by Gwen Pew
24 Feb 2014: The air is fresh at the end of a narrow road that has been carved into a tangle of trees, deep in the mountains of the Mae Hong Son district in northern Thailand. An expansive farm soon comes into view, and nature reigns as far as the eye could see – a row of lychee trees offer shade and protection to the smaller, more fragile coffee trees below; lemongrass grows freely everywhere. Everything here is a result of Thai farmer Noi’s hard work, and it is from here that locally-launched lifestyle brand, Mekhala, source a good chunk of their products.
The story of Mekhala started two-and-a-half years ago, when Daphne Hedley, 35, then a banker who just moved back to her native Singapore from the UK with her husband, visited their friends Jang and Brian Bauerle’s retreat in Chiang Mai. Also called Mekhala – which means ‘angel’ in Thai and is the name of the Bauerles’ daughter – the retreat runs a series of holistic programmes for private and corporate clients. It started off as a holiday, but that trip also became a turning point for Daphne. She didn’t mind her stable, well-paid job at Barclays Singapore, which she earned after graduating from the renowned business school, INSEAD, and worked her way up to – by doing stints in Japan, the UK and France – in order to support her mother and two younger sisters after unexpectedly losing her father to cancer. But she always felt like she could be doing more with her life.
‘Banking was a means to an end, but really, even as I was going along the corporate path all those years, I still dabbled with business ideas’ she explains, referring to her attempts to start a health drink business with her mum, as well as a travel website in her university days. ‘But my mother wasn’t quite finished with the grieving yet, and I sucked at HTML.’
Daphne’s chance to follow her passion came when Jang Bauerle told her how difficult it was to source for quality, natural products for the Mekhala Health Retreat’s spa, and an idea struck them – why don’t they create their own? Jang has always loved making things, and this was the perfect opportunity for Daphne to leave an unfulfilling career behind. ‘I was unhappy with the person I was working for at my old job, my first sister had a job by then, and we had enough money in the bank to put the youngest one through school. My mother also got a part time job, so I felt it was okay for me to quit.’
It took Daphne and Jang just a few months to get things going, and soon they rolled out their first creations. Jang is in charge of coming up with new products, while Daphne takes care of everything that’s not inside the bottles. Working with two parties – Noi, who runs the farm in Mae Hong Son and manages a few others, as well as another not-for-profit organisation – they started off with 14 natural beauty products and 15 food items, which were launched in Singapore in 2011, and have since added a few more items to their collection.
‘The main idea behind Mekhala is that we want to offer people the option for healthy – but still tasty – Asia-inspired products,’ Daphne continues. ‘When people think of Asian food, they think that it’s cheap and unhealthy, and we want to change that perception.’ By adopting the farm to bottle concept and using premium, naturally-sourced ingredients such as coconut sugar and Himalayan pink salt, they promise that everything they produce is good for the body and the mind. And, of course, they try to do their part for the environment by ensuring that most of their packaging can be recycled, too.
‘You know, before I had my son, I didn’t think much about what we are doing to our planet. Now, I guess I would like to try harder to leave him a world that is as beautiful a place as the one we live in now!’ she admits.
While the brand is doing well, with plans of a small factory being built near the retreat in the coming months, Daphne is determined to keep her heart in the right place. ‘I’ve definitely met very interesting people on my travels, but the one person who has truly inspired me and continues to be the reason I want to make a difference is my father. He was the first non-American Managing Director of the American aerospace company he worked for; he was a really enterprising man,’ she says. ‘He always told me to be kind, to take risks, and to make a difference. He died very young – he was just 48 – and very suddenly, so I guess that’s what I’m trying to do – to fulfill his legacy and create one of my own that would make him proud.’