Responsible Business: The right kind of fair — from Africa, with love

This article first appeared in Enterprise, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 12, 2018 - November 18, 2018.

I really care about everything that is happening around me. I do not want to be part of something that shortchanges people. > Cheah

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Like every new mother, Kelly Cheah had her fair share of harrowing post-partum skin conditions that left her feeling helpless. It was after she gave birth to her second child that she finally looked into natural skincare alternatives as she had begun reacting badly to synthetic substances in store-bought soaps and facial products.

“The effects of post-pregnancy hormones are not to be underestimated as the hormonal changes really wrecked my complexion,” says Cheah.

“Four years ago, when I had my second child, my body started reacting badly to all regular skincare products — from expensive shower gels to cosmetics. I decided to read up on the possible reasons and the more I read, the more I realised there were a lot of harmful chemicals in the products I was using.

“I got some homemade soaps from a friend and true enough, I stopped having the allergy-like reactions. I started looking at the ingredients of some of the all-natural soaps I was using and found out about the baobab fruit.”

The baobab tree is native to Africa, Australia and the Middle East. Its bark, leaves and seeds have traditionally been used to treat diseases such as fever, diarrhoea, anaemia, toothache, malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery and microbial infections.

“I learnt that it is a super fruit and it has many uses. The baobab is rich in Vitamin C and well known for its antimicrobial, antiviral,

antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Cheah.

“And as I continued to read up on this and did some research, I realised that South Africa had a very diverse ecosystem and that despite the developments, there were vast plains that remained untouched and uncontaminated. So, the people whose livelihood depends on the land are able to produce high-quality products using good ingredients.”

This gave the mother of three the idea to start a one-stop portal, aptly called Savanna Goodness, to sell skincare products out of Africa. That is because there are hardly any merchandisers from that part of the world in this region owing to the vast distance between the two continents.

“Some natural or organic skincare products that were available on the Malaysian market appeared to be natural at the outset, but if you really look at the list of ingredients, you will find that it is not the case,” says Cheah.

Establishing a home-based business enabled the former IT executive turned homemaker to build a legacy of her own. Out of the fascination for the ecological and cultural diversity she had read so much about, Cheah decided to travel to South Africa in 2015, where she discovered several established brands that only use natural products and practise fair trade.

“I really fell in love with the country, although it was my first time there. I was determined to focus on South African products because they are almost non-existent in Malaysia,” she says.

“I wrote to the brand owners and manufacturers before I travelled there. I wanted to make sure the products were genuine and verify everything I had read on the internet. So, I set up appointments and spent some time meeting the brand owners to really understand the story behind each brand and their manufacturing facilities as well.”

To begin with, Cheah decided to bring in a luxury skincare brand called Skin Creamery, which uses the baobab fruit and incorporates fair-trade oils sourced from the African continent. She also engaged Hannah Rubin, founder and managing director of the brand, to be the sole distributor of the products in Asia-Pacific.

“Five years ago, when I discovered the brand, there weren’t many natural products in the Malaysian market, apart from artisanal soaps made by small-time vendors,” says Cheah.

“I decided to give Skin Creamery a try and it was an instant favourite. Within a month, I saw major improvements in my skin condition. It gave me the idea to locally market this brand of skincare products as they were entirely natural and met international standards.”

To ensure that the products were suitable for different Asian skin types, she shared some products among her circle of acquaintances and received rave reviews. The greatest challenge at that point was figuring out the logistics as the Ministry of Health requires importers of cosmetics to obtain a certification stating that the products were manufactured using the standards prescribed in Good Manufacturing Practices.

“So, the manufacturer needs to meet certain criteria before we are allowed to import its products. Most artisanal products are good, but to bring the products that we wanted to market here, we needed to make sure they were made in a safe environment that had been independently certified,” says Cheah.

“A lot of home brands fall shy of achieving the right quality because they do not get certified. This matters to me because as a mother, I have safety concerns.”

The ethos of Skin Creamery, which is based on the concept of conscious living, was something she could relate to as well. “The products Rubin created are not only safe but also support fair trade and the brand is against animal testing,” says Cheah.

Although Savanna Goodness is an e-commerce platform based in Malaysia, it has been selling these products across Asia. “We have been regularly shipping the products to Singapore, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong,” she says.

Like most businesses, Cheah had a hard time convincing customers at first. But with the help of social media, she was able to hit her sales target by the end of the second quarter. “Fair trade is a concept that has not really taken off in Malaysia because of the lack of standards and awareness of supporting local trade,” she says.

Cheah says she is building Savanna Goodness into a one-stop centre for fair-trade goods and good business practices. “It is not just about trading or products that can give us huge profit. It is about making an impact on a community as well.”

Being a mother, she is determined to ensure that the products she markets are sustainably sourced and meet human rights requirements. “I really care about everything that is happening around me. I do not want to be part of something that shortchanges people,” says Cheah.

“I want farmers to be paid fairly and work in a safe environment. And most importantly, I want to ensure that their children are not forced to work from a very young age. In South Africa, farmers are forced to work really long hours because they are contract labourers and the industry is monopolised by several large corporations.

“By supporting fair trade, we are actually giving them an option to sell at a fair price to manufacturers. That is why I really like the vision of Skin Creamery as it only sources fair-trade supplies from independent farmers, even if it means paying a little more for premium ingredients.”

She adds that any other brand that she brings on board in the future will have to subscribe to similar values. “We have a strict ingredients policy. We want to make sure that the brands we bring in are not only perceived to be natural but ensure that there are no nasty substances.”

Cheah believes that fair trade, despite being a nascent concept, is gaining ground in Malaysia among the young generation. But the lack of awareness is not the only hindrance. The lack of knowledge about Africa is another obstacle she has to overcome.

“You would be surprised, but I still get asked how I survived in South Africa because many still think Ebola is raging over there,” she says.

Another challenge is the lack of knowledge about skincare products from Africa. “We have been giving out testers and doing roadshows. We take this opportunity to explain the goodness of baobab and to assuage concerns about the Ebola outbreak and how it is under control,” says Cheah.

“The response has been very encouraging. Some of the products have received rave reviews, which means a high number of repeat customers.”