Two entrepreneurial sisters from South Africa with a love of all things natural and organic are capturing the imagination of customers looking for an alternative to the mass produced, chemically formulated skin and body care products on the market. The Oh Lief Natural Products company is developing 100% natural and organic products that are truly world class.
LoA caught up with the dynamic duo, Christine and Louiza the founders of Oh Lief Natural Products, at the Kamers Handmade Fair in Johannesburg recently to find out more about this unique business that is capturing market attention for the authenticity of its products.
Where did the inspiration come from to start Oh Lief Natural Products?
Christine Buchanan: Actually our story is a strange one because our inspiration originally came when we were sat in the car. The whole concept behind the business is to give a gift of love and when I became pregnant with my first son, my sister Louisa made me a bum balm for the baby, which she gave to me as a gift. We have always made various lotions and potions over the years as a hobby, although she is actually a qualified architect by profession and I was in the property industry. So, in 2010 we were sat in the car one day, and I had been selling these bum balms made by my sister to the moms I met in the various moms classes etc. and seeing that they really liked the product. Whilst we were driving, we chatted about giving the bum balm product a name and going to a trade show to market it properly. So, that chat resulted in our organising our first successful trade show experience properly launching the product to the public. On the first day of the trade show, we made a hundred bum balms and sold out on the first day. So we when back home that evening and started making more of them and repeating the exercise over the entire weekend selling out each day, and we realised that this was perhaps a sign that there was a business to start. We officially launched the business Oh Lief Natural Products in October that year.
"We have a big vision for our brand - we would like to be the number one organic household brand in South Africa."
What makes your products so different at Oh Lief?
Christine Buchanan: We started with one product, our bum balm, and then as we started to do more trade shows and making contact with our end customers we realised that there was a very big gap in the market for taking a conventional product and producing an organic alternative. So then we developed our aqueous cream which was the first original aqueous cream produced, and then we realised that the mums, grandmas, daughters all wanted to have organic alternative skin and body care products that they could use to, so we developed an adult range. In December last year, we also launched our natural sun screen, which excitingly is the only natural sun screen available in South Africa which is truly organic and endorsed by the Cancer Association of South Africa, and it is absolutely beautiful. Most of the base ingredients we use for our natural products are sourced locally here in South Africa, but the ethos behind the product range is to produce organic natural products, so we are not specifically only using South African or African base products and essential oils, etc. We bring a product to market that is an organic alternative, with every single ingredient we use being certified organic or certified natural, and that is done either by The Soil Association or by EcoCert. At the end of June, we will be moving to our new factory in Maitland, near Cape Town, and then we will be the only certified organic baby and body care range in South Africa.
How do you retail your products at the moment?
Christine Buchanan: We supply to retail outlets, and we stock around 330 stores in South Africa currently, and then our adult range of body care products we have just launched into Woolworths, so you can find our products there too. We also export our products and have a very big export market, with our products reaching 13 countries at the moment, for example into Europe and Scandinavian countries, Malaysia, New Zealand and all our neighbouring African countries, using a global distributor who markets our products for us. We also use social media a lot to both raise awareness of our products and our brand, and to connect with new markets, and our online retail shop is part of that strategy. This is particularly the case in places like Europe and Scandinavia where social media is a very powerful tool to connect with retail buyers, so social media platforms are key to our global marketing strategy.
"You should never embark upon an entrepreneurial venture with the aim just on making money - it is essential to find something that you are really passionate about and that you understand … you need to find a balance between your passion and the business side of things."
Is the company still a family owned and managed business?
Christine Buchanan: Yes, it is still a family owned and managed business, but we also have nine girls working with us in the factory, because everything we produce is made by hand, from the raw materials sourcing, blending, packaging, labelling, the whole process and all done by local women. We want to support local people in the local area. When we move to our new factory, we will be taking all our employees with us.
What are your aspirations for the Oh Lief Natural Products brand going forward?
Christine Buchanan: We have a big vision for our brand - we would like to be the number one organic household brand in South Africa. We want to provide an organic alternative to conventional products available in the marketplace, so that people have a choice not to use the chemically loaded conventional products on the shelves. We would also like to take our products into a bigger global market in the future and become a leading global organic brand.
"We want to provide an organic alternative to conventional products available in the marketplace, so that people have a choice not to use the chemically loaded conventional products on the shelves."
What are the biggest challenges you have faced as women entrepreneurs in your field?
Christine Buchanan: It is really difficult balancing family life with your business life, particularly when you have small children. You need to ensure that you are giving enough of your time and energy to both, without either one suffering. Both my sister and myself have been extremely lucky in this regard because we have very supportive husbands who carried us during the first 2 ½ to 3 years of the business when we were first starting out, and that was key. Another challenge in the early days of starting up is funding the business, and for the first few years everything we made went back into the business - we drew very small salaries to ensure that the business had the money it needed to grow.
What advice would you give to other women entrepreneurs who are looking to start out in business?
Christine Buchanan: You should never embark upon an entrepreneurial venture with the aim just on making money - it is essential to find something that you are really passionate about and that you understand. The danger is sometimes that you can have a great love for something, but if you are not fully conversant with everything it takes to make that passion turn into a business reality, then it is a problem. So you need to find a balance between your passion and the business side of things.
What is your role within the Oh Lief Natural Product business?
Louiza Rademan: I am responsible for all the product development and I run the manufacturing aspect of the business. We have developed the product range from that initial baby bum cream that we launched at trade shows in the early days to the substantial range of products we offer today. Our product development comes from extensive market research and from talking to our clients about the types of products they might want and need. For many of them, certain products were simply not available as organic and natural alternatives in the market, so the development of our new products came from a need to respond to our client’s requirements. This approach of talking to our clients and developing new products to meet their needs is one that we will continue to adopt, and we have quite a few new ideas that the market is telling us they need in organic form that we will develop going forward. With any new product that we develop, we fully test it in the field before we launch into full production. So far, every single product we have in our range is one that we personally have tested and really enjoy because of qualities such non-stickiness, not being synthetically perfumed, etc, so my approach is very much to also develop products for the market that I personally like and enjoy. We then launch a product into the wider market to further test with our clients, we listen to their feedback, and we take on board suggestions to make them even better. For example, with our sunscreen product, we rigorously tested it with our clients and listened to every piece of feedback, enquiring if they liked the product, if it felt good on their skin, and we tweaked the product based on the feedback until we had the perfect final product for the market. So over the course of a year’s testing, we refined the product based on customer feedback until we had something that was absolutely market ready. In fact, our sun screen took us 2 years to fully develop as it is a much more intricate product, whereas our balms and lotions are slightly less complex and can therefore be developed slightly faster to market, around 6 months in fact.
"It is really difficult balancing family life with your business life, particularly when you have small children. You need to ensure that you are giving enough of your time and energy to both, without either one suffering."
What new products are coming up that customers can look out for from the Oh Lief Natural Product range?
Louiza Rademan: Our focus for the next 12 months is on growing the market for our existing range of products. We also do a lot of private labels, for example, our Scandinavian market business involves us working for a number of brands there. We also have 3 or 4 local brands that we do development work for here in South Africa. In the next 2 years, we will be working on a new skincare range, plus an everyday-use product for adults - our current adult organic range is very much treatment focused and at the luxury end of the market, so our new everyday organic product range will meet an additional need for skin and body care, plus toiletry products that can be used as part of daily skin, body and hair care routines, including shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, deodorants. So this is an expansion of the whole product range to meet customer needs. It is going to be an exciting couple of years ahead for the business and there are endless opportunities for us to explore. We simply need to focus and filter the right products into the market at the right time.
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Why LoA loves it….
At LoA, we love the real passion for what they do by the founding sisters behind Oh Lief Natural Products. Their love for their work, and their absolute belief in creating alternative natural and organic skin and body care products, shines out in the beautiful things they make. They are real ambassadors for a more natural approach to life, and at the same time, are a wonderful example of what can be achieved by women working together to achieve a business vision. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa