A significant proportion of black women around the world are going “back to their roots” by ditching hair relaxers and embracing their natural hair. In Kenya, the natural hair movement has opened up a myriad of business opportunities for local entrepreneurs as more and more women make the transition from relaxed to natural hair.
Michelle Ntalami (32), started her business in the bathroom, by mixing home remedies to take care of her hair. Three years later, Ntalami founded Marini Naturals; Kenya’s first Natural Hair care line with the stated goal of providing “a solution for every woman with African natural hair.”
“When I cut my relaxed hair and went natural three years ago there was a dilemma. There were no products that could cater for the African haired woman,” Ntalami says, recounting the events that led to her establishing Marini Naturals. “Since I wanted to live a healthy lifestyle, I started making my own hair products in my bathroom using avocado, rosemary water, aloe vera gel and other home remedies to take care of my hair. I used to give this to my friends to sample and they really liked it and I actually thought that it could become a very viable business. I knew that there were several women like me who would want a solution like this and that’s how I started.”
The name Ntalami chose for her umbrella of hair products, Marini, means naturally beautiful in Swahili. Her goal is to provide African women with hair products made from 100% natural and organic ingredients.
“Our active ingredients are flaxseed gel, Shea butter, peppermint, castor, coconut oil and glycerin. They are all natural and around 80% are from Africa,” Ntalami says. “Things like Shea butter that we cannot get in Kenya, we get it from Uganda. It’s only things like vanilla extracts that we import from Europe.”
Ntalami’s products have been on the market for almost a year now and the company scooped “the product of the year ” award in Kenya in July this year, a noteworthy affirmation for Ntalami who is already stocking her products in some east African countries and is now thinking of going continental.
Marini Naturals is also gaining traction among consumers. “I am a natural hair lover. I was really excited to finally see a Kenyan brand and I had to try it out,” says Margie Muga, a natural hair blogger. “The CEO Michelle Ntalami was featured in Salon magazine. I read her story and found it inspiring. Her products are amazing and efficient. ”
Another entrepreneur taking advantage of the business opportunities presented by natural hair movement is Lucy King’ori (33), CEO of the brand Shea by ASAL. King’ori’s idea to start a business arose after she healed her son from eczema using Shea butter from South Sudan, but with women in Kenya switching from relaxed to natural hair she found an opportunity to expand her business. She now makes shampoo bars using bentonite clay and Shea butter. She also manufactures different butters for hair care.
“The problem with us Africans is that we like to buy brands. What we don’t realise is that these brands actually come to Africa to get raw materials, take them back to their countries to formulate their products then the products are taken back to Africa to be sold to Africans,” King’ori says. “So why not make use of the resources we already have to come up with our own affordable brands as opposed to just importing things that have ten to 20% of organic ingredients and a bunch of chemicals.”
Grace Thimba, a natural hair junkie who wants to encourage women in Kenya to support local, echoed a similar sentiment: “It is okay if these international products are working. But let’s be proudly African. Let’s use products that were made by us for us with our own hair in the lab for the research.”
That said, the competition emerging brands like Shea and Marini Naturals face is not only from major international companies; the local sector has grown quite competitive over the years as more and more homegrown entrepreneurs are getting into the hair business. Many of them use social media, Instagram and Facebook mostly, to promote their products. Michelle Ntalami even went ahead and created a YouTube channel where she teaches people how to take care of their natural hair using Marini Naturals products. But competition or no competition, it seems like all of these companies want to send the same message; “whether it is skin or hair products, Africa has all the natural resources necessary to create products made by Africans for Africans.”