Apivita’s story began with a bar of black soap, almost half a century ago. This was the first of the all-natural cosmetics produced by Nikos Koutsianas and his wife Niki in their pharmacy in 1972, using propolis from the bees that Nikos Koutsianas had grown up with as a child. This would be the start of a journey that would eventually lead to what is now a thriving, cutting-edge company with 330 product lines, which are still inspired by the same principles and the bounty of Greek nature.

Apivita has come a long way since those early days, of course, as it pursues its goals of becoming a leading, green and innovative enterprise with a global scope. The Athens-Macedonian News Agency visited the company’s ultra-modern present facilities in Markopoulo on Monday, and was shown around the specially designed bioclimatic building and grounds that now house its gardens, laboratories, offices and production floor.

Though in some ways, as resident systemic botanist and phytosociologist Eirini Vallianatou explained, Apivita’s story actually goes back millennia to time of Hippocrates, the father of medicine. The site at Markopoulos comes complete with a ?Hippocratic Garden? containing all the healing herbs that he described and more - even some of the ancient ?suicide poison? conium - planted in the grounds and on the green roofs of the building.

Such Hippocratic gardens, which are certified, open to the public and must also operate a seed back and herbarium, lie at the core of Apivita’s model, along with the life cycle of the bees that underpins the company’s philosophy. The company supports a network of such gardens throughout Greece, which preserve and catalogue local varieties of plant species. The holistic Hippocratic approach to health and wellbeing also serves a model for the company’s beauty products, which are 85-100 pct natural and based almost exclusively on extracts from plants found in Greece, locally sourced, and locally-made bee products.

According to Vallianatou, conditions in Greece conspire to create a ?perfect storm? when it comes to plant biodiversity, making it home to 6,800 species and subspecies, roughly a third of all species found in Europe. The combination of a Mediterranean climate, varied landscape, the large number of islands and many isolated habitats has also resulted in a remarkable 1,300 endemic species, with Greece rivalled only by Cyprus for the number of endemic species relative to its territory.

As another plus, the Mediterranean climate, where cold winters alternate with very hot, dry summers, also enhances the potency of the plants found in Greece relative to those found elsewhere. To cope with the extra stresses, plants produce many secondary metabolites to protect themselves and this enhances their healing properties. At the moment, Vallianatou noted, Greece is not even close to tapping the full potential offered by its plant wealth, which could theoretically support hundreds of companies along the lines of Apivita.

In addition to the herb garden, the company also has beehives and honey bees on site. Koutsianas came from a family that kept bees as a child and they continue to be a strong element of the company he helped create, both literally and metaphorically. The name Apivita itself comes from the Latin ?Apis? for bee and ?vita? for life, reflecting the company’s goal to emulate bees in continually generating value: for society, the environment and the economy. This philosophy is worked into every aspect of the company's functioning, including the design of the building. According to architect Stella Pantelia, the spaces were designed to resemble a beehive, while the atrium, wide windows and gardens allow in plentiful natural light and interplay between the internal and external spaces.

The company was founded in 1979 and now, as it nears its 40th year, it has not only retained but expanded on these core values, while also growing and innovating. The original press that the couple had used to extract oils from plants in the pharmacy, a process that produced 25-30 litres in a month, still stands next to modern equipment that produces double that quantity in a few hours.

Apivita Head of Operations Vassilis Karpodinis gave presentations of the production areas, including a fully automated production line that covers approximately 80-85 pct of the company's production, in a pressurised, aseptic area to avoid contamination. As Dr Constantinos Gardikis, the head of the Apivita scientific affairs department explained, since parabens, paraffin, and other chemicals and preservatives are out, the company had adopted very stringent antimicrobial protocols, similar to those required for baby products, to ensure product quality while enlisting the natural antimicrobial properties of plants as well.

It has also invested heavily in research and quality control, running two laboratories on its upper floors that deal with each of these areas. The research and development department has studied more than 60 plants, keeping detailed records of their provenance, as well as all bee products, and develop3e more than 100 extracts and oils.

The company currently employs chemists, biochemists, cosmetologists, biologists and others to develop its unique range of products and is collaborating with a network of more than 74 universities in 24 countries, with a research budget of 16 million euros. The latest addition is a cutting-edge molecular biology laboratory to investigate the effect of plants on skin at a cellular and gene level ? a forward-looking investment made at the height of the crisis in Greece in 2014-2015.

In the meantime, Apivita continues to invest in the search for new medicinal properties of plants and has discovered significant innovations, such as its patent for extracting Greek propolis, enclosing royal jelly in liposomes or replacing water with plant juices that make their products especially antioxidant.

The company is also pressing ahead on the business side and, as its head of operations noted, currently has ample room to grow and even double its sales, since it can cover its current production in a single shift or less.

It caused a stir in 2017 when it announced the sale of a majority share to Spain’s Puig, bringing in a significant amount of capital to boost its expansion abroad and opening up the large Spanish and Portuguese markets. It now has a presence in 15 countries, through pharmacies and retail outlets but also through its own flagship ?Apivita Experience Stores?, while exports account for 30 pct of its sales.

Its commitment to respecting the environment remains at the heart of Apivita’s philosophy. The attractive bioclimatic building, now up for BREEAM certification, seeks to minimise conventional energy use - though the manufacturing unit has not yet reached the goal of a zero carbon footprint - and has a filtration system that recycles wastewater to use in the gardens. Its products eschew unnecessary plastic and packaging, opting for recycled or environmentally certified paper instead.

It also believes in corporate social responsibility and giving back, and has participated in campaigns such as the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) "Pastilles for the Pain of Others" that raised funds for the MSF. The company's head for Social Responsibility Sotiris Pastras, in a brief presentation that wrapped up the tour, said that Apivita is currently collaborating with non-profit groups Agoni Grammi Gonimi and New Wrinkle, raising funds for "environmental literacy" classes for Pindos school children through the Pindos Wild Herbs product range.

Through its subsidiary Apigea, founded in 2009, it takes this concept to a whole new level. According to Nikos Koutsianas, corporate social responsibility was woven into Apigea’s mission as the top priority. The company works with farmers and beekeepers, providing training and support, to build a network of organic herb farms producing chamomile, lavender, sage and other raw ingredients used in Apivita products. At the same time, it teaches them best practices in farming to ensure the quality, origin and high organic value of their products.

As Koutsianas said, ?when I talk about these things, people think I’m mad or not a businessman. But that is what they said 40 years ago, when I talked about making natural cosmetics using plants.?

Eva Webster