Eco-Interview: Raphael Marius, Kiroja: Discover Something Wonderful
When was your organization founded? Please tell us a bit about its mission, goals…
I started Kiroja in July of 2010. However, the idea of starting something like Kiroja began to take root in sometime in 2000. In fact, I think I originally purchased the domain name around that same time. However, it wasn’t until an injury I sustained while visiting Morocco, that I really started to become more serious about the idea. It still took two more years before I did anything about it.
As far as our mission is concerned, Kiroja is committed to creating quality natural products, supporting women’s empowerment, entrepreneurship, and championing education in its many forms. As an organization, we source our products from women run co-ops and organizations that support women’s empowerment. In support of entrepreneurship, we have donated capital equipment to help small enterprises take the next step in their development. As individuals, we have volunteered our time to organizations and schools as near as your local elementary school, to schools and organizations in South Africa.
What is your educational background and what lead to creating this organization?
I have a bachelor’s degree in management and a master’s degree in international education. As I mentioned earlier, the idea of something like Kiroja began way back in the year 2000. While recovering from the injury I had sustained in Morocco, I had time to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. This led to my graduate pursuits and trips to Ghana, New Mexico, and India to meet with women operated cooperatives and partnerships.
What are some challenges you have faced and how did you deal with them?
A major challenge we faced early on was related to quality control. The sources that we deal with don’t have sophisticated machinery or delivery systems. As a result, we would often receive products, like soap that varied in size and shape. Or prepackaged products were also not in great shape when they arrived. Changes in temperature during the shipping process caused leakage and other issues. Since the co-ops were not around the corner, or even in my home country. It wasn’t easy returning damaged items for new ones. Also, what was the guarantee that the new items would be in any better shape? There was another issue. I didn’t want to put a hardship on the women who ran the co-ops. They couldn’t be expected to constantly exchange damaged product for free. I actually had to put the company in mothballs for a bit to try and solve the problem. At one point, I almost decided to abandon the project and move on to something else.
It may sound weird, but it wasn’t until the middle of last year that I came up with a solution: formulate and package the products in the states. I worked with a designer to create a logo and labels. I switched from plastic containers to amber glass for our butters. I learned as much as possible about Shea Butter (both East and West), Argan Oil, product formulating, and a host of other things related to natural body care.
What can people do to help? Donate, and contribute to your cause? Other ideas?
People can help in many ways. Obviously, one way is to purchase our products. The more we sell, the more we can order from our sources. However, people can also help by volunteering their time to organizations that support education and women’s empowerment. One of the issues that is very important to me and formed the basis for my thesis research is getting men involved in preventing sexual and gender based violence.
How do you reach your targeted audience?
We do this in various ways. We take advantage of vending opportunities, like the Green Festival that just took place in April on Pier 94 in New York. We are on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. We also advertise in magazines like NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association). We also have our company website, Kiroja.com. You can also find our products in several NY and NJ stores. A couple of the stores that carry our products are actually organic farms.
Is it through your website, advertising or social media or another route? Which is most effective and why?
I think the best way has been word of mouth and when I actually get to talk to a potential customer. In those situations, I’m able to answer any questions they may have and talk about the quality of our products and our mission. This takes time. Although people are familiar with Shea butter, Argan Oil, and other products, They don’t always know the difference in quality. In some cases, what they have been buying may not even have been Shea Butter.
How do you keep the audience engaged over time?
What I try to do (though I’m not always consistent) is create blog posts and updates on Facebook. We notify our customers of upcoming events and opportunities. We also ask some of our customers to try samples of new products we are planning to launch.