Township businessman’s scent of success
He started out mixing scents in his mom’s kitchen, now Valentinas Methula has created his own cologne – and he wants to take it global
AFRAGRANT aroma of cinnamon, ripe lemon, cedarwood and spicy undertones floats in the air as we enter the lab where Valentinas Methula spends his days mixing and bottling his signature scent. The high-tech Fab Lab in Ekurhuleni is a world away from his mom’s modest kitchen in Tsakane township, south-east of Joburg, where Valentinas first started experimenting with fragrances.
These days the kitchen counters are used only for planning which ingredients and formulas he’ll use to mix at the lab, and to package the final product.
Remarkably the 28-year-old, who matriculated from Tsakane Secondary School in 2010, didn’t study science at school so had little knowledge of how to apply scientific rules when mixing different ingredients. Yet his determination to create his own perfume line saw Valentinas garner praise – his story was used as a case study to inspire other young entrepreneurs at an innovation week held in El Salvador in November last year.
His signature scent, Minenhle (“beautiful day” in isiZulu), earned him the prestigious Eskom Small Business Expo award for young influential upcoming entrepreneur. It was the first cologne launched under his perfume label, Valentinas Kafungo, in August last year.
He was also the second runner-up at the Makro Carnival annual trade fair last year and he got to showcase his cologne at Makro stores on the East Rand.
Not bad for a guy who started out in his mom’s kitchen.
VALENTINAS’ mom, Mpho Mashabela (52), inspired his entrepreneurial spirit. She also ignited his interest in dabbling with scents – and ultimately creating his own. “When I was in high school I helped my mom sell vetkoek, achar, sweets and perfume, which she bought from suppliers,” he says.
But he wanted to do more than just sell perfume – he wanted to mix, experiment and create his own unique fragrances.
He took a gap year after matric and worked as an enumerator for Statistics South Africa for two months. He had other part-time jobs during that year then moved to Cape Town in 2012 where he’d enrolled to study public administration at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
But a lack of funds and not being able to adapt to living far from home and his family – he grew up with four siblings, Sibusiso (29), Palesa (24), Quincy (21) and Kamohelo (17) – saw him drop out six months later. He returned to Joburg to start his own business.
“When I couldn’t continue my studies I looked at my surroundings, my peers, and thought about how I could start my own business,” Valentinas recalls.
The idea of creating fragrances surfaced and he started watching YouTube videos to learn how to mix different essential oils.
He also registered his business with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission and the Cosmetic Toiletry & Fragrance Association of SA.
The real challenge came with fine-tuning his products. It took him five long, expensive years to perfect. “I had to save money to buy ingredients – essential oils, ethanol and spices.” He bought these from a Cape Town-based company after doing some research.
The ingredients cost between R9 000 and R12 000, he says. “I had to wait to save money before I could buy ingredients and start manufacturing the cologne.”
So he called a friend, Mandla Nkosi (27), and invited him to invest R5 000 for a 20% stake in the business.
At the time Valentinas was also a volunteer at Fab Lab, where he taught computer program design basics to primary school kids, which landed him an internship with Fab Lab in 2016.
Fab Lab is the educational outreach arm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s The Center for Bits and Atoms. The labs are a platform for innovation and invention and provide stimulus for entrepreneurs. Valentinas saved nearly R15 000 from his internship, which he put back into his business. Last year he started selling Minenhle for Him online via his social media sites for R650 a bottle. He also sold a few at the Eskom Small Business Expo. He bottled 50 flasks of the cologne himself using bottles from a local packaging company in Joburg. Ahead of its official launch he had preorders for 11 bottles and 25 were sold at the expo, he says. The remainder of the first batch was sold online. Getting the fragrance formula right wasn’t easy, he tells us. “I made countless mistakes before launching the actual product. Before I start mixing I use formulas to blend the ingredients. You have to start over if you get it wrong.” It was trial and error, and constant learning with the help of YouTube tutorials and assistance “from people who are more familiar with chemistry. I learnt a lot about engineering perfumes thanks to their advice.” “Mixing perfumes is like cooking a beef stew,” he says. “The ingredients have to be just right.” His ingredients – which include cinna- mon, ripe lemon, cedarwood, spicy aromas and pure alcohol – are mixed by machine at the Fab Lab laboratory. He makes and sells a batch of his cologne at a time and stores it at the lab.
His next goal is to get approval from the South African Bureau of Standards to start exporting his perfume around the world.
VALENTINAS dreams of building his own lab in Tsakane, where he lives, and launching his first store in Joburg. “This will mainly be a flagship store where customers can experience the brand and learn more about the history of it.”
The lab will be called House of Kafungo, which means “scent” in Chewa – the official language of Malawi. “We chose this name because it’s user-friendly, African, rich and bold. I’m working towards getting the lab to where we’ll customise colognes for customers,” he says.
His new collection, which is being developed, will include a women’s fragrance. The collection will be called Inganekwane (“fairytale” in isiZulu).
Valentinas has seen first-hand the effects of youth unemployment in Tsakane and his goal is to create job opportunities to address this social problem.
The perfumer knows he still has a tough road ahead, but draws inspiration from other local entrepreneurs. “I’ve always looked up to Sibusiso Ngwenya, the founder and head designer of Skinny Sbu Socks,” Valentinas says.
His proud mom is thrilled with her son’s accomplishments.
“I don’t like spoon-feeding a child. I want a child to learn how to do things on their own and become responsible. I’m happy with what he’s done.”
ABOVE: Valentinas’ fragrance hit the market last year. LEFT: His mom, Mpho Mashabela, inspired him to go into business. RIGHT: Valentinas (striped T-shirt) with his siblings and dad – (from left) Sibusiso, Palesa, Quincy and father Michael Methula.