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Inspired by travel #9: Arganic

How discovering Morocco's 'liquid gold' inspired one entrepreneur to bring premium argan oil to UK consumers, to the benefit of Moroccan workers...

Company: Arganic
Founder: Dana Elemara
Started in: January 2012

Known as the ‘liquid gold of Morocco', argan oil was Africa's best kept secret until ambitious young Brit Dana Elemara realised that this simple ingredient, used by Moroccan mothers to aid their babies' digestion, could be turned into a lucrative business in the UK while simultaneously benefitting Moroccan labourers.

Having featured in the Food Network series Jenny Morris cooks Morocco in 2013Elemara's argan oil is now supplied to Michelin star restaurants as well as fine food distributors, satisfying the stomachs of some of the highest-paying diners in the country. Arganic has also been snapped up by leading cosmetic companies, who use the oil to make high end anti-aging products.

After hearing rumours of this rare oil grown only from the Argania Spinosa tree in Essaouira, a small city in the south west of Morocco, Elemara travelled there and discovered the indigenous Berber people producing one litre at a time through 15 hours of hand labour.

Determined to create a socially responsible business, Elemara only employs women who have grown up without an education but are well practiced in the art of making Morocco's liquid gold.

Specialising in oil for both culinary and cosmetic purposes, Arganic operates its own e-commerce channels and delivers its products across the globe.

Here's how travel inspired Elemara's exotic start-up:

Where were you when you got the idea?

I was in London just after having lived in Dubai for two years and was very inspired and full of ideas after being away. I heard a family friend raving about the benefits of argan oil and complaining she couldn't get it in the UK. Being a lover of all things natural I was intrigued. This led me to booking my first trip to Morocco.

Why were you so inspired?

I had always wanted to start a business because I love pushing myself and I find working hard very satisfying. I didn't want to waste this energy on someone else's dream.

I didn't have any idea when this would all come together but I allowed myself to be inspired by leaving my office job in the city and living in another country and I spent a concentrated amount of time travelling. I needed a detox from the typical office job mentality and this was a way to do so.

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it just seem too good to pass up?

At the time I had lots of ideas and didn't know which one to pursue. I also dipped into catering for a couple of months just to be doing something and to get exposure in the food industry, which is where I wanted to be. Bringing argan oil to the UK was just one idea. I told myself I'd go to Morocco for a holiday and at the same time learn about this oil.

As soon as I went there, I tried the oil, saw how it was made and I fell in love with the idea. I don't know whether it was the place, or the fact it helped women, but there was just something there.

There is something so magical about Essaouira and I knew I had to find reasons to go back. It sounded a bit crazy even to me and I had no clue how to start but that was part of the appeal. I am a natural dreamer and this idea had me thinking about big things.

How easy was it to start the business on your return?    

I really had no idea where to start, but I thought the best thing to do would be to keep myself busy. I went to a local farmer's market, started talking to a man selling olive oil and asked if I could shadow him. Meanwhile I went to the Portabello Business Centre which was local to me and went to some free business seminars before eventually being awarded a fantastic consultant who gave me some direction. I didn't allow myself to jump straight into it because this idea was too good to rush. In the same way that if you don't feel 100% comfortable when doing a sporting activity you are very likely to hurt yourself, I needed to feel 100% comfortable before actually starting this. One of the things I have been very good at is asking for help and this has got me far.

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

It took three trips to Morocco in the end to find my producer. This involved spending the night and having dinners with several families in their homes. I got to know some of the producers quite well and they were so hospitable, which made my decision about who to work with a lot harder. I insisted I travelled alone since I was taking on this big challenge on my own and wanted to be brave and independent. Each time I got inspired by something new, even for the design side of things, so you really have to be there to capture the culture, see the colours, eat the food. I researched producers of argan oil thoroughly since I wouldn't be able to market it as something of quality otherwise.   I made useful contacts on my travels including the owners of a prestigious cooking school in Essaouira and hoteliers. I did some competitor research and realised there was a gap in the market. I also realised I had the big advantage of being Arabic and speaking the language and understanding the culture, this means they treated me more like a local than an outsider.

How did you replicate what you'd seen overseas or use your experience there? Did you modify the idea for the UK market?

It was really hard to find market data in English, but I really believed in the product and took a risk. I could see that argan oil in cosmetics was a big deal in the US and I thought the trend would come here too. I decided that I was going to market my oil to the British public and also use it as a way to introduce my culture. So while I kept some tradition there I didn't want it to be intimidating to use. I didn't go for an Arabian-style bottle or packaging as I see argan oil as an everyday versatile ingredient, not simply as a souvenir, though my logo is based on a traditional Moroccan design. I worked with a photojournalist who came on one of the trips and therefore had lots of photos for my designers.

(Photo source: Philipp Ammon

How much did you invest in getting started?

I invested £8,000 to get it all started which is not much at all considering that covered all trips, my first order of stock, design and website. I think the fact that I had limited funds available was a blessing in disguise as I had to be more creative and careful.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you'd describe as ‘success'?

It's difficult to define success. It reached a point when I had some really good clients and that was amazing but only recently have I actually been able to make enough to live on, so I guess now I can finally call it a success.

Where did you go for advice?

The great thing about working in the quality food industry is that you are surrounded by lovely people. I was so flattered to have the likes of Henrietta Lovell of The Rare Tea Company who supplies The Fat Duck and other top restaurants take me under their wing.

I also regularly seek advice from companies like Womersley who have been around for a while and do lovely botanical vinegars, and Bim's Kitchen who are one step ahead. I believe in asking for help, it's great to take advantage of someone else's experience and you always pass the knowledge along which is nice.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

Firstly it's a good start to be travelling, as it's the best place to find inspiration when you can leave everything else behind. I would think about language barriers, and make sure you can trust people if you are going to need to work with someone there. Get in touch with the equivalent embassy in the UK for guidance. If you are importing, see if there are any issues with importing from that country and check legal implications. Also, think about weight – heavy things cost a lot more to transport. It's also a good idea to test the idea and think about how you can adapt it to work in a new market.

What are your future plans?

I've always dreamt of opening a restaurant since I have an obsession with people, food and design so that is the ultimate goal and I have some quirky ideas. Meanwhile, something exciting on the horizon is a collaboration with Rosie Millen of Miss Nutritionist to launch the first of its kind ‘anti-ageing foods' supper club.  Later down the line I will expand the product range to include other top quality hard to source ingredients.