Women in the SA Olive industry: Louise Rabie – love and olive oil
Olive oil runs thick in Louise Rabie’s blood. She’s not only a familiar personality in the local olive industry, but also a member of the SA Olive board of directors and a world-class olive oil taster. We were unable to have a face-to-face sit down with Louise, but after years of working side-by-side with her, it felt as if we were with her on the farm in Leeu Gamka when we interviewed her. Louise’s olive oil journey reads like a love story, and like so many people in the industry, she fell into it and you’ll have to extract her with a bulldozer.
1. What brought you to where you are today – a woman in agriculture?
I studied BSc Consumer Science at Stellenbosch University and married my farmer the Saturday after I graduated. My husband, Andries, farmed vineyards, wheat and potatoes on the family farm in the Nuy Valley and I worked as District Manager at an industrial catering company. Andries diversified into olives in 1999 and then, short on the heels of our 3rd child, followed another baby: Willow Creek Olive Oil – named after the farm. This new business entailed more than farming and demanded a lot of attention, so Andries asked me to quit my job and help him. Our “Mom and Pop shop” produced an inaugural 15 thousand liters of EVOO in 2002. We learned about olives and olive oil from local and international experts. A partner, as well as our ever-growing passion and knowledge further strengthened our business. It grew year-on-year with new opportunities and challenges. Eventually our 4th child, Willow Creek, grew up and left home. But it seems olive oil runs in our blood and we now have a “laatlam”: Lions Creek. Still crawling, but showing a lot of promise.
2. Are there unique challenges as a woman in the olive growing and olive oil making business?
I believe the challenges are the same regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman. Besides the infrastructure and funds, you need the right information, reliable suppliers, and a motivated team. If you have that sorted, the next challenge is to sell your locally produced EVOO at a reasonable profit.
3. What are the hard skills you need to make it work?
If you have the passion and determination, the hard skills won’t be difficult to master. Knowledge of various cultivars, planting methods, farming, harvesting, and very importantly the extraction, storing and blending of the olive oil are key hard skills. Depending on whether you sell your product in bulk or branded, you may need expertise in marketing and the retail game.
4. What are the soft skills you need to make it work?
As with most businesses, you need to select the right people to make up your team, to utilise their various skills to the full, keep them cohesive and motivated even through challenging circumstances (like a drought and the outbreak of COVID-19) in order to realise your shared goal.
5. What has been a highlight in your career in the olive industry thus far?
There have been a few over the last 2 decades. It was very rewarding to be ranked as South Africa’s most awarded olive oil producer, and the #26 olive oil producer in the world by the independent organisation EVOO World Ranking (www.evooworldranking.org). It was fulfilling to reach the goals we set for the Willow Creek brand, and wonderful to represent South Africa as part of two tasting teams at the World Extra Virgin Olive Oil Tasting Team Championship in Spain – and we claimed 5th place!
6. Why do you love what you do?
An olive grove soothes my soul and good quality extra virgin olive oil pleases my palate! Olive trees can endure drought, heat, cold and aging and still continue to produce fruit from which the healthiest and most flavourful oil is extracted. Tasting various cultivars and creating different blends are very satisfying. Being a member of the SA Olive Tasting Panel since before it became official and judging at many local competitions are work perks – except when there’s a defective olive oil in the line up!
7. What does the future hold – for you, your business, and the country?
I trust that good quality healthy food will continue to be valued as essential by many consumers. I hope that the drought cycle is passing and that South Africa will be increasingly efficient and successful in the agricultural sector.
8. Do you have a funny story about your time in the olive business?
Strippaggio! On my first olive oil inspired trip to Italy in 2002, we visited Olio Carli in Imperia. While being guided through the factory and laboratory by Mr. Carli, dressed to a T in a designer suit, silk tie and Italian leather shoes, I was shocked to hear a very loud slurping noise from this impeccably dressed man when he tasted olive oil in the lab. I thought he was going to apologise for his poor manners, but he nonchalantly continued to describe the characteristics of the olive oil he had just tasted. Turns out it wasn’t bad manners, but strippaggio: a technique used to strip the olive oil on the pallet so that you can experience its flavour to the full.
9. What does your support structure look like?
Our manager and personnel at Lions Creek are reliable team players who each contribute their valuable share in order for us to produce the best possible quality EVOO.