What could be better in the depths of winter than some TLC for your body? And when you are choosing something natural, ethical and sustainable, you can feel even better about it. Leonara Manyangadze has been making skin-kind cold-pressed soap for her business TANAKA soaps since 2019, and we are delighted to be one of her stockists.
Hi Leonara! Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview. Could we start with an introduction to you, your work and your lovely product?
Yeah of course, so I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, but I live in London now, and I’m actually moving to St. Leonards-on-Sea soon. I’m an Aquarius and a Libra moon. I love all things wellness, nature and I’m also very into music. In my “day job” I work as a programme producer for Somerset House, but I also own my own business, TANAKA soaps, and so a lot of what I do outside of work revolves around that. I’ve been doing TANAKA for a little over a year now, which is crazy in some ways! We currently have 8 soaps in our full range, but we also have some soaps coming out through different collaborations soon, and we’re working on some exciting new projects for the new year!
We can learn from your site that the name Tanaka is a Zimbabwean word for 'we are good'. It works really well and stands out as an original name. What led you to choose it?
Thank you for saying that! Well, I mean obviously my Zimbabwean background is really important to me, so I knew in some way I wanted to pay homage to that in some way with this brand. Tanaka felt right because, as you said, ‘we are good’ just felt like the perfect grounding phrase for the building of this brand. It’s almost become a touchstone that I come back to when planning or when I’m feeling a bit lost, like no matter what, we are good.
I think it helps remind me of my morals and principles for sustainability and natural ingredients, and that no matter how hard it can be to grow a brand when doing things ethically, it’s how I’m meant to do things, and no matter what happens, we’ll be good.
Like many start-ups you went from hobbyist to full-time business. What led you to try soap-making, and what was the point where you decided to take the leap?
I started making soaps at a time in my life when I really started to pay more attention to wellness and overall health in my life, and it felt natural to extend that to what I was putting on my skin. Even when I was a child I was drawn to making potions and tinctures with plants and herbs I found in our garden, so I think it made a lot of sense for me to essentially come back to my roots and turn back to nature in order to take care of my body, and that’s really where the first instance of soap-making came up for me.
I decided to make the shift from hobby to business when I started hearing about the positive results my friends and family were having after using my soaps. I realised if I could make such an impact on just the people within my circle, there must be possibilities beyond it as well.
I've been using your soaps to wash my hands at work, and that happens A LOT at the moment! I'm pleased to report that my hands are very happy and the skin on my knuckles isn't cracking like it usually does in winter, even sitting next to a plug-in heater in a cold room, and I'm not even using moisturiser. What are the ingredients that make this magic happen?
That’s honestly so nice to hear, that’s one of my biggest goals. We use a unique blend of butters and oils in each bar, so the specific magic you’re experiencing might be unique to your bar of choice, but overall you’ll be feeling the benefits of coconut oil, shea butter, mango butter, olive oil and castor oil.
Which is your favourite soap you make and why?
Oh, this is a hard one! I mean, if I’m honest the process is fairly similar between each soap, so I think my preference really comes down to my preferred scent during the process, and for that I think it’s a dead tie between The Citrus Bar and The Aromatic Bar. They’re just such nice scents and especially in the winter they really brighten my day when I make them.
Your new product shots are inventive and fun. Did you work with a photographer for those? I was told many times that a professional photo makes all the difference for selling. Has it been important for you and have you noticed a change with your new photos?
I did work with a photographer! I worked with Brenda Rosete (@brr_photo), she was lovely and I’m so in love with the photos, they’re really unique in my opinion, and I think that really helps my soaps stand out. I think I’ve definitely noticed my growth speed up a bit with the new photos, but at the same time I think that something that really works for TANAKA is blending the highly artistic, professional shots, with some more casual behind the scenes and lifestyle shots as well. I think especially when you’re a small business, and you cater to a more ethically minded base, people really respond to that.
In a fiercely competitive beauty and wellbeing industry you've managed to carve out a spot for yourself. Well done! And you seem to have done it whilst sticking to your principles regarding natural, ethical ingredients and packaging. Whilst this is a selling point to your customers, would it have been easier to cut a few corners, produce a bit cheaper? I get the feeling that wouldn't have been an option?
That’s very kind of you to say, thank you. I mean, you’re right on both accounts, it would have probably been a lot easier to cut corners, make exceptions and produce cheaper, but genuinely that was never an option for me. TANAKA is a business of course, but it’s not something that feels worth doing, in my opinion, if it’s not being done ethically and sustainably.
I think that we’re generally, as consumers, inundated with choices, and unfortunately many of those choices are not taking ethical and sustainability standards into account, whether that’s environmentally or socially. The sad reality is that those brands may often be more successful or profitable than brands that take the longer, more expensive and more complicated road, but I don’t want to be a part of that. It’s antithetical to TANAKA, and to my morals personally, to compromise there.
You regularly use your social media to promote what you stand for. Sharing important female figures in black history, promoting other black business owners, encouraging a plant-based lifestyle, saving water and sustainability in general, are some of the big subjects we can find on your instagram account. What are the issues closest to your heart, and how do they tie in to your practice of making and selling?
Yeah, I think that most of the issues that I care about really tie into my business practices.
- BLM/Racial justice – working with POC makers and businesses when possible, uplifting other POC brands, sharing education on topics when possible
- Sustainability – all packaging and ingredients are sustainable
- Social justice and inequality
Have you got any advice on how to shop sustainably and ethically? Are there some brands you're a fan of that you'd be happy to share with us?
I think that what’s really important to remember is that consistency is better than perfection. Like, ultimately there is no 100% ethical consumption under capitalism. I think that it can become paralysing to want to shop sustainably, and try to change everything overnight, and what’s more important than needing to overhaul everything all at once is making consistent small ethical choices until it becomes second-nature. I like to first try to shop from small-businesses, ideally woman-owned, POC owned, queer owned, etc., and then choose ethical options from there. Also, I know that as a business owner this is probably not the best thing to say, but truly at the end of the day the most sustainable thing you could do is just…not buy more things unless you need to! ‘Reduce’ is the first of the three R’s for a reason.
There are so many brands I want to shout out that it’s going to be hard to condense it effectively for this! My favourites right now are Sancho's. I'm yet to make a purchase but love that they are a one stop shop for an array of sustainable and ethically sourced brands.
How do you kick back? Snooping on your personal account I spotted some rambling going on! Is walking a particular love for you? Also how have your off-duty pastimes changed from pre-lockdown?
Yes I do love a good ramble and long country walks have been a real saving grace of 2020. Getting out of the city with friends and being in nature is definitely one of my favourite activities. I feel like it gives me a chance to properly regroup and organise my thoughts and also have meaningful conversations with those I'm walking with! Pre-lockdown life felt more chaotic and I would have had a packed schedule of events for my day job and whizzing around town to see friends. Honestly the thought of that now makes me feel tired. I now treasure any time I can spend with friends and family and doing things as simple as watching TV with a nice glass of wine. Riesling if it's white of Pinot Noir if it's red.
Thanks so much Leonara for your thoughtful, interesting answers. Cheers 🥂