Wendy Norman, owner of J Strickland & Co Africa, with operations and general manager Sadh Naidoo in the family firm’s Pinetown manufacturing plant which produces US-licensed ethnic hair-care products for local consumption and export. Picture: Lyse Comins
Durban -
Despite the sluggish global economy, the market for personal and professional ethnic hair-care products is big business that has local entrepreneur Wendy Norman focusing on growing the market share of locally manufactured exports into Africa.

Norman, 57, is no novice when it comes to the ethnic hair-care market – she has been in the game since 1994, when American manufacturer J Strickland & Co asked her to take over its Botswana operation.

She went from sales agent to owner of J Strickland & Co Africa, starting small, working from her home in Westville, with one staff member and her daughter helping out in the school holidays.

Inventor's bright idea

The company manufactures products including leading brand names Blue Magic and Sulfur8 for local consumption and export into Africa.

“My neighbours were not happy about seeing a forty-foot container arrive outside my home. But after about a year we moved to a (270m²) factory and I had three casual staff and my dad helping me,” she said.

Until now Norman has exported for consumption mainly to the informal market on the continent, but after recently setting up a manufacturing plant, she is about to ride on the back of the growth of major retailers like Shoprite Africa.

Norman has worked in the cosmetics and beauty field since 1976 when she started her career with Innoxa as an in-store consultant in Zimbabwe. She furthered her studies at Stellenbosch Academy for Beauty Therapy, where she became the first person in South Africa to be awarded the Comite International D’esthetique et De Cosmetologie qualification in 1977.

Getting the youth to think green

She ran a salon in Musgrave Road before joining Lancôme as an area manager. She went on to lecture at Natal Technikon (now Durban University of Technology) in Beauty Technology, Aesthetics and Art, and in 1988 formed Glamour & Glitz International, acting as an agent for 10 companies, supplying equipment and products to beauty and hair salons and beauty colleges.

Norman was appointed as an agent for J Strickland & Co USA in 1994, selling its products exclusively into Africa. The firm was contract manufacturing in Botswana, but when the manufacturer closed, she was asked to take over.

Today, J Strickland & Co Africa operates in the same factory that Norman initially rented, and eventually purchased and went on to develop, adding two storeys, to create a 2 400m² factory without so much as a bank loan.

She employs 23 staff and, on the advice of Trade and Investment KZN (TIKZN), has transformed the business from an importer distributing products to the rest of the continent into a viable and growing local manufacturing concern.

With an R18 million loan from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), Norman set up her manufacturing operation and produced her first batch of 20 000 units of licensed water-based braid hair products and some 80 000 units of petroleum based-jelly products last September.

The company expanded production this year to more than 150 000 units of braid spray and more than 200 000 units of hair conditioners and treatments.

Norman is no stranger to travelling the continent, walking the often dusty streets and establishing relationships with local dealers, mostly in the informal markets in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Angola, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia.

She is positive about the firm’s plans to launch into formal markets in Zambia and Nigeria, where she is certain her products will fly. The company works closely with distributors in Zambia, Malawi, Angola and Nigeria.

“Over the years our products weren’t in the retail outlets. We were predominantly in the informal market, mainly cash and carry shops, spaza shops and little informal traders. We are only just starting to go into retail now.

“We have been with Massmart (cash and carry stores) and have just listed with Game and are going into Shoprite Africa,” she said.

The company’s products are also for sale in Choppies Group in South Africa and are about to be launched in the chain’s stores in Botswana.

“I want to supply the whole of Africa – that has been my dream and my vision. TIKZN have been fantastic and if it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be sitting at this plant right now. They talked us into manufacturing and put us on to the IDC, who were really brilliant. We have had incredible support from South Africa. Hopefully, we can give back to the country in the form of job creation,” Norman said.