See the forest AND the trees
First of all, the name. Miombos.
That was difficult to remember for me; so difficult that, when I wrote about the company in the story about Olive Valley’s fabled Dragon’s Den event I accidentally spelt it “Miombas”. I thought it was a Mallorquin word!
How embarrassed was I when one of Miombos’ two founders, Selene Suau Ignacio, told me it is actually named after the largest forest in Africa, Miombo, which in turn is an oak-like type of tree.
But hey, the forest covers only 2.7 million square kilometres, in fact most of southern Africa, so you can’t expect me to have heard of it.
“Well, we knew we wanted something connected to a forest. And first we tried the name Amazon,” Suau says with a smile, “but… it was already taken!” Heh!
“We also discussed the name Schwarzwald (Black Forest), you know, after the German forest (and cake), but there was something about Black that didn’t fit well with our image. Our image is green. And so, we happened upon this African forest name. And no one had taken it.”
The other person in “we” is Yusef Chaib Hassan, a Mallorquin with Moroccan background who spoke passionately about Miombos in our June business pitch.
He and Suau, also a Mallorcan native, met when they were both studying psychology here on the island. But what is this evocatively named company actually?
“It’s a marketplace for sustainable brands, a kind of green, well, Amazon,“ Suau explains.
“We want to deal only with products we know come from sustainable sources and produced in an ethically acceptable way.”
But how is it possible to know? I mean, need I mention the word China?
“Yes, I often feel like a detective,” Suau, says. “But we actually investigate the companies we deal with deeply, asking probing questions to find out everything about them. We must be able to give our customers all the information they need about a product.”
It seems so natural that there would be a “green Amazon,” but how did it all begin?
“We just want to do something useful!”
“With a bamboo toothbrush!” Suau explains over coffee on the top floor of Corte Inglés.
“I have a small jaw, so I needed to find one with a small head. I started looking around online. Then I started wondering where they actually came from. It turns out there are thousands of different ones, and of course that some of them aren’t even made of bamboo. Maybe they are produced with recycled nylon or hairs of pigs.”
Before Miombos was born, Suau, who looks like a teenager, had been studying environmental science. When the 2008 economic crisis happened, paying for her university was no longer possible.
She switched to studying psychology, and worked at the faculty of psychology of Mallorca while studying, for another seven years. Then she was hired by a Sea School to work on European innovation projects, while her excellent English “came by itself.”
While working for the school, she started volunteering for Oceanpreneur, a company run by her friend Suzanne Van der Veeken.
“She is hitchsailing around the world while raising awareness on the Ocean’s current status. I was helping her with social networks and website. She was the one inspiring me to take action.
That (somewhere on the seven seas) was when the search for the perfect bamboo toothbrush began – Must be made of 100% bamboo! Not by child labour! Produced by a company respectful to its workers! Not tested on animals! Shipped in a sustainable manner! And, presumably: Must clean teeth!
“I then found there was a lack of information about products, not only tiny toothbrushes, but environment-friendly products in general. I was Whatsapping with Yusef, joking about how we ought to start a business together. We were imagining all sorts of business ideas, until I told him about the problem with the toothbrush. I said, There should be an Amazon for that!”
That was the beginning of Miombos. While Chaib remains in Mallorca, Suau has moved to Paris and is studying French while being the product manager of Miombos.
The company’s website launches in September – hopefully! and then it’s all systems go.
“I often feel like a detective”
“We already have more than 60 companies on our books,” Suau says. “We want to be 100% legal. As per today, there are many of these hand made, organic products that come “without factura (‘invoice’)” but we can’t go down that road. And everything must be completely above board product-wise too. If you are selling on a smaller scale, the products will necessarily be more expensive. Our customers are more critical, so we must make sure we don’t let them down.”
Suau predicts that the first three or four years in business will be hard, with both Chaib and her using their personal savings. But what does it matter, as long as they share the ideal and the passion?
Yes, Suau and Chaib Hassan certainly walk the walk. For one thing, the products will be stored in Mallorca. “That in itself will make them a little more expensive, but will mitigate the CO2 factor.”
The packaging must, ideally, be organic and sustainable as well.
They are even looking into reusable packaging.
“That’s right, a Finnish company is developing reusable packaging, where you receive the package and just fold up the packaging, pre-stamped, and put it back in the post. You will then get a discount off your next purchase. When we know our system works, we will start with reusable packaging.”
When I comment on what a great idea I think this is and how it’s bound to be successful, Suau looks almost worried.
“We don’t want to get rich!” she insists. “We just want to do something useful!” But after some prompting she muses that if they do indeed get rich, “okay, then I would invest in a seaweed farm…”