[9 MINUTE READ]
TGIF everyone! This week, we had the pleasure of chatting with the Co-Founders of Nêô Sephiri, a skincare brand that has been researching and producing its hero product for the past 10 years.
"When we realised we had an oil that contained 70% essential fatty acids and a high concentration of Vitamin E, we knew we had a naturally powerful ingredient for the beauty industry."
Morning Bernard and Olga! Let’s start right at the beginning. Bernard, please could you tell me a bit about your childhood and how you feel it has influenced you today?
BvV: I grew up in the North West Province of South Africa, where my grandad and uncle are farmers. For more than 50 years they have been producing traditional crops, such as maize and sunflowers. The main thing from growing up in that area that still influences me today, and is central to our brand, is having a real understanding of the value of water. It’s not an area that gets a lot of rain, so it was a constant theme throughout my childhood to use water in a responsible manner. The threat of drought to the livelihoods of farmers was always palpable. However, generally there was always enough rain for the farms to be productive and for the towns to have enough drinking water, as long as everyone used it responsibly.
That is a really valuable lesson to learn young! So, how did you get started in the beauty industry?
BvV: Actually, it was all because of a drought. In 2009, a long drought started in the province where I grew up. Today, it’s considered a new normal. During the drought traditional crops were failing but the Kalahari Melon, a plant indigenous to the region, was still standing. I was nearing the end of my PhD in Chemistry in 2011 when my uncle contacted me because he discovered the seeds of the Kalahari Melon contained an oil and he wanted to know if it had any value. We set off to investigate the properties of the plant together; my uncle produced the oil from the melons he had been growing wild on his farm, and I used my training in chemistry to research the scientific properties of the oil. When we realised we had an oil that contained 70% essential fatty acids and a high concentration of Vitamin E, we knew we had a naturally powerful ingredient for the beauty industry.
That must have been so exciting! When did you decide to start up Nêô Sephiri and why? Was the timing important?
BvV: For us, we felt the need to innovate because of climate pressures. Through necessity, we discovered this incredible ingredient that could be made from this drought resistant, hardy plant.
OvV: Then, after almost 10 years researching and developing this special ingredient, and just as the world was facing up to the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided to launch a sustainable skincare brand, with Kalahari Melon oil as the hero ingredient. That’s how Nêô Sephiri was born.
Wow, what a journey! How does Nêô Sephiri consider issues relating to sensitive skin and allergies?
OvV: It was one of our early realisations about this oil. From using the pure oil ourselves, and giving it to friends and family to try, we noticed how gentle it was. We regularly received feedback from people who were initially hesitant to try it because of previous experience with products causing irritation, but they found that the oil soothed and fixed their skin problems, including persistently dry or acne-prone skin.
BvV: Of course, knowing the biochemistry of the oil, we weren’t surprised! Essential Fatty Acids that make up 70% of the oil are essential to healthy cell function, and they’re biologically native molecules. For confirmation, we conducted an extended safety test with 50 participants. Not a single person had an adverse reaction to our oil. Not even a mild one.
That is really impressive! And in what ways does Nêô Sephiri consider sensitive skin and allergies throughout the manufacturing process and when selecting ingredients?
OvV: Through our experience and safety testing, we know the soothing effect of our hero ingredient very well. Knowing how gentle our ingredient is, we’ve always been conscious to keep our products that way. That’s why our first product is just 100% Kalahari Melon Oil, with nothing added. Not even a preservative, as the oil contains enough natural Vitamin E already. That is what sets our oil apart from others. For any future products we make, our philosophy is to produce skincare without fragrance or irritants. We only want to add to the health of the skin. We don’t want to risk irritating the skin for the sake of having products with an appealing fragrance.
BvV: But don’t get us wrong; we are not “anti” fragrance or essential oils. They have a place and a function, and for many people they won’t cause adverse reactions. They just don’t fit with what we’re trying to achieve.
Absolutely! They have their place in some people’s lives for sure. How does sustainability factor into Nêô Sephiri as a business?
BvV: True sustainability is at the foundation of our DNA and at the heart of our production ethos. We are, ultimately, the product of an intervention to mitigate the effects of climate change in our region. We see enormous social impact potential in this ingredient, for people living in marginalised areas where the melons grow.
Our production process is also totally unique. We recycle 100% of our waste on our farm, and the entire process is totally circular. But even more than that, when we harvest, we return over 95% of the organic matter harvested directly back to the land, meaning only a very small amount of carbon is removed from the ecosystem in the first place. That means our ecological impact is absolutely minimal, yet our social impact potential is incredibly powerful.
That is really exciting! Do you think people are more conscious of the ingredients in their beauty and skincare products nowadays? If so, why?
OvV: Absolutely! We’re very fortunate that the conversation in the beauty industry has begun to focus on ingredients, and consumers are getting wise about marketing speak. However, there is so much more to be done. We really feel that people around the world don't just want to understand ingredients, they also want to understand where they were sourced, who farmed them, how it impacts the communities, how the ingredient travels and what the packaging is made from.
We’re excited for when that information becomes the norm. Once they have that information to hand, we think they’ll also want to know exactly how the ingredient they use impacts the Earth. Does it require lots of water to grow? How does it affect the overall ecosystem? As everyone's understanding of sustainability broadens, the benefits of this ingredient, for both the skin and planet, will come to the fore.
Absolutely! It’s all about asking the right questions of brands. What were your biggest challenges in starting up Nêô Sephiri?
BvV: Challenges are definitely constantly emerging in any start up. I think having the motivation and energy to succeed is so important. The desire to create something and willingness to iterate; staying positive and not giving up. The further we power through, the more motivated we become to do more for Nêô Sephiri to reach a wider audience. The biggest challenge to date has just been gaining recognition for the ingredient. It’s an incredible oil with so many powerful properties and benefits, but in terms of recognition we’re now where Argan Oil was in the 80s or 90s.
That must be frustrating! So, what strategies do you think have been key to the success of Nêô Sephiri?
OvV: Our main strategy is to get our product in the hands of our customer. Once tested, people immediately see the benefits of this naturally powerful oil. We’re constantly brainstorming creative ways to achieve this. We created our Nêô Sephiri MINI, which is enough for approximately 2 weeks of nightly use in your skincare routine. This timeframe is the perfect way to assess whether the oil has relieved your skin concerns and if you enjoy the daily hydration glow when you wake up.
A great tactic! So, from a personal perspective Olga, what is your favourite thing about your job?
OvV: My favourite part has to be working with incredible people, from our farm in the Kalahari Basin all the way to London. We’ve also worked with talented freelancers all over the world through various platforms. It’s great fun, finding smart and skillful people that believe in the brand and help us communicate our story through various means. Although COVID-19 has made the world feel larger (due to travel constraints), it’s given us the opportunity and confidence to make connections online. Like this interview for example!
"There is no bigger joy than landing in a new destination and feeling the uniqueness in the culture, mood, attitude and energy."
Absolutely! It’s been wonderful that technology has allowed us to collaborate with people all over the world during the pandemic. What do you think makes Nêô Sephiri stand out?
BvV: Authenticity. We have a single, unique, sustainable ingredient that we produce ourselves, on our organic-certified farm.
That is exceptionally unique for a beauty brand, it’s true! Bernard, could you describe your biggest “pinch-me” moment?
BvV: There have been many! We get excited about everything. We always feel honoured to win beauty awards within the sustainability and natural beauty categories. We’re incredibly motivated when we see real skin transformations within days when someone new discovers us.
That must be very fulfilling. What inspires you?
OvV: Travel. There is no bigger joy than landing in a new destination and feeling the uniqueness in the culture, mood, attitude and energy. It opens up your mind and broadens your ideas and understanding. Our oil transports me to the Kalahari Basin on a nightly basis - the natural scent and fast-absorbing profile take me to the desert, which I love!
How amazing! Products really can help you escape! Olga, could you describe what an average day at Nêô Sephiri looks like for you?
OvV: At the moment, an average day starts with my 7 am alarm clock. I’ll have a quick coffee and breakfast before jumping onto slack for 8 am. We usually start with a daily catch-up with our team in South Africa and London. Then, it’s more calls, sometimes wonderful meetings in cafés, making up samples and other administrative tasks. The day passes too quickly and there’s always lots left to do. We generally try to stop working around 7 pm and - ideally - try to do some exercise for an hour. Now that things are opening up, we are looking forward to exploring London in the evenings and attending some events. The day is always wrapped up with a good face cleanse and 5 drops of Kalahari Melon Facial Oil before bed.
That sounds busy but really exciting! Do you think you have a work/life balance?
OvV: Excellent question! For us, at the moment, work is life, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! It’s important to note that ‘work’ shouldn’t be defined as sitting at your desk; it can come in other wonderful shapes and places. For example, time alone to think can be one of the most productive outputs. Equally, a trip somewhere could allow space for new exciting ideas to creep in.
That is such a refreshing outlook! I completely agree. Sometimes the real work happens when you are feeling inspired, relaxed, and not in a traditional ‘work-mode. What words do you live by?
OvV: “Time is the most precious commodity.”
BvV: I’m too all-over-the-place to live by a single mantra, but if I had to choose one it would be to “think outside the box”.
Two important mantras, for sure! Finally, what’s next for Nêô Sephiri?
OvV: We are just getting started! Over the next couple of months, we hope to build strong and relevant brand partnerships to help to tell our story and reach a wider audience. We’re working towards developing Nêô Sephiri’s voice in such a way that we’re able to shed light on the authentic, farm-to-face approach that people want to see from the brands they choose. With efficacy, transparency, and authenticity, we’ll continue to make a positive impact through responsible and sustainable business.