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Kerleen’s love affair with soap

Teacher transforms hobby into business
Published: 
Sunday, April 22, 2018

Kerleen Alexander is the first to admit that for a long as she can remember she had a “love affair” with soap.

“I remember when I was younger I would buy soaps just for so because I always loved the various smells and how they looked,” she recalled.

“As I got older I wanted to learn how to actually make it. You can say it was a love affair from the start,” the 38-year-old Tobago teacher and entrepreneur said.

Alexander starting making soap not as a stress reliever but as an avenue to express her creativity.

“It’s very therapeutic to go home to oils such as peppermint after a long day of teaching. The fragrances are very relaxing and the end product is pretty. It’s really a labour of love,” she explained.

What initially started as a hobby has become such a lucrative business venture that Alexander is exploring options for exporting her range of soaps.

She launched into the business with encouragement from a Facebook group, Girly Girl—a safe place where women share their skills in different areas including: skin care, make-up and fashion.

Alexander was inspired to launch her own line using local products such as turmeric, bentonite and charcoal.

Her soaps are branded, Amo Mia Pelle, Italian for “I love my skin.”

“One of the things we talk about in the group is not only using local and natural products but possibly promoting them to international audiences. I see myself as an upcoming entrepreneur playing a role in the development of the economy of T&T,” she said.

“Tobago especially has a lot of potential for this type of market.”

Alexander, who teaches biology at all levels at the Harmon School of SDA in Tobago has a fully established a production area at her Montgomery home.

Apart from taking a few soap making classes, she is largely self taught and uses the Internet as a tool in enhancing her products.

With initial capital of about $5,000 and simple silicone and plastic moulds, Alexander began her soap-making journey.

“My most high-tech equipment was the stick blenders which do not really cost a lot. After a while it gets a bit easier because money starts flowing in to offset cost.

“Initially you would have to put out money get your oils. There must also be trial batches to ensure the produce is of high quality but, with time, soaps are perfected,” Alexander explained.

Ingredients are not difficult to source, especially natural oils like coconut, soya bean and sunflower, which are available locally.

The soaps are infused with Alexander’s signature-pressed flower petals which she believes enables her goods to stand out from competing products.

“The rose petals have to be imported. They are easy to work with because they are already dried and pressed, as opposed to using fresh flowers. This cuts down on time,” she said.

Alexander plans to use and promote local flowers such as bougainvillea in her products.

The soaps range from $30 to 35, depending on size. While profits have been steady, the business is still a work in progress and Alexander has plans for expansion.

There are some challenges, however.

“It started off as a side gig and when I saw it was viable I started making more soaps but working full time and making soaps after work, or in my spare time, had been a bit of a juggle.”

Most times her expenses are covered but occasionally she breaks even.

“I guess it depends on the scale you’re doing it at. Then you have to look at the packaging and labelling, which is an additional cost.

“If you really want to cut costs you don’t have to go all out, like fancy designs such as adhesive labels and shrink wrap but the overall presentation in the long run matters.”

Labels are outsourced from Trinidad but, at times, this in itself is difficult due to the unreliable seabridge.

“I was surprised that TTPost depends on the boat to get a lot of stuff across to Tobago. I thought everything was via the plane and in 15 minutes the goods will arrive in Tobago but it doesn’t work like that.

“There was one instance when the boat wasn’t working for a couple days and labels that should have come to me in a day or two took about a week and a half. I was literally beside myself because there were customers I had promised items to within a certain time frame. In business your reputation is crucial,” she said.

Some of Alexander’s top sellers include turmeric mixed with charcoal a combination in demand by clients who want clearer skin that free from acne, blotches and sunburn.

The business is about nine months old and most of Alexander’s customers are in Trinidad. She already has her eyes et on the European market as foreigners have been seeking to have soaps shipped to their respective countries.

Being in Tobago has helped to market the products.

“Once you have a starting point, everything else will fall into place,” she said. “I definitely see myself having my own store front in the next two years.

“Once tourism remains vibrant this will always be a big plus as there are so many people from all over the world in Tobago so there’s plenty opportunity to get local goods out of the country. I even have relatives in Italy who are interested in helping me make the necessary links.”

Alexander also wants to expand regionally, especially as wholesaling has been profitable.

“A lot of people use the products to make-up gift baskets. There are some who buy in bulk to give as token for different occasions. The scope is very wide so it’s just to fit your business into all of this.”

On whether she plans to leave the teaching profession to become a full-fledged soap maker, Alexander said for the time being she sees it as supplementing her income.

“At my scale right now, to get enough products sold and make enough money to live, it’s not possible.

“Once the opportunity presents itself I will have several more hours to actually increase production. I am exploring that option. I make about two, three batches of soap a day but I would like to make up to seven.”

Her soaps are cut roughly one inch thick but she has had customers requesting entire “loaves” as well.

Her advice to someone starting out in business: “It’s a nice hobby but there’s a real opportunity to make money. This, in itself, is encouraging for small businesses like myself. Take the risk.”

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