brand of products across South Africa is next, followed by international distribution in Europe and the USA. I am also speaking to a few people about distribution opportunities in the United Arab Emirates going forward. I think its not time for the world to hear about Malee and I am excited about this part of the journey. I believe I can keep creating products that people will hopefully love and can keep putting them out there in the marketplace and building that customer base. Also, online marketing is going to play a huge part in terms of what we are doing as a brand, given that the brand is really driven by the African story, and I really want to share that story. Online is going to provide a powerful platform from which to communicate with all those who want to interact with Malee as a brand, and to learn a bit more about what we do. It is such an ingenious way of brands really reaching out to their customers, and as a brand, we are looking forward to doing that. Sharing 24 hours a day our experiences of building a business and a brand, showcasing our products and our ingredient knowledge, with people who are interested - not just in our natural beauty or fragrance products, but also about Africa. We are also fortunate to be supplying some of the top luxury hotel chains in Africa with our range of Malee products, and we take great pride in those customers being able to experience Africa through a different lens using our products.
Why LoA loves it....
You have to love a woman who goes from being stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of needing to earn a living to finding her passion and launching her own company during a recession. Zeze is a reminder to all of us that sometimes you just need to be brave and chase your dream regardless of the circumstances you find yourself in! --- Melanie