Spotlight on a Small Brand with Big Plans: in Conversation with Le Riche Naturals

Small brands can play a big part in supporting regenerative agriculture and ethical wild-harvesting practices, so we thought we’d sit down with one of our favourites. Grounded’s resident botanist Elzanne Singels speaks with Lushinka Louw, founder of South African cosmetic brand Le Riche Naturals. We get an inside view of what it means to be a small business with high standards and how she sees her role in the bigger story of preserving Africa’s biodiversity.

edited by Hailey Gaunt

5 July 2021

Lushinka Louw, passionate founder of South African cosmetics brand, Le Riche Naturals. Credit: Elzanne Singels

First, why don’t you tell us a bit about your brand – the inspiration for it and how it came to be.

Well, it’s one of those things: when a mommy has a problem, she needs to solve it. My daughter was eighteen months old and she had terrible eczema and I just didn’t want to put her on steroids – cortisone creams and everything. I started playing around with making creams on my stovetop in the UK in my kitchen. That’s how the Rich Hand and Body Ganache came to be. I did a lot of research at the British Library, and the inspiration for the ganache came from the composition of the vernix [the natural lubricant that coats a baby at birth]. There’s quite a lot of cholesterol, ceramides in it – things like that. I just looked at what I could take from nature, what products were available to me.

So you tried to emulate nature’s own lotion, basically.

Ya, and it worked for her. And then all of the sudden my friends and their babies were in my lounge and everybody was wanting some of the cream. And then I decided that, ok, I’m going to make it a business.

Ok, so how did your business change in coming to South Africa?

When we moved to South Africa and we lived in Pringle Bay, which is the Kogelberg biosphere, and one day I was walking in the street and suddenly I smelt the most amazing fragrance - it was a rose geranium that was baked in the sun. 

I went home and I tinctured it. I started doing research and playing around with perfumes, and because I come from a skincare background, I approached it as somebody who is into skincare might approach it – somebody who does cosmetic emulsions, who really considers the skin when making a product. You’ll see there’s actually some Kalahari melon seed oil, pomegranate seed oil, jojoba oil in the perfumes. Then I looked at what the myrrh resins can do to make it last. Your skin interacts with the natural chemistry: two people can wear the same perfume and it smells totally differently.

Can you talk about the ingredients you’re most keen to source?

So my supply chain in the UK, oh, it was wonderful! It was so easy. I just said I want organic everything, thank you very much, and it landed at my door two days later. Then I came back to South Africa... It’s not that easy sourcing ingredients here. 

I have to make decisions about, for example, the jojoba oil: do I purchase from a local farmer who’s producing small quantities who hasn’t been able to afford organic certification because it’s pretty pricey – and why would he bother if he only has a few hectares? Is there low or non-existent use of pesticides there? Or, can I get the organic jojoba at exactly the same price from the US? And then it’s flown here. I’ve got the organic certification, but it’s not actually a South African product and the carbon emissions on it are huge. At the end of the day my decision is to try and get everything [from producers] I would like to support, and products I think my clients would like to have. 

 Louw believes nature holds the answers. Le Riche Naturals was borne of her quest to cure her daughter's eczema with a formulation modeled on nature's own prophylaxis.

This is quite a niche target audience you’re appealing to.

We’re looking here at what kind of food we’re feeding our skin. An organically farmed product is much richer in micronutrients than a conventionally farmed product – which is obvious, because there’s more micronutrients in the soil, and the uptake of the minerals is much higher. It’s a richer, more nourishing product. There’s just this little something extra you get by using really, really good ingredients... It’s the difference between drinking a Berocca for vitamin C – Berocca is a fizzy tablet with a thousand milligrams of vitamin C – versus drinking freshly squeezed orange juice. There’s less vitamin C in freshly squeezed orange juice, but your body can actually use it much better, so you need less.

At the end of the day my ingredients reflect what I’m trying to do, and I’m trying to make the freshly squeezed orange juice.  

That’s a great metaphor! But, still, choosing sustainable and ethical ingredients is super difficult for small brands. What are some of the challenges you face in getting the ingredients you want?

For some ingredients I have good suppliers who I trust, but it is difficult to find [certain products]. I go to quite a number of lengths to source. I phone the farmer for six months or nine months, and eventually I get a bottle and I just hope it can last me a whole year until they can produce again. And that is the biggest challenge for scaling up the business. It’s fine if I’m going to be a really niche brand selling only in Stellenbosch to tourists – I can meet that demand. But if I’m going to start exporting, that’s going to be a problem.

So it’s first of all finding the producer, then it’s establishing a relationship. Then it’s getting some kind of understanding and hoping they can supply you. And then it’s the reality of the logistics and actually accessing it. You have to have an idea of what goes into producing an ingredient.

You have to have so much knowledge to even decipher if ingredients meet your standards.

Right. I mean, the worst thing I encountered was ordering plum kernel oil and then the oil that actually arrived in my box at home in England was, like, fractionated coconut oil. I knew exactly what the oil was supposed to look like, what it’s supposed to smell like, the viscosity of it. And that was totally not plum kernel oil.

Ag! As a small business, you’re so vulnerable.

Ya. As a small business you are purchasing smaller quantities, but you actually still need all the certifications and certificates of analysis. So there’s a lot of admin.

It’s the same amount of admin whether you buy 100mls or you buy 100 litres.

And then how does this affect the end product – what the customers are buying? You have to transfer all that cost, all that legwork you do in sourcing, to the customer.

I am lucky in the sense that my customers understand that you do pay more for a niche product that’s handmade. The market I have identified – the people who want natural products – they’re willing to invest a bit more in a natural fragrance. 

Ok, so pricing is one thing, but growing your business is another issue.

Yes, that is the big thing. Growing the business, scaling the business – you can’t do that if you don’t have the raw materials – if the plants aren’t being farmed. You can’t artificially create these ingredients. There’s a kind of energy that comes from a plant that comes from the earth. It’s nice to capture that.

And it also means you’re supporting an industry of ethical, regeneratively grown ingredients in South Africa. The Cape Floristic Region is the most biodiverse plant region in the world - we have the smallest floral kingdom, but we have the most species packed into this surface area.

Exactly. And it’s a floral kingdom that is actually decreasing because of all the plantations and all alien species. It’s a plant kingdom that’s endangered. 

Big time. Also development and climate change.

It’s not only about trying to get the ingredients into products to sell to the world. It’s about saying we need to preserve this in order to have the biodiversity available, not only for now but also for future development. I mean, what else can we put in a perfume? We don’t know what we don’t know. There’s just so much potential [to use South African ingredients] because it’s so biodiverse.

And there’s a very big conservation motivation for making people aware of these indigenous fragrances – how important it is to farm then, and do indigenous wild harvesting. Ideally, it becomes viable to do sustainable wild harvesting and regenerate the veld.

These are the things in the back of my mind – in the back of your mind too. We’re fighting hard for it, but it’s difficult. 

Vert is Le Riche's latest unisex perfume, a signature blend that includes fynbos oils, meant to evoke a journey through the Cape Floristic Region.

That’s a good segue into my next question, which is about the indigenous African ingredients and what those mean to you and your products.

In my products it means something unique. It means something you can’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s a little bit of a fingerprint of Africa. It’s actually a very personal thing. The perfume Vert, the way its fragrance develops is very much the way your journey develops when you are walking in the mountains in Cape Town, in the fynbos floral kingdom. The smell of the kloof, when you go hiking in the Cape you get this brown water that comes out of the mountain. My children call it rooibos tea water – that’s the colour. You smell that and you smell the ferns growing in the kloof. And when you’re walking it smells very similar to when you put the perfume vert on your skin when it’s wet. And as it dries, the fragrance changes. And it changes to once you’re hiking along the kloof out to the top of the mountain where the fynbos is baking in the sun and it’s a hot summer’s day – then it smells like that.

The perfume itself is a journey that reflects, in a way, the love for the fynbos and the mountains and the landscape we have here. I’m trying to share the love and the journey and the uniqueness that we have here with the floral kingdom. So it’s literally that the perfume takes you on this journey also.

What about the challenges you’ve experienced as a small business – especially in the last year with Covid?

As a small business you’re always juggling your capital, your cash flow, and trying to establish new products. You’re doing research, testing new concepts and ideas. Having a small business is an emotional journey. You have the high-highs, and you have the low-lows, and in between that ride you have to have a very strong vision. You’ve really got to have a reason to push through, and it can’t always be ‘I want to make money’. You’ve got to have a vision bigger than yourself that you’re trying to achieve to get you through the rollercoaster.

For me, it’s the relationship I have with the world around me. It’s very much reflected in business. You need that.

What is your vision?

Oh my goodness! Well, it had to change after Covid, because Covid has been very tough. Online sales were keeping it afloat, but the great progress we were making with tourism [tourists buying products and attending perfume workshops] was instantly removed.

So now the vision is very, very simple. Zsa Zsa Gábor said, “I don’t go where I’m tolerated. I only go where I’m celebrated.” That’s pretty much my vision. We don’t want to tolerate making a perfume just to put on the market. We really want to celebrate everything that we do, and every customer that we have. And the plants, and the fynbos, and the beauty of our country and the uniqueness that it offers. We’re all about taking it to the celebration level. 

That’s a vision statement!

Thanks to Zsa Zsa!