Marcelle Du Plessis has no airs and graces. In fact, as rare as it may sound, the 31-year-old University of Cape Town (UCT) graduate from Tableview in the Western Cape has dedicated the past 10 years of her life, selflessly working for an animal clinic in Khayelitsha and empowering female entrepreneurs in Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats.
In 2010, after completing an undergraduate degree in architecture and a postgraduate degree in entrepreneurship, Du Plessis was approached by one of her lecturers, Charles Maisel, to start a non-profit organisation in Lavender Hill.
The pair excitedly set out to try and beautify Lavender Hill by planting lavender. Their dreams to revamp the township notorious for being gang-ridden and burdened with a number of social ills were, however, short lived. Their organisation, The Lavender Upliftment Trust, had to shut down after being confronted with several difficulties.
“Gangs did not accept the gardens and it got vandalized. Community members didn’t completely agree to be part of the project for various reasons. One being the water costs that were too high for them to be able to maintain the gardens themselves,” says Du Plessis.
The time she spent working in Lavender Hill warmed her heart and she felt the need to do more. “I realised that there was a great need for income generation in Lavender Hill and other neighbouring communities.” In 2013 she decided to start a small company, Lavender in Lavender Hill, selling lavender-based products like biscuits, lotions and soaps made by the local community.
Du Plessis says the goal of the business is “to create high quality, health beneficial lavender products with a social aim, creating jobs and empowering entrepreneurs”. Today her flourishing agribusiness supports up to 12 female entrepreneurs in the area.
The products include candles, eye masks, lip balm, hand wash and essential oil. Instead of employing people, Du Plessis has created a market for women with existing small businesses to sell their products. “The ladies who produce the products run their own little businesses. I ask them to produce when we have orders and they sell it to me,” she explains.
“I realised that there was a great need for income generation in Lavender Hill and other neighbouring communities,” says Du Plessis.
Janap Chowglay, who bakes the lavender biscuits, worked as a teacher’s assistant at Zerilda Park Primary school in Retreat when she met Du Plessis. As a single parent, Chowglay has been selling baked edibles for an extra income and agreed to meet Du Plessis to brainstorm the new lavender biscuit recipe.
“My lavender biscuits contribute as an extra income for my household. Through my baking I have been able to create work for someone else. At the moment the demand for the biscuits have been quiet, but I hope it will pick up soon again,” Chowglay says.
We don’t often hear about the cultivation of lavender, a plant with healing properties, but the demand has been on the rise, says Ingrid De Waal from Canettevallei Lavender farm, one of Lavender in Lavender Hill’s suppliers.
De Waal has been farming with lavender for 14 years in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. The beginning of her farming venture proved to be challenging as the essential oil industry was quite small in South Africa back then.
“It has grown a lot since then as the demand for essential oil and other related products has increased. Many young entrepreneurs are now starting their own body and skin ranges and they [buy the essential oils]. There is definitely a growing demand from health shops and natural products,” De Waal added.
Du Plessis’s resilience and strength to get to where she is today did not come easy. For six years while she was running the NGO and starting up Lavender in Lavender Hill she suffered from an eating disorder. She was bulimic and anorexic and the only way she made it through this difficult time was when she adopted a puppy she named Baloo.
“Bringing him into my life changed my entire life. I had to go through a lot of therapy but I didn’t get better, but when Baloo came I got better.” Her newfound companion also led her to the Mdzananda Animal Clinic in Khayelitsha where she now works as the fundraising and communications management consultant.
Her story and her contribution to building Mzansi one day at a time may seem insignificant to many, but her willingness to give of herself even during a time when she had little to give is truly inspiring.