Small businesses take on natural hair industry

Urban Hair Studio
Saul Juma cutting and styling Rhoda Owako’s hair at Urban Hair Studio in Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA 

For centuries, black women have been led to believe that their hair was not beautiful enough and they had to do everything they possibly could to hide the kinky ethnic hair.

To conceal their natural hair, they went from hot combing, perming, setting, jerry curling and weaving, simply because the idea that black hair is not a mark of beauty was etched in their minds.

That however has changed with the organic beauty boom that is part of the larger shift in consumer awareness about health and wellness taking over.

There is a growing trend towards natural hair and natural hair styles, and away from chemically straightened hair, has led to many women cutting their relaxed hair.

Rhoda Owako and Emma Njoroge are two among the many women who had decided to embrace two ends of the natural hair spectrum.


Because of her work, Ms Njoroge opts for the laid-back really neat cut with very subtle colour while Ms Owako is comfortable with the eccentric.

“My processed hair was long but very limp and when I chopped it off, it grew back with so much life. I do however have to keep it really simple because of work and trim it every six months,” says Ms Njoroge who works in finance.

Ms Owako whose work is not restricted says she opted for the natural look because it is easier to maintain and that her hair has more body now than ever before.

Various factors have contributed to the growth of the natural hair movement — the global trend of chemical-free consumers as well as an increase in black consciousness ideas amongst millennials.

There are a number of beauty blogs and social media accounts dedicated to the benefits of going chemical-free and consumers now have access to more information than ever before.

The fact that for many women hair is personal, emotional and psychological is not a big secret. In fact, the market players have tapped into this emotion to make billions of dollars from them.

Going “clean” is costly. Many women who have relaxed their hair since childhood struggle with a steep learning curve when switching from straightened hair to their natural texture.

Saul Juma who is popularly known as Hairdresser 254 and is known for his expertise in the natural hair business says that some women end up using so many products based on what they see on social media. “What many do not know is that you simply need shampoo, conditioners, a curling butter or gel and you are good to go. You should not complicate things by wasting time and money,” he says.

And these are the most-sought after products in the Kenyan market reports Euromonitor International, a market research provider. It says that in Kenya, mid-income and low-income consumers are increasingly purchasing hair care, mainly hair oils and shampoos, from hair salons and beauty specialist retailers located in residential areas.

L’Oréal East Africa has been at the forefront of this trend by directly distributing its hair care products to busy salons and traditional retail outlets such as kiosks, with it maintaining affordable pricing with the aim of reaching a wider consumer base.

Social media also plays a big role in the natural hair evolution. Mr Juma says that they determine how much women are willing to invest in their hair.

“Many women come with a picture of what they see on Instagram and say they want the same not knowing that our hair has so many different textures and it could be hard to achieve the same on their natural mane,” he says.

Juma says that black hair, which can grow out instead of down, can range from loose waves to tightly packed coils. Because of the hairs’ curl pattern, natural hair products must address unique needs, such as inherent dryness, to promote healthy hair.

He adds that some market players also promise the same results as the models they show on social media which makes many women spend a fortune of the products.

The products are also not cheap he says because goods made without chemical preservatives have a shorter shelf life and sourcing for fresh botanical ingredients, like exotic marula oil from overseas, does not come cheap.

Sh14.2 billion

Natural hair products generally are made with higher quality ingredients, unlike cheaper petro-chemical based products. This price inconsistency extended to the services sector as well.

Lucy Kingori of BU.KE says while she sources for most of her raw materials locally except the shea butter which comes from South Sudan, the process is not cheap or easy.

“Natural products are pricey because of the process of extracting the raw materials it’s all hand-crafted, something like extraction of baobab oil requires a lot time and manpower,” she says.

Organic farms also tend to produce smaller batches because they do not rely on growth hormones, so each ingredient is at a premium.

Tata Harper, for example, recommends using its products within six months. Compare that to conventional brands, which give a window of two to three years. The longer shelf-life allows big box retailers to buy in bulk without worrying about expiration dates.

“Once you open the products you have to use them really fast and that is good for us in salons but can be expensive for those who just use the products at home,” he says.

While there are many major beauty brands, that offer natural products, there many local entrepreneurs who have emerged to create quality products for the Kenyan market like BU.KE and Marini Naturals and have become successful.

In fact, Euromonitor International, a market research provider in a 2018 report shows that despite the fact that big brands such as Dark & Lovely have ranges formulated for ethnic hair, mainstream companies are still associated with relaxers and other unnatural products. As a result, some customers still pledge their support to small, independent companies who produce products specifically for ethnic hair.

“The rationale is that despite the influence the bigger brands have, these customers still perceive that the products they produce are not designed for women with ethnic hair,” says the report.

It adds that the bigger businesses lack the credibility of the smaller players which are often users of their own products and which have built strong relationships with their consumers by sharing their own hair stories.

This is something Ms Kingori agrees with saying that the relationships she has with the clientele is what has made her business successful.

“The trust what I put out because I sell exclusively natural products something I have studied and done extensive research on,” she says.

Whatever way the Kenyan woman decides to wear her hair there is no doubt that the market players will be the real winners with Euromonitor International projecting in its 2018 Hair Care in Kenya report that sales will hit Sh14.2 billion by 2022.

It says that mainstream brands are aware that local consumers are willing to shift to products that are fully formulated for their hair type. Therefore, they are pursuing this opportunity either by adding ingredients ethnic women look for in hair care products into their own existing products, such as coconut oil or they are releasing new dedicated product lines for ethnic hair such as Dark & Lovely’s Au Naturale range, which was launched in 2017.