Arganic Oil

We continue our series of interviews with new artisanal food and drink entrepreneurs, to find out how they started their business and how they overcame the challenges of creating a new company. This month we meet Dana Elemara, who founded Arganic Oil, a supplier of argan oil from Morocco.

The Foodie Bugle: Dana, can you describe your business, where it is based, what it does and how many people you employ.

Dana: Arganic is a new company, based in London, that imports pure organic argan oil from Morocco and supplies it to the food and cosmetic industry. It is one of the most rare oils in the world, coming from the UNESCO protected argan tree that grows only in south western Morocco. I spent over a year researching the sourcing of argan oil and have an exclusive partnership with one of the most reputable producers. Because it takes approximately 15 hours and 30kg of fruit to produce just one litre of oil, it means that skilled workers need to be employed. In Morocco only women are involved in this production process and their employment provides not only a good source of income in a poor region but an opportunity for them to gain independence.

TFB: Did you originally train to do the job you are doing now or is your business a second career choice which required additional training?

Dana: I didn’t have any business experience prior to starting Arganic. I have a BSc in Mathematics from King’s College London and I have managed to adapt problem solving skills into the business world where you constantly need to be able to deal with unfamiliar problems. I also did very well in art at school and even had a painting published in The Times. Setting up my own business was all about creativity.

After an internship during my degree I was offered a job at the investment bank, Goldman Sachs, on a graduate scheme, which I took. It was not the best environment for me, but it taught me about the real world, developing a strong work culture, how to network at a professional level and gave me practice at working long hours.

There are lots of free and subsidised business-start up courses out there and I have made the most of them. I would recommend trying libraries and getting in touch with your local borough or business centers. I went on a course on importing, courses on finance, SEO {search engine optimization}, social media and intellectual property, many of which were free.

TFB: How was your business set up: how and why did you think of the idea, and how did the business plan develop from paper to reality?

Dana: The idea came about when a friend of the family was talking enthusiastically about argan oil a couple of years ago and complained it was impossible to find in the UK. Since I’ve always been obsessed with food, raw ingredients and healthy living I was intrigued. I then got in touch with friends in Morocco and did some investigating. I took my time doing research before making a serious decision to go ahead with my new venture. I spent time talking to people at farmers’ markets and shadowing people in the industry to get a feel for what I was getting myself into. I then approached The Portobello Business Centre in London which is local to where I live. They put me in touch with a brilliant business advisor called Colin Rutt who gave me much needed guidance. While I was there writing recipes and getting carried away, he brought me back to reality, helped me set milestones, and check the important legal issues first. I initially thought I would need a partner for my business since I felt it was all too much for me to take on by myself. Having the support and guidance of a business advisor and consultant like Colin, however, meant the fear did not seem quite so insurmountable.

I spent about a year researching the oil in Morocco and meeting over ten different recommended producers. It was important to be to selling a high quality product if I was to put my name on it. Being Arabic and speaking the language did help as I got to know the locals well and they didn’t treat me as an outsider. The way you do business in the Middle East is very different to the UK and it’s not for the faint hearted! Luckily I met a producer with similar ideas, goals, ethos and we built a trust. The company had already been exporting to other parts of Europe for years but it was new to the UK market and Arganic have become the exclusive UK distributor of their oil.

TFB: How did you find the financing you needed in the beginning?

Dana: I financed my start-up costs through a part- time job. I worked as a demonstrator for the biggest concession in Hamley’s toy shop. This was exhausting and I was working eleven consecutive hours a day at times and losing my voice regularly, but on a good day I would make up to £400. You have to do whatever it takes to fulfill your dreams and this was flexible work and most importantly I didn’t have to think about it once I got home.

The banks really aren’t lending at the moment and I am currently applying for various grants and awards. It’s tough.

TFB: What challenges and difficulties did you face in the very beginning? How did you manage to overcome these problems, and did anyone help you?

Dana: Personally one of the most challenging things for me is my age. I am 27 but most people think I look about 17! It can be difficult having people take you seriously initially. Saying that, all it takes is five minutes for anyone to realize how serious, passionate and knowledgeable I am about my product. Colin, who has been consulting me from the start and fully believes in what I am doing, sometimes joins me at important meetings, which helps too.

Creating a new business in a new market poses its own problems. I have tried to overcome challenges by surrounding myself with older and more experienced people. Flattery goes a long way in terms of seeking advice from role models and you’d be surprised how willing people are to help. I have taken as much help as I can get. I have been fortunate to meet some amazingly supportive people including some established names in the industry.

It’s tough doing everything on your own, you’re having to do marketing, administration, recipe development, negotiating, labeling, accounting, research, managing relationships, social media and you also need to know where you stand legally, all on your own. But when you truly believe in what you are doing and are selling something you love, it’s never hard to get up in the morning.

TFB: Where do you sell your product and to whom? Describe the customers you have now and the customers you would like to attract and engage with.

Dana: At the moment as well as our online shop we sell our culinary argan oil in a few speciality food shops in London including Partridges as well as to private chefs and restaurants. I am speaking to some food distributers at the moment as well as some well-known stores.  I am taking things step by step as I want to grow the business in a strong and healthy way. I am more concerned with supplying the best quality argan oil rather than growing fast.

I supply cosmetic grade raw argan oil too, however for this I am not focused on branded products but more on distributing the oil in volume to cosmetic companies to use in their own products.

TFB: Do you use the Internet, newsletters and social media a great deal to engage with the community around you and the wider community? Do you have a Blog and do you update it regularly?

Dana: I use Twitter a great deal and that has been brilliant for free marketing. I have made many foodie friends, I have managed to get into ‘the circle’ and have a good caliber of followers.

TFB: What good advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting up a business in the industry you work in and why? If you knew then what you know now what would you do differently?

Dana: I would advise to surround yourself with older and more experienced people. Ask for help and utilize all the different resources around you.

Hold back on spending as much as possible: ask yourself if the item of expenditure is really essential. Even the little things soon add up.

Events like The Foodie Bugle Lectures were brilliant for me because I got instant access to some influential people within the food industry. It gave me great exposure and it was far cheaper than paying for an advert.

Get people to buy into what you are doing. I didn’t spend a fortune on my website, branding, and photography, but I got real co-operation from Osomi Design, Philipp Ammon Photography, and Melior Enterprises because they believed in me. Don’t skimp too much on this important step as good branding and photography give a good first impression which enables you to get a foot in the door.

Trademark your brand name in order to protect it. You can do this through

Get organised from the beginning with accounting, research and so on. You need to build solid foundations, as you will be too busy to do these things as the business grows.

Take samples of your product and leaflets everywhere with you. I have stronger biceps from lugging bottles of oil around!

Try to find a gap in the market or at least to develop your own niche.

Leave some things to the experts.

It feels strange to have to sell yourself but if you don’t get out there someone else will. Be a go-getter. Don’t be annoying but be pushy in a subtle way, and use your charm.

Treat your customers well and they will buy again from you

Always remember to say thank you to those that have helped you.

Further Information

Dana Elemara at Arganic Oil:

Follow Dana on Twitter: @Arganic_UK

Facebook details:

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