It’s been a long road for Denise de Villiers, one that started in IT and finance and ended up at her Lowveld Soap Company in Nelspruit. “In between, in 2012, there I was literally counting cows when I was retrenched and had to find something else to do,” she says.
“I tried a takkie-decorating business and a few other things but then this business came up for sale. I made a few soaps and was hooked. You might do it out of necessity to start with but then it becomes a passion.”
A blend of unique ingredients
Denise, a neat bundle of efficiency and enthusiasm, likes her soaps bold and creative. In her tasteful display room there are slices of lemon meringue under a cake dome, pink rose-shaped soaps, soap on a rope that looks good enough to eat, and bowls of many more.
At a table, long bars of soap with swirling designs are waiting to be cut into smaller blocks. “I never know how they are going to turn out,” says Denise. “You can add all sorts of things to make the soap more interesting and give it more uses. We also add charcoal, spirulina and lemongrass to men’s soap,” she explains handing me one to smell.
“My favourite soap is goat’s milk with oatmeal and honey. It has these gentle colours and a soft, buttery feel to it. I have energising soaps with peppermint and poppy seed, and some with lavender and chamomile for insomnia. We add essential oils from spices like nutmeg, and cloves from Zanzibar, and we even use red wine and beer.”
But it’s not all creativity. When Denise shows me her soap-making technique she becomes business-like and efficient, focusing on getting everything right. She uses a technique where heat and temperature are critical.
“It’s a bit like making a white, cheese sauce – you need to do it correctly or it becomes lumpy and horrible,” she explains.
A Lowveld community
It’s a complex process of mixing oils, adding lye and water in just the right quantity, and blending in the fragrance oils and other additives. No alcohol is used and she ensures the ingredients are ethically sourced.
Once the soap is ready, it’s poured into moulds, some to make slabs for other moulds. Then it’s ready to be cooled and put ‘to bed’. It is literally kept warm under blankets and towels and allowed to cool slowly.
“This is where the magic happens as the chemical reaction continues and the soap becomes a gel,” she says. Once the soap is made it goes into a temperature-controlled curing room for five to six weeks. I get a peek into this room, a trove of designs, colours and scents.
“Here in the Lowveld the community is close and we all help each other,” she explains, when I ask her about marketing her products. “People like to buy local, the bush lodges have given me huge support, and I also sell at markets here.” A local community project makes small soap bags for Denise, and a project for the disabled supplies the soap dishes. Denise always keeps some of the moulds back to give to charity and to friends.
Next on my visit list is soap fundi Wendy Sippel from Crafted Cosmetics, who lives on a farm in the hills outside Nelspruit, where her studio is set among trees. She describes herself as an eco-hippy, but her story is similar to Denise’s in that her soap and cosmetic making stemmed from a need.
Her daughter had a skin condition and needed specialised soaps and creams. “I couldn’t find anything that was all-natural and that would not affect her, so I decided to make my own,” says Wendy.
“I am out to make a living, not a killing.We need to be kind to the environment and to our own bodies. Our skin is our largest organ and we must make sure it doesn’t absorb unpleasant things.” As she shows me around her sweet-smelling studio she explains that her background is in plants and medicinal herbs.
She and her husband Arthur, who is a horticulturalist, grow African ginger on the farm as well as turmeric, both used specifically for inflammation and skin rejuvenation. “African ginger is a wonder herb,” she explains, “and we mix it with raw honey to make an anti-inflammatory soap.”
Other natural products that Wendy adds to her soap are pepper bark, rose water and moringa. “I am very strong on making sure I source sustainable products, which is why we like to grow our own if we can. I have to bring in frankincense (resin from a tree) from Oman where they are strict on how they harvest it,” explains Wendy. “I am an activist, not just a conscious consumer.”
Wendy’s soap-making process is a cold process and only takes two days of curing. One of her soap bases is saponified coconut oil and many of her creams use beeswax, shea butter and soya wax, as well as a vegetable-based aqueous cream.
Keabetswe Mogodi, who has worked with Wendy for almost two years, is key to the process. “Kea has something of the traditional healer in her,” says Wendy, “and has an instinct for what to put into our soaps and cosmetics.”
I have been amazed at the variety of ingredients that goes into soap making, so when I hear about silk being added to soap at Godding & Godding in Hoedspruit, in neighbouring Limpopo, I set off for a visit.
An African touch
The massive Blyde mountains tower behind me as I drive through the flat thornveld. “I used to be in the lodge business, but when I had children I wanted to do something where I worked from home,” explains Sue, as she welcomes me to 24 Degrees South, a little oasis of shops and eateries in the middle of the bush.
The Goddings make a range of pure-silk bed linen, but it’s the soap and skin products I am interested in. “People who work with silk have incredibly soft hands and I was fascinated by this,” says Sue. “It seems that silk is good for our skins and, when I researched the properties of silk, I thought why not make a skincare range.
“Silk is the purest form of protein. It also contains 18 of the 22 amino acids and helps with collagen. Here we grind the silk cocoons into the finest powder and add it to our creams and soaps.”
The Goddings used to farm silkworms and mulberry trees but because of pesticide drift from nearby farms, the worms battled to thrive. Now they import the raw silk from China.
“We then add our own African touch,” explains Sue. “We have wonderful indigenous plants like marula, rooibos, aloe vera and baobab to add extra vitamins to the skincare range.”
The small shopping centre 24 Degrees South (exactly on that latitude just south of Hoedspruit) is fascinating. “We originally began with our silk-linen business but then it kind of grew,” explains Sue. “Now there’s a café under the thorn trees, lots of different shops in a village layout, and there’s a spa.”
It just makes it even harder to leave.
The Lowveld Soap Company
Denise de Villiers 083 228 3718
Wendy Sippel 084 205 9522
Godding & Godding at 24 Degrees South
Sue Godding 072 467 3310