2019 SMART program reflections: O’live Handmade Soaps, South Africa

SMART team members in Cape Town, South Africa

The Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Team (SMART) program is a unique service opportunity and part of the Emerging Markets Program at the Dyson School. SMART brings together teams of both graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and staff from across the university and pairs them with small companies, organizations, and community groups located in developing countries and emerging economies. SMART teams work to address a specific need identified by their international partner and students work on well-defined assignments—challenging them to apply classroom knowledge and skills in real-world international settings.

About O’live Handmade Soaps

O’live Handmade Soaps, located in Cape Town, South Africa, is a private, family-owned business operated by the husband and wife of Sipho and Zikhona Tefu. O’live makes natural and botanical skincare products for local markets and retailers: facial and body soaps, body butters, massage candles, marula oils, etc. Much of the company’s products are created by mixing plant-based oils and turning them into nourishing soaps, balms, and scents.

In addition to the owners, the company employs four additional part-time employees. Most of O’live’s ingredients are sourced from local producers. They are committed to creating high quality, natural products and aim to limit their reliance on chemical company suppliers. A key goal for O’live is to seek certification.

Students exploring local South African culture
Skincare products on a shelf

SMART team challenge and tasks

The team was challenged with developing a unique marketing plan for the company and exploring the growth options that the owners were considering pursuing. Tasks included:

  1. conducting market research analysis, including benchmarking similar businesses
  2. tabulating the data
  3. offering suggestions for the company’s future endeavors, identifying new avenues for growth

Jamila E. Daniel, MPA ’20 (CIPA)

Jamila is concentrating in international development.

“With international development as my concentration, I applied for the SMART program because I craved an opportunity to apply what I had been learning in my classes while also learning what to expect from a career in development through experiential learning.  As a CIPA student, I study both the public and private sectors, exploring the roles each plays in development.

Working with O’live proved to be a unique opportunity because it involved working with a  small business that is representative of a larger social context. The company is affected by the history of the country; therefore, O’live faces similar challenges and opportunities that many black entrepreneurs encounter in their respective careers. As a black-owned business, O’live receives benefits from the government. Nonetheless, being part of a disadvantaged group still presents significant obstacles to the owners, whom are navigating a country with extreme wealth and racial inequality.

Working with such a talented team and a company that exudes passion and vision was as challenging as it was exciting, the perfect combination for facilitating learning. We conducted research, analyzed growth strategies, and provided recommendations. In the end, the company felt confident that our efforts would be an essential aspect for the future progress of O’live. Hearing that firsthand from the owners was the moment that made the trip all the more worthwhile. We were lucky enough to spend 10 days in beautiful South Africa; Even more, we build lasting relationships that will impact the success of the company and its leadership, long after we’ve left.”

Student collaborating with one of the business owners
SMART team member touring the production facility

Niagara Pal ’19

Niagara is concentrating in international trade and  development/marketing.

“For me, among the most interesting parts of our work in Cape Town was conducting market research on purchasing behaviors of the company’s target market. We distributed a survey to shoppers at two major farmers markets in the area, and then tabulated the data to guide our suggestions for the company’s future endeavors. I learned about the natural products market in Cape Town, which itself is an expanding area of interest amongst consumers.

Our team also gained insight into the effects that apartheid has left on the community. I was surprised to learn the extent of issues that still persist in the business climate, especially for small black-owned businesses. In addition, we learned about the experiences of “coloured” individuals, and the way they are often forgotten in national policies.

Overall, this was an amazing experience. As a Dyson student, I have taken many classes that have taught skills to help us solve problems in the real world. Through this program, I had the chance to finally apply that knowledge. I hope my efforts will make a difference for the business.”

Student enjoying the beautiful landscape
SMART team members collaborating

Ayan Ahmed, MPS ’19 (CIS)

Ayan is earning an MPS in information science with a focus on user experience design.

“Working with a small business in a rising industry to identify growth opportunities was especially interesting because of the research component. With UX as my focus, I’m passionate about user research, and the opportunity to apply that in a new space was exciting.

We conducted user surveys and stakeholder interviews, as well as rapid ethnographic research. This consisted of going to various markets and speaking with consumers, analyzing competitor products, using O’live’s products, and even visiting the farms of suppliers. It was a rich learning experience that provided a lot of insight into consumers, particularly the “greenies” of Cape Town, and the drive towards all-natural, locally sourced products.

I was surprised at how much the country’s complicated history affects O’live. As a black-owned business, it faces many difficulties, but also many opportunities from controversial government policies. I learned a lot—even in just 10 days—from being involved in a business built on passion and determination. Working with a multidisciplinary team was also educational, and it allowed me to form lasting friendships. It was a memorable and enjoyable experience with lasting value.

SMART team members examining inventory

Chad Fiechter, MPS ’20

Chad is earning an MPS in applied economics and management, with a food and agriculture focus.

“Traveling to South Africa and having the opportunity to work with O’live Handmade Soaps was truly a privilege. Owners Sipho and Zikhona Tefu are a special family with inspiring aspirations. As a team we had the opportunity to observe and participate in Cape Town’s local business culture. This tangible experience was felt in a way that could not have been facilitated through a classroom setting. The complexity, both culturally and from a business setting, could have only been understood from going to South Africa.

I believe the diversity of interests and education on our team helped guide our listening to the Tefus. We frequently heard and retained different portions of our conversations as we recounted them later. This aspect of a multidisciplinary team, coupled with our intense desire to provide something of value to the Tefus, guided the experience to success. The Tefus were extremely gracious hosts and we can only hope that they were able to benefit from our visit as much as we did.”