Ludwick Marishane has never been a fan of bathing. On a winter’s day in 2007, a friend gave him an idea that not only became his bread and butter but allowed him to stay clean without bathing.
“Historically, people used to do bucket baths once or twice a week. Showering every day is a marketing behavior. Big companies said ‘we are selling soap but people aren’t using it often enough [so] we need to create a culture that says you need to bath everyday’. So they made a beautiful business model where basically they sell us soaps that dry our skin and then sell us lotion to use soon after,” he says.
As we meet, he hasn’t showered for three days and he has been rewarded for it. Google named him one of the most intelligent young brains in the universe; he was voted the best student entrepreneur in the world by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization; and he was named by the magazine you are reading now as one of Africa’s 30 under 30 most promising entrepreneurs in 2015.
Marishane built a company with few resources and a love for science. This is despite the fact he couldn’t even speak English in grade two.
“I remember I bought a burger at lunch in school and this girl came to me to ask how much the burger was but I basically repeated what she was saying because I didn’t know how to respond,” he says.
From then on, his father taught him how to be the CEO of his education.
“My dad abused me with books. Every day at 7PM I had to present to my dad what I learned that day. I had to do a page of English, life skills and maths every day and I always had extra homework,” recalls Marishane.
The hard work paid off. He became an A student by grade four.
All was good until he had to move back to Limpopo, near the border of Zimbabwe, to live with his mother. Life was different. He says his school was the size of his dad’s backyard in Johannesburg and the kids weren’t as competitive in the classroom. He got bored. Entrepreneurship was the answer.
“My mom and dad didn’t have this child support thing. They had clear lines of communication and when I was with one parent, that’s the parent who took care of me. When I lived with my mom, we lived on my mom’s salary and it was tight. She was a cashier and life wasn’t the same as when I lived with my dad.”
Marishane knew he had to make money, yet, instead of working on quick-money businesses like selling ice, he worked on long-term big-money ideas.
From grade nine, he tried and failed to start many businesses.
First, he tried the biodiesel space but failed because of high competition with bigger companies. Then it was a healthy cigarette, followed by a safety kit for families and then a safety magazine which also failed because of a lack of funds.
No matter the heartache, he never gave up.
In 2007, the big idea came. A friend of his didn’t want to bathe. Marishane and others nagged him to go shower. He fired back with a question: “Why doesn’t somebody invent something I can just put on my skin and I don’t need to bathe?”
The light bulb flickered. The question rang in his ears for hours.
“Immediately, I knew I was a customer for this. I also hated showering. I have never been a fan because of the bucket bath. We had no geyser and we had to boil water. We always had to schedule it and I was never a fan. The odor was what always exposed me to my mom,” says Marishane.
Research found nothing but a big gap in the market and even a bigger pool of potential customers. There were billions of people around the world without running water and a large percentage of those were here at home – Africa.
Marishane then hatched the idea for the world’s first bath-substituting skin gel that cleans without water. He formulated the product and, fittingly, called it DryBath. He then filed for a provisional patent to protect it in 2008. At the age of 17, it made him the youngest patent filer at the time, he says.
With the patent for DryBath in the bag, there was still a shortage of money. To fund the first prototype, he entered business plan competitions. It took him three years just to get the R20,000 ($1,700) needed. When he finally had enough, the prototype was a flop.
“One of the ingredients I had used flaked on the skin and there was no scent. It wasn’t a great product experience,” he says.
It was time to get help. He approached Hennie du Plessis, a chemical engineer and a leader in the formulation industry, and offered him a 25% stake in the company in exchange for his help with product development and packaging. Together, they improved the formula, and resolved the problems, up to 10 times before the final product they sell today was ready.
“We made a product that removes dead skin cells and body odor by just applying it on your body,” says Marishane.
More work was needed though.
“We had created the solution but we didn’t fully understand what the problem was. I remember when, for example, my current business partner, Lungelo Linda Dlamini, joined us, one of the philosophical questions we asked was what it actually means to be clean and we realized we didn’t know the answer. We saw we were trying to sell a product that cleans people when we don’t know how people feel clean,” he says.
It meant more research to understand their market.
“We found that some people would say being clean is when body odor is removed, some would say it’s when they wear clean clothes, and others say the quiet time they get showering is what they need to feel clean while other would say they need water on their skin.”
Marishane says they found that most people felt clean with the removal of body odour so they added body wipes to their innovation.
“The human psychology of saying ‘there is dirt on my skin and it needs to go somewhere’ led to us adding the wipes to the product. Now, for those who need it, it is the psychology of saying, ‘I put this product on, it removes the dirt and smell on my body and then I wipe it off’. For some reason people prefer that. The question I used to get most was where the dirt goes. It showed me people needed to wipe.”
Even with that revelation, there was another stumbling block in his way. At a minimum of R150 ($12.50) per bottle, which gives you 15 washes, their product was too expensive for the people he was targeting.
“We even tried to sell to governments around Africa for R2.50 ($0.20) per wash, but it was still too high for their budget,” he says.
The business model had to change.
“We then decided to target middle income homes who could afford this product. The idea is then that through selling to them, we can build economies of scale necessary to bring the price down to R5 ($0.40) per wash,” says Marishane.
Most of their clients are from Europe and Asia. But in South Africa, with Cape Town’s water crisis, it is boom time.
“We made about five times more revenue in February than we did the whole year in the last financial year… Now we are doing a crowdfunding campaign so that we can be able to sell the product for less,” he says.
Marishane is proof that anything is possible. He has made sure people can wash without a drop of water in sight.