A discreet white building on Pepper Street in Cape Town is the home of an internationally recognised natural perfumery and cosmetic brand. Between its cool, charcoal-grey interior walls is where Marioara de la Tara and her team make their eco-conscious products. Inspired by African botanicals and traditional beauty remedies they create perfumes, butters, creams, soaps, shampoos, serums, moustache waxes, balms, and exfoliators. When I come off the baking hot street, Maria greets me in the apothecary-styled store and takes me into the inner workings of her thriving business, Wild Olive African Artisans and Artistic Perfumery House. It’s early January and quiet. The team is packing and dispatching beautifully packaged products, focusing on swift and accurate delivery. There isn’t a hint of disinfectant or toxic chemical. Instead, a delightful and natural fragrance permeates throughout the building. The various rooms, each dedicated to a different function, are tidy and organised. We walk through the storeroom, the dispatch room, the factory, the administrative room, the porcelain studio, and the sewing area to Maria’s office and the laboratory on the top floor.
Ten years ago Maria bought a soap formula from a South African pharmacist, who had established Wild Olive in 1997. At her home in Hout Bay and together with Imizamo Yethu resident Nokubonga Liwani, she started learning the craft. “Neither of us knew anything. I didn’t even know what an essential oil was. I hadn’t studied chemistry. I studied music and then law”. Slowly they learnt how to make soap, and eventually thought it would be a good idea to sell their product to use the profit to buy ingredients. At first they sold at markets and to some health shops. Their first foray into making a new product started with a request to make a line of amenities for a boutique hotel that still stocks their products. From there, they forged ahead and now meticulously handcraft an extensive range of natural, organic products. Raw materials are sourced in South Africa and the rest of Africa. Today the 30-strong team sells Wild Olive across the world, showcasing the best of South African crafting and manufacturing.
During the interview, Maria repeatedly refers to “us”, the team, but the self-confessed workaholic is clearly the driver of this brand. There are many adjectives you could use to describe Maria: ‘Timid’ would not be one of them. She’s a dynamic, brave and driven entrepreneur who came to South Africa ten years ago to live with her life partner. The Romanian-born entrepreneur believes her success is the result of having an honest idea, being innovative and working with the right people. “Business can only be driven by people, not by money. If you’re not focusing on learning your business inside out, money is not going to bring any form of success… Today, you have to be an innovator and you have to know all the aspects of your business. You cannot compose a piece of music unless you have mastered an instrument.” Maria has an academic approach to everything she does. “I went to Romania to take private chemistry lessons so that I could get the basics right.” She has since completed a cosmetic chemistry degree.
On the top floor of the building is Maria’s office and laboratory with a view of Table Mountain. This is where some of the magic happens. It’s where she mixes and matches her materials. It’s also where the key tool of her trade is: a precision scale. “It can measure a breath of air,” she says. “This piece of equipment is crucial to the scaling up of Wild Olive formulas and maintaining their accuracy.” On one side of the room are neatly archived copies of Vogue magazine in multiple European languages, which she collects and reads to better understand her market. On the other side are shelves of books on design, African mythology, chemistry, history of perfume, art and fynbos. Other shelves are lined with dark glass bottles, big and small, containing different raw materials. Wild Olive Artisans manufactures on average 360 different formulas. “This is only possible because we are organized and structured. Our business is all about systems.”
Maria practices her craft for four to eight hours a day in her laboratory. “Perfumery is all about memorizing the behavior of each component and their relationships with each other. I work with over 120 African botanical materials, but I source over 1000 different ones for various projects. Most of my daily work involves me sniffing pieces of paper and making notes. I have books after books of notes, which I go back to for adding words or to modify words. This is a time consuming practice.” Her best formulas took longer than four years each to develop. The first time Wild Olive put a fragrance on a shelf was in 2012. “Perfumery is not something you can learn in three or four years. It’s like music. It’s a discipline more than an art, it’s technical rather than artistic.”
The Flora Capensis Parfum is one of the bestsellers. Maria says, “It is regarded by industry specialists as an innovation in natural perfumery. This is the formulation that put me on the map as a perfumer, and paved the path for the modern African perfume”.
Wild Olive products are 100% biodegradable. Maria says, “After washing with any of our products, you can use the water for your vegetable garden. We respect the water our products might end up in, and we respect the life in that water. This is our number one priority when we formulate products.” Wild Olive African Artisans’ mission is to demonstrate African excellence in product development and manufacturing. Its client base is proof of a mission accomplished.
Photo credits: Supplied