DLG Naturals aiming to ’empower the rural poor’ in southern Africa

DLG Naturals is aiming to “empower the rural poor” by sourcing natural products from southern Africa for the cosmetics industry.

So says Mary Jo Knueppel, director of sales for the Janesville-based company. It was started in 2008 and guided by CEO Georgia Duerst-Lahti’s vision of empowering women. Duerst-Lahti has worked as a professor of political science at Beloit College since 1986, specializing in rural developments, political campaigns and gender issues.

“We source ingredients on a fairtrade basis, to help affect the people at the bottom,” Knueppel told WisBusiness.com. “We want people doing the wild harvesting to be the ones who have some sort of benefit — that plays right into Georgia’s lifetime of experience in political science and women’s empowerment.”

The company has a production operation in Botswana, and also works with women’s cooperatives in a handful of other African countries to obtain the products it sells in bulk to retailers and manufacturers around the world.

Knueppel says 80 to 90 percent of the people going out and harvesting the natural oils and butters are women, as mining is the main industry for men in southern Africa.

“Women are left at home with no source of income, and they must pay for school fees, pay for medical, have to provide food, home upkeep — all of that,” she said. “These women are employed by cooperatives who train them in harvesting techniques, which we too are doing.”

One of the company’s products starts with the marula plant, which grows a plum-sized fruit with a hard pit inside which houses the oil-containing seeds. DLG takes those seeds out and puts them through a cold press process which extracts the valuable oil. Importantly, she says, the company uses no heat or chemicals to get the oil, just immense pressure.

Filtering is then done if needed, and the product is shipped from that operation in Botswana over to the United States, where it’s packaged and sent to its destination. DLG also works with cooperatives in Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland to source the needed biomaterials.

“Our network spans from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean — all across southern Africa,” Knueppel said.

The seeds inside the marula fruit make up about 10 percent of the fruit’s weight, and of that, only about 2 percent is oil, Knueppel estimates.

“We have to collect an awful lot of marula seeds,” Knueppel said. “We’re talking tons.”

DLG’s supply chain plays a role in pushing back against deforestation, Knueppel added, as it gives residents an incentive to keep the trees around their villages standing, rather than chopping them down for building materials or firewood.

“Out in the bush — for baobab and marula especially — in many of these areas, the missionaries that came before recognized that this is a good, healthy food,” she said. “It offered lots of benefits to people, so they planted groves near small villages.”

They had to plant a lot of them, she said, because wildlife and village animals like goats and cows enjoy grazing on the young plants. Huge groves now exist as a result of these long-ago efforts, as the marula tree has a deep, sturdy root system that allows it to go for weeks, and even months, without rain.

“Maintaining the trees is important,” Knueppel says. “By providing a source of income from the trees, that gives a reason to leave those trees there. That prevents deforestation, and it means you’re keeping the desert in check.”

Marula trees are now very prevalent, she said, and providing a way for locals to make money off of this excess is making a big difference for families which were “basically unemployed” beforehand.

“These are happy people; they have a source of income for once,” Knueppel said. “We’re teaching them to fish rather than giving them a fish, so they can take care of themselves in the long term.”

Ultimately, she says the company hopes to positively affect these people in more ways than it currently is, and that’s part of the growth plan moving forward.

DLG Naturals sells wholesale to other businesses, with customers including major cosmetics manufacturers, small do-it-yourselfers on Etsy and other online marketplaces, as well as some hair salons and spas. Most of its sales are in the United States, Knueppel says, but some customers are in Canada, Mexico, Japan, France and Germany.

“As we can, we are going to expand into more of the oils… next year, or the year after,” she said. “We’re hoping once we get our processes down and have a stronger customer base, we will be able to expand employees here, and keep expanding our reach to truly be a global company.”

–By Alex Moe