Promoting a healthy lifestyle - Q&A with TANAKA Soaps

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

We're delighted to have TANAKA Soaps as a featured vendor in our spring box! Meet founder Leonara Manyangadze, who creates handmade soaps made from natural products. We spoke with Leonara about a range of topics, from what goes into the soaps to how her heritage influences her business.

How did TANAKA Soaps get started?

TANAKA Soaps began in the summer of 2016. The honest answer about how it came to be might be a bit underwhelming but I think the idea had been lingering around me for a while. When it finally landed it took root and found a home. One day I decided to gather the ingredients for what is now The Basic Bar. In the space of one afternoon messing around in my kitchen, I saw it all coming together. I knew then and there that I was going to start a soap company. That’s maybe a bit esoteric a response but it happened so organically that I can remember the exact moment of inspiration to even begin.

In the years leading up to that I had been gravitating to more natural and less wasteful skincare, a journey that got me reading the labels of products I was consuming and questioning all the ingredients that I was putting onto my skin. So when I was able to use soap that I had made myself, with carefully considered ingredients that left my skin feeling soft and healthy, I was hooked!

What is the inspiration behind the name?

Tanaka is a Zimbabwean Shona name meaning we are good. It is used as an expression to symbolise beauty or a state of gratitude. 

I was born and raised in Zimbabwe and still have very close ties to the country. In many ways it’s still my home even though I moved to the UK when I was eleven. It’s important for me to share and celebrate my heritage and as soon as I landed on it, I knew it was the right name for the brand.

What is the process of creating your soaps?

A healthier lifestyle is more than the food you put into your body, it's also what you put onto your skin.

During the researching and experimental phase, I spent a lot of time reading about the specific properties of the oils and butters that make the base of each soap. I used a combination of olive oil, coconut oil, shea butter, mango butter and castor oil. The result is a rich lathering soap that cleanses thoroughly whilst leaving skin feeling soft and supple afterwards.

Once I have the base oils melted and combined, I then select the botanical and essential oils based on the desired benefits of the soap. I mix them together with a lye solution (sodium hydroxide mixed with water) which turns the mixture into soap through what’s called the saponification process. After that, the soap is poured into some moulds, cut after 24 hours and then left to cure for 4 - 6 weeks before it's ready for use.

It’s quite a long process from start to finish but so worthwhile.

What does it mean to you to be Black owned business?

It’s empowering! I feel that in some ways the Black community is often sold the culture it has created for the financial benefit of someone else or some big company. So to be able to take myself out of that equation and find ways to not only be less wasteful but also more self-sufficient is something I’m passionate about.

In the future, I’d like to host workshops and be able to share what I’ve learned with others so that they can also do the same in their homes. It’s so simply and the benefits are plenty!

On a personal note - it’s been a surprise even to myself. In a way that’s made me more confident to pursue my interests even if they seem a bit random in the beginning.

What have been your greatest accomplishments and challenges so far?

My greatest accomplishment so far has been simply beginning the process of learning how to make soap and turning that into a company. The launch itself was a good moment and since then TANAKA Soaps is also stocked a couple of really great independent shops in London which feels like a huge accomplishment for me. That and being able to share what I make and hear feedback from customers is really fulfilling.

The company is still in its infancy and I’m a one woman show so the challenges are many! I think one thing I’m working on is consistency in terms of marketing and communications and also carving out time. Not only time to make more but also to develop and expand the product range. But it’s all a journey and I’m just happy to be along to the ride.

What makes TANAKA Soaps different from soap suppliers?

TANAKA Soaps uses all natural oils and butters, clays and botanicals and a unique blend of essential oils. Each recipe is crafted with a particular benefit in mind, whether for it’s the use of ground oatmeal for irritated sensitive skin or grapefruit essential oil for an invigorating and uplifting aromatherapy experience in the shower.

But no matter what the key ingredients are to make each bar in the range specific, there are absolutely no nasties. Your skin is the largest organ of the body and is extremely absorbent. TANAKA Soaps uses only natural ingredients you recognise, and avoids the harsh synthetic chemicals in mass-produced commercial soaps.

Any advice for Black creatives or entrepreneurs?  

Just start, you never know where it will take you. And before you do it for anyone else, do it for yourself.

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