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Holy Lama Naturals is my family’s ethical business

Holy Lama Naturals is my family’s ethical business

Giejo Magazine talks to Gouri Kubair, MD of Holy Lama Naturals

Holy Lama Naturals is my family’s ethical business, founded by my grandfather back in the 1940s and based in Kerala, Southern India; I am the third generation to be involved.  We make extract and distil essential oils for use in our body care range and also a range of food and drink flavourings called Spice Drops, both of which are based on Ayurvedic principles.

In the last 18 months I have also founded a boutique accountancy firm called Kubed Solutions which draws on my previous career in finance and combines it with my extensive experience in building FMCG brands. My understanding of the worries and concerns specific to SMEs means I am able to offer them specialist help.

Business Strategies

I’d like to think the word that best describes our business strategy is ethical.

All our products, irrespective of the ranges, are based on ancient Ayurvedic principles, ensuring immune support and balance of body, mind and spirit. This sense of well-being permeates the business, demonstrated in the way it is run and the products we make.

Only the finest quality ingredients are used to make Spice Drops and our body care products, sourced primarily from local farmers in Kerala or elsewhere in India and building on over seven decades of strongly established relationships with farmers.  We’re proud that a genuine bond of trust exists between supplier and buyer, not least because we run the business on the 10 principles of Fair Trade.

In many developing communities (and let’s face it in Western society too!), there is sometimes an inequality in wages for men and women, but this is not the case for Holy Lama Naturals where equal pay is ensured, irrespective of gender.  In addition, annual wage increases are always made in line with inflation, so wages are assured, no matter how low the market falls. 

Holy Lama Naturals is also a Kerala Government recognised women’s enterprise, where over 80% of the workforce are women, mainly from disadvantaged backgrounds.  They may have been widowed, deserted by a partner, abused or left as a single parent, and under normal circumstances would have been rejected in a traditionally male-dominated society.   Work at the factory provides these women with much-needed self-confidence and financial independence.  Holy Lama Naturals is like a family to its employees and women of all ages, castes and religions are welcome, working together in harmony.  These women hand-make many of our products.

In addition, wherever possible sustainable materials are used for packaging and the factory’s sustainable model ensures there is less than 1% wastage in production. Any waste produced is used as fuel or cattle feed, making the company’s carbon footprint exceptionally low.  We also donate to Ecologi which helps plant more trees in the UK to move our business towards becoming carbon neutral.

How it all began

In 1948 my grandfather migrated from near Goa to Kerala, South India, to become a pioneer in the essential oils industry.  He was the first person to cultivate vetivert (a tall grass) to extract the oils on a commercial basis and it’s from here that the beginnings of the business, distilling and using essential oils in perfumery, can be traced.

Following in his father’s footsteps, my father, Vijay became involved in the family business at a very young age. His fascination with the world of essential oils and perfumery took him to Bhutan on a government-backed project helping locals cultivate and extract lemongrass oil. 

During the 1980s, he lived in the Himalayas for eight years.  During that time, he made a 12-day walking pilgrimage to Aja Ney where the presiding Lama presented him with a ‘Thangkha of Lama Guru’ which symbolises good luck in life. This is the inspiration behind the brand name – Holy Lama Naturals. 

Over the 2000s the Holy Lama Naturals business went from strength to strength.  My parents used their expertise in the distillation of essential oils and our family’s unique extraction process, to develop our range of Ayurvedic body care products and Spice Drops – professional strength natural extracts of herbs and spices for flavouring food and drinks which can be used in any recipe.  

Although interested in the family firm, in my early 20s I chose to spread my wings and trained as a chartered accountant in India. 

Eventually, the lure of working for the family business became too much and I left my comfortable job with Deloitte in 2013 to promote our ethical business bringing the Spice Drops and Body Care ranges to the European market.

Perhaps bizarrely I have now come full circle as a decade on, I have combined my previous experience in finance with my new expertise in running an SME and have created Kubed Solutions. This is an affordable accountancy service provider to help start-ups and SMEs by supporting them in achieving their creative ambitions without having to worry about accounting compliance. This came about because I noticed more and more businesses in my network were soliciting my help with accountancy and tax queries. Whilst helping them, I realised there was a gap in the market for affordable accountancy service providers who understand the struggles of a small business. 

Holy Lama Naturals remains my core focus, but Kubed Solutions is an interesting and increasingly busy side hustle!

The challenges

We have encountered several challenges over the years, not least when our Spice Drops were delisted from Sainsbury’s and we discovered that the intermediary had completely exaggerated the anticipated sales so we had massively over-ordered. It meant that we had huge amounts of excess stock to work with. We are lucky because Spice Drops have a three-year shelf life and so we had time to try to come up with ways to use them. We still made a loss, but it taught me an invaluable lesson!

With everyone going online and with a heightened interest in cooking, we actually benefited from the pandemic with increased sales. However, now as for everyone, the current cost-of-living crisis and the effects of the war in Ukraine is a big challenge for us. Customers who might have bought several items are sticking to just what they need, making their overall baskets much smaller. I can understand this thinking but our Spice Drops for example can actually help save money – there is no waste as with fresh herbs and spices, and our drops retain the same health benefits as the raw ingredient while retaining their aroma and intensity for up to three years – unlike dried herbs and spices, so they are much more economical! We just need to keep plugging away at getting these messages out there so people understand.

The opportunities

As society becomes increasingly concerned by climate change and the environment, more and more consumers are seeking ethically produced products.  Clearly Holy Lama Naturals ticks this box. 

We produce a range of four, plastic free, ethically made soaps which are vegan, eco-friendly and sustainable. Each is hand moulded into attractive round soap bars which don’t crack or go mushy when they are worked into a rich, creamy lather.  The soaps are packed in oyster shell shaped holders made from leaves shed by the areca palm which double as a soap dish.  Environmentally friendly paper tags are hand stitched onto the ‘shell’ before it is sown together to secure the soap in place.  The same personal care and attention is taken with each and every soap.

The oyster shell packaging was the brainchild of my father.  The company had always been ahead of its time when it came to ethical production.  Vijay Deo had seen the naturally falling leaves of the Areca palm being used by locals to make bowls and plates and had the idea of using the same material to create the bespoke oyster shell with the suggestion that the soap inside was the ‘pearl’.  

At the time, the oyster shell was unique and Holy Lama Naturals patented the shell shape, but other companies were inspired and copied us using the palm leaves to make other shaped products.

The soaps help fill the growing demand for soap bars which are gaining in popularity as consumers reject liquid soaps in plastic bottles, while the packaging enables the business to make use of natural materials which are freely and easily available.

We would love to extend our fully compostable and sustainable packaging across the whole Holy Lama Naturals range. In the same way that we found a solution for our soaps, we will continue to search for a similarly eco-friendly answer to the problem of sustainable packaging for our liquid products.  I think this remains a huge opportunity for the business.

In the world of food, global influences and flavours are very much on trend and with over 30 varieties of Spice Drops we make experimenting with these easy, convenient, and best of all there’s no mess or waste.  

As a small business we can also be very agile and respond to any new flavour trends quickly as they emerge, so that we can remain on the front foot.

Gouri’s advice to others about business

We all make mistakes, and that’s the best way to learn; I’m still making mistakes today!  I’d say allow a certain amount of trial and error, and if something isn’t working, stop!

I’d also tell new entrepreneurs to establish KPIs to ensure a return on any expenditure and have a clear strategy and processes.

Remember people are your biggest asset, whether external agencies or direct employees, and you must keep them motivated and bring them along with you.  Working from home it’s easy to internalise everything, become stressed and pass that onto your staff.  Don’t!  Good communication is vital which is something I’m still learning!

Finally, know your breakeven point – this is key so you know what the minimum is you must earn every month to keep your business running.

Lessons I’ve learnt from running Holy Lama Naturals and Kubed Solutions

Do your market research and decide whether there is a genuine gap for you or your product to fill. Make sure you get your branding and story spot on; the look of a product/ brand makes a huge difference to its marketing. This isn’t necessarily something that we did with Holy Lama Naturals – we have had to do it backwards and convince consumers that there is a need for liquid spices for example.  That has been much harder, although I think we are succeeding!  With Kubed Solutions, I genuinely feel there is a gap, and I am the best person to fill it.

There is a lot more help out there online than there was when I set up the UK arm of Holy Lama Naturals.  Make use of the various Facebook forums and courses, many of which are free, and for your own benefit, meditate.  I really recommend people do that to keep a positive frame of mind.

Talk to us!

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Ksenia Sobchak, BA (Hons) Fashion Communication: Fashion Journalism, Central Saint Martins Ksenia Sobchak enjoys blogging on fashion, style, lifestyle, love and CBD areas. Prior to becoming a blogger, Ksenia worked for a renowned fashion brand. Ksenia is a contributing author to leading fashion, lifestyle and CBD magazines and blogs. You can bump into Ksenia at her favourite cafe in South Kensington where she has written most blogs. Ksenia is a staunch advocate of CBD and its benefits to people. Ksenia is also on the panel of CBD reviewers at CBD Life Mag and Chill Hempire. Her favourite form of CBD are CBD gummies and CBD tinctures. Ksenia is a regular contributor at leading fashion, lifestyle as well as CBD magazines and blogs.

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