Eight years ago, when Romanian Mădălina Bhatia arrived in Cape Town to live with her South African partner, she was fascinated with what she found.
“I spent the first year looking around, trying to figure out why there were no lions in the streets and why people didn’t live in the bush, because that is what we hear …
“Then I started really learning and observing,” says Bhatia, who works under the name Mărioara de la Țară.
What she learnt amazed and appalled her and it was what she learnt from her domestic worker, Nokubonga Liwani that kicked off a journey which saw Bhatia acquiring the business, Wild Olive.
Now called the Wild Olive African Artisan Apothecary and Artistic Perfumery, the business, which sells a range of artisanal soaps, fragrances, bath oils and other body products, made up of exquisite African and other essences, recently opened the doors of its city store at 29 Pepper Street. This is the third shop – there is one in the Cape Quarter and another in Bucharest.
For Bhatia, who was raised in communist Romania, it has been a journey she would never have imagined.
“It really all started when I met this little girl called Nokubonga who came from the Transkei and was supposed to help me with the housekeeping at home,” she relates, in a strong Romanian accent.
“We made friends – but it was clear she hated being a housekeeper. Her eyes looked dead. She was bored. I asked her if she was happy doing housework and she said, no.
“I was determined to find out more about her … She took me to the Imizamo Yethu township where she lived. I’d never been taken by anyone else. That was the taboo place that no-one in my circles spoke about. I started realizing that the real problem in South Africa is that nobody gives a damn about people who are unemployable.”
Bhatia was not interested in following in the footsteps of her new South African friends and getting involved in charities. “I decided that was a dishonest waste of time and money.”
She resolved to find an enterprise which would interest Nokubonga and her younger brother, Thembela, who had arrived from the Transkei and was also looking for work.
Not long afterwards, she stumbled upon a little business. Wild Olive had been set up in 1997 when a local pharmacist set about creating a natural soap for people with sensitive skin. The pharmacist emigrated and sold the business, which, till then, had been selling its products at a few shops – and had built up a loyal clientele.
When Bhatia took it over in 2007, the business consisted of a soap formula and a machine and some notebooks.
“Nokubonga and I went to look at the business. We drove home along Chapmans Peak drive. I said to her, “shall we buy the business?”
The answer was a resounding yes and Bhatia bought the business the next day.
Bhatia and Nokubonga started making soap in their kitchen at home. “We really knew nothing about product development and packaging. It was so much harder than it sounded.
“We sat at home with piles of books and started learning all there was to know about making soap and other body products.
“We studied all the essential oils … Before we started this business, we didn’t know what an essential oil was. Today Nokubonga can recognise more than 200 different essential oils.”
Being a perfectionist and determined to understand the science behind what she was doing, Bhatia signed up to study cosmetic science. “I also contacted many people who were already in the industry in SA and in Europe.
She also had to learn how to conform with global standards of quality control.
“When we bought the business, our packaging was so ugly even the charity markets wouldn’t take us on,” she jokes.
Explaining her fastidiousness, she says: “I grew up in communist Romania where we had very high standards of education. When you did something, you learnt absolutely everything about it. I am still continually learning and doing new research.”
Born into a family of academics in Bucharest, Bhatia studied dance and classical music from when she was three-and-a–half years old until she was 20. “I studied “very seriously and in communist style”. She later changed direction to study law.
It was while working in Austria as a bar tender in her 20s, that she met local businessman Tony Heneck.
In 2006, she moved to Cape Town to live with him.
Fascinated by the passion and natural talents of the people she encountered as well as the high quality of design in South Africa, she was also appalled at the lack of opportunity for some South Africans.
“I absolutely fell in love with the people. I find with Xhosa people, it feels as if I have known them for millions of years. “There is a kindness, a friendliness, a humility and a deep seriousness I have never encountered before. When someone has nothing to offer except their beautiful soul it is a very honest gift. And interestingly there are such similarities between Xhosa and Romanian traditional dress.”
The business continued supplying Wild Olive’s regular customers with soap – and then started going from shop to shop trying to sell the soap.”
They then started selling their products at the markets and became increasingly popular.
During their first year of production, they also made shampoo and conditioner.
In 2008 they took up a stall at the Biscuit Mill and they were soon approached by the developers of the Cape Quarter shopping centre and encouraged, to open a shop there.
“The one man said ‘my wife is obsessed with your product, why don’t you open a shop?’
Soon the small team was making bath oil, perfumes, body lotions, body butters, exfoliators, room sprays, face toners and serums.
Candles, came a little later and, in October 2009, Wild Olive opened a shop with a large selection of products at the Cape Quarter.
Having started making the products at home in her kitchen, Bhatia moved the factory to a cottage in Hout Bay before moving it to Woodstock.
The entire production business moved into Pepper Street earlier this year and the products are created “from kitchen to shelves” on the premises. Even the felt for the bags in which the organic fragrances are packaged is hand made in the same factory.
Hand and face cloths, made from handwoven unbleached organic cotton in Knysna are all individually hand embroidered.
“We are literally from source to consumer. It is an unusual business model. We do just about everything ourselves on these premises.
When we meet, the finishing touches are being done to the building in Pepper Street but staff are hard at work, making and packing the products.
Wild Olive employs about 16 full-time people as well as a number of people in Imizamo Yetho, who have been trained in making candles and soap and who are called in to assist with big orders.
Nokubonga who is passionate about her work, runs the factory and is responsible for drawing up the production schedules and “deciding what we cook and when we cook it”.
Thembela, is in charge of producing the porcelain containers for the much-loved Wild Olive candles. “He works in the porcelain room, also on the premises, which has a kiln … and has been on a number of courses with porcelain specialists.”
Bhatia who describes herself as “a sucker for art and artists” has incorporated a number of artists’ collaborations in her products, including a line of candle holders by local ceramicist Lisa Firer.
“Lisa also designed the bath oil bottle and the candle holder for our new classic collection.”
In another collaboration, the company 20 Eight Design has made bath oil bottles out of concrete.
The design of the company’s packaging is inspired by the Xhosa ceremonial costume.
The wide product range includes a classic collection, an apothecary collection and the artist collaborations.
Fragrances – many of which incorporate Fynbos, Buchu, African Wormwood, Cape May, Geranium and other African plants, include Flora Capensis, Plantifolia Lignosa, Rosaria and Vetiveria Citrata.
Since meeting Nokubonga and Thembela, Bhatia – who is “going nowhere”, and firmly committed to staying in SA – has adhered to a policy of employing people from the Transkei with the intention of training them “for years” in artisanal processes.
“One of the main purposes of this business is to give opportunities to local people.
“Our purpose is to teach skills, and, to promote the capability of the people. South Africa’s biggest resource is the human resource. People must start acknowledging that we have to build up our local people. It’s an investment we all have to make and a vision we all have to have.
“I love the fact that Nokubonga and Thembela’s children will be better off because of the work we are doing now.”
The Wild Olive African Artisan Apothecary and Artistic Perfumery is open for business at 29 Pepper Street, Cape Town, South Africa.