Prisca Ongonga-Daehn is the founder & CEO at baresop. The body care company eliminating the need for single-use plastic packaging because “the average hand wash is 90% water,” she says. “We’re just shipping water and plastic around the world. It makes no sense.”
Prisca shares an insight into her journey of building a better business…
A rich and varied career took Prisca through stints in journalism, PR and recruitment, and jobs in Shanghai and Beijing, before starting baresop.
“A number of things came together, it wasn’t one particular thing.”
“I was running another sustainability start-up, at a very small level – taking recycled plastic that we used to make bags, which we sold to hotels. And I was wondering ‘what’s my purpose in life? Why am I here?’ That moment really got me started.”
Finding a purpose
“I always knew my purpose was in impact."
“Having a conversation with my family at the dinner table, my daughter raised the issue of the Pacific Garbage Patch and who was going to clean it. Who would take that responsibility? We talked about what could we do to shift the narrative a bit – away from ‘no-one will pay to do that’, and that frustration, to ‘how can we do our bit?’
When I looked in the bathroom, I was shocked to find we weren’t doing much – but I found that there weren’t any solutions I’d like to use.”
Establishing a northern light
“You can’t run an impact-driven business and not let that impact be your key, like a northern light."
“The monetary gain is one thing, but what gets you up in the morning is that purpose and mission. If you’re getting up in the morning because of the money, I swear, you’re not going to last.”
“So, there’s the refill, where they send you a pack and you fill it, then send it back, and they clean it, fill it back up; but it they didn't appeal to me because it’s inconvenient. I'm very busy. I didn't have the time to go to the post office to send it back.
“So I went into research mode and I started talking to other people and finding out that they were in the same situation. They were conscious of plastic and waste, and climate change, but they just didn't know how to make the right choice.
In my research I came across the tablet solution, and went through a customer discovery and validation process with Monash University. But when I did 20 minutes qualitative research with people from my network, their feedback was, ‘look, it’s a great idea with the tablet, but I don’t feel comfortable using the tablet on my body’ because, in their perception, there’s a chemical element to it. It took me a long time to get to ‘could it be powder based?’”
Finding a solution
“People were more open to the idea of using a powder”
“I started talking to chemists from many universities, and the feedback was that it wasn’t possible to do it – but I had this feeling that it had to be. I finally talked a chemist who said ‘I don’t know, I could try.’ After two months, he came back and said ‘it’s possible.’
Then we decided that all of our products were going to be made locally, so – even if we scale to the US – we’ll make sure those products are made in the US, so we can limit transport emissions.”
Launching the pilot
“We launched the pilot for baresop in November 2020, last year. We did so much research to release the pilot, so I knew there was a need and there was demand.”
“But I was surprised at how many people believed in the concept at the beginning – not just customers, but the investor ecosystem and community in general.”
“The other thing I’ve learnt is that, to do this properly, we really have to tap into the user experience. How do we innovate so that we bring to market in a way that’s solving a problem – plastic waste – without taking away from the user experience of our customers? Because that’s what's going to make them come back and buy. Is it playing with ingredients? Is it adding moisturising elements? What can we do to make the process of converting the customer very easy?
That also ties into our ingredients being clean and plant-based. We’re able to collect data with our supply chain so we can show them ‘look, what you’re doing is making an impact and this is how it’s making an impact.’”
“Our biggest achievement has been bringing the baresop powder-to-foam concept to market, from a crazy idea that l didn’t know was even possible to where we are now – in such a short timeframe.”
“As we grow, we want to expand that human impact even more. We’re already working with schools on how we can create change, to impact people individually.
The challenge now is how we know where our ingredients come from? Can we be transparent about our supply chain? Can we tell a true story? Not just for ourselves, but to inspire another company to do the same thing, if we can show them the impact.
Our products will always be mindfully sourced, clean and manufactured in the market they are being sold in or another solution that doesn’t require shipping across long distance. For example, as we are moving into the USA Market, we have to find a manufacturing partner within that market so we are not shipping goods over long distance and going against our purpose of helping reduce carbon emission from our hemisphere. Despite the fact that our products weigh only a fraction compared to your traditional liquid soap.”
Making the products accessible
“Our mission is to make this an ‘every person’s’ product, because that's the only way we can create a change of scale. If you're not creating change of scale, then we are not achieving that purpose, and we’re really not about being elitist.”
“Right now, it’s quite expensive for us to make our products here and it’s expensive for us to source biodegradable, home compostable sachets – and that affects the price of a product, which limits how many people can access our products.”
“It’s definitely a challenge but we’re on to the task of making the concept affordable at mass to every human who wishes to come along this journey with us. We believe it’s possible as we scale and our volumes increase our prices will continue to be competitive.”
Being a founder is hard! There’s no other way around it. 90% stress and emotional roller coaster and 10% high moments.”
“It doesn’t matter what you do, whether it’s impact driven, whether it’s not, if you’re a startup founder, it is tough. There are good days and there are deep ends of bad days – having some coping mechanisms to deal with that at the very beginning is so important.
Firstly, know who you are and find what truly motivates you and keeps you going. Personally the key is moments to switch off completely and to engage in other things that bring you joy.
For me it’s being active before sunrise. It helps me clear my head and highlight key blockers. I also meditate and regular yoga practice to check in on myself and be present in a truthful way. Other things I do are cooking, listening to podcasts and spending time with friends and family.”