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Kapula: Ilse Appelgryn

A small-town manufacturer lights up the export market

Monique Verduyn

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Ilse Applegryn

High school teacher Ilse Appelgryn was retrenched in 1993, she turned to a family hobby – candle making – to keep her busy. What started as a small business operating from her kitchen table at her home in Bredasdorp has become an international export company that also supplies local retail giants like Woolworths, as well as speciality stores in shopping malls and tourist destinations. A major international client is the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It was Andre, her husband and business partner, who suggested the name, a phonetic spelling of what he called “a coupla candles”. Today Kapula produces well over two million candles a year.

Appelgryn funded the business herself and growth was gradual and organic. “My overheads were initially low,” she says. “We eventually moved to a factory in 1995 after we received orders from Japan, the US and Europe. We also had to do extensive research at the time, to comply with export standards.” Her first client was a friend who owns a craft shop in the town. The candles sold so well that Appelgryn took a shoebox full to several retailers in Cape Town. “After securing the first few customers we began to get a lot of exposure in magazines,” she says. “People were attracted to the bold colours and geometric designs. We were the first local company to manufacture candles with hand painted wax designs. In 2003 we added hand painted ceramic ware to our range.” The company really took off following the move to the factory, which was when Andre decided to join the business. Appelgryn notes that systems and processes had to be put in place rapidly to accommodate the sudden explosion in customer demand. “We went from 12 people to 43 to 100 in the space of a year,” she says. “The first thing we did was to employ a bookkeeper to take care of the financial side.” What distinguishes the company is the quality of its candles which are made from superior wax and wicks, as well as the standard of its designs, which range from ethnic to ultra contemporary.

Appelgryn opened Kapula’s first store in Bredasdorp in 1999. “The Gallery, which is housed in a beautiful old building in the town, showcases our vast range of handcrafted candles and ceramic homeware and it’s a popular tourist stop. It also gives visitors the opportunity to view the artistic talents of our employees.” Kapula first exhibited internationally at a trade fair in Singapore in 1998. This opened the door to the international market and a partnership was set up with a German representative. Exports now make up more than 70% of Kapula’s business. Its overseas customers are serviced from Kapula’s stores in Berlin, Hannover, Hamburg and Munich. “The Berlin shop was the first to open overseas, and we launched it in conjunction with our German partner,” says Appelgryn. “It’s been a success financially and also because it helped us to establish a foothold in the European market.” In 2001, Kapula bought Candle Wise, a manufacturer of handcrafted candles, and relocated the factory, including equipment and staff, to Bredasdorp. Appelgryn has developed Kapula’s people into a highly skilled labour force, over 90% of whom are drawn from the surrounding community. “We have spent over R1 million on skills development, training our employees in the art of candle and ceramics decorating,” Appelgryn says, noting that the investment has been well worth it. Training takes place over a three-month period, with a further six months required on the production line before employees can master the technical and artistic processes. She notes the importance of identifying trends in the homeware and décor sector, as well as the need to focus on product development and enhancement. “In addition to making seasonal products for Christmas and Valentine’s Day, for example, we also experiment with colours, designs and shapes to make sure that our products are always fashionable.”

Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.

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