Olive oil brand KAÏA was born of Sarah Ben Romdane's desire to connect to something ‘more tangible, personal and fundamental’ during 2020's first lockdown. Living in Paris at the time, she returned to the coastal region of Mahdia in Tunisia to better bond with her family, as well as nature and the sea.
Sarah's family own olive groves that they've had for five generations, but they had stopped producing olive oil commercially. ‘I realized that I love spending time in Tunisia, and this project could help me do it and fulfill a bigger purpose,’ she says. The result was KAÏA, an olive-oil brand that pays homage to her family and culture while reviving a proud tradition.
Tunisia is the third-largest producing country of olive oil in the world, but Sarah says they sell it in bulk to foreign brands who package it to appear European. ‘Due to decades of dictatorship and colonialism, Tunisia is trapped in a commercial trade system that constrains us. People have internalized this dependency,’ she says, which creates deep cycles of poverty. Sarah says the lack of equity and vision is ‘sad and dangerous in terms of land survival, social justice, dignity and sovereignty’. She realized that it was her mission to empower her country, its culture, its heritage and its people, ‘making sure new generations can reconnect with their lands, find value in this work, feel proud about themselves and find pride in who they are. This is the vision behind KAÏA, elevating our output while empowering our people and celebrating our culture.’
Though Sarah's family used to produce olive oil commercially, for decades they'd been selling only to other producers. They have three estates in the Mahdia region. KAÏA sources from only part of one of them and is planning to grow year on year by adding trees to the parcel of land.
To grow too quickly, says Sarah, would be a mistake. The more her business expands, the more room she has to implement a new model, but she's doing it slowly – for Sarah, KAÏA is a lifelong mission.
The brand's presence is primarily in France, where it's the most prestigious Tunisian olive oil in the country; Sarah's goal is to increase it. ‘The ambition is to become an authority in Tunisian olive oil. When people think of olive oil, I want them to think of Tunisia and KAÏA.’
Staying true to the brand's purpose
Sarah's goal has always been to highlight both her family's legacy and that of the region. As KAÏA grows, how does she plan to stay true to that vision? ‘For now, KAÏA is independent and self-funded, and there are no plans to change that.’ While many food businesses are venture-backed, Sarah has no intention of sourcing funding. ‘Because my product is very personal, intimate and family connected, it's more tricky than that,’ she says. Additionally, her product is dependent on the region and climate, which keeps things slow. ‘I can't allow people to come in and dictate the percentage of growth. If the climate isn't allowing me to do that, I can't do that. I want to grow, but in a way that's reasonable and sustainable and authentic to my values. If we keep it family-owned and private, there's no reason that would change.’
Five things Sarah learned
1. Being a beginner isn't scary
‘People ask me: “How did you learn to make olive oil?” I think the fact that you don't know about some things makes it easier, because you're curious and you want to find out. Don't be scared to start something with a beginner's mind. If you do, you'll probably succeed because you won't be afraid to learn new things and fool around and just learn and grow.’
2. Don't worry if things aren't perfect
‘When I launched, there were ups and downs, like damage to my tins, so I just sent a few out slightly damaged and you'd receive a note with it reminding you of the mission behind KAÏA. I was transparent about the fact that I'm learning and nobody complained. If things don't go as planned, you'll learn things and become more resilient. If you're honest about your intentions, people feel it and want to support you.’
3. Storytelling is key
‘I had no budget or PR team, but I was able to get a good amount of visibility. That's because on top of having a good product, I have a story that people are curious to learn about. Business owners [in Tunisia] feel like they need to whitewash their business if it's going to succeed, but I think if you want to stand out, you need to celebrate your culture. Have a strong story that is personal, genuine and intimate. People want to connect with something real.’
4. Don't be afraid to reach out
‘I wasn't in food before producing olive oil – I was still working in media, but I had an ecosystem of people who were following me and who had their own networks. That helped a lot, but I was nobody in food. I just DMed and emailed people, started building a community, and that was it. Don't be scared to reach out. If your product is interesting, people will want to hear about it.’
5. Build a team
‘In the beginning, I felt like I needed to be alone, but it became extremely exhausting to be back and forth between Tunisia and Paris, and micromanaging everything. I think I needed to do this to have a deeper understanding of the business and its globality, but it can't last forever. Do the hard work but, at some point, you need to be wise enough to start building a team. I want to work on my business and develop a vision instead of doing everything and wasting time and money.’