Business booms for black women
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WHEN Ntombenhle Khathwane first started AfroBotanics, she wanted to be able to wear her hair in its natural state without any worry.
At the time the only options available to her and many other natural haired women was to blow out her hair or relax it.
“None of the products then, back in 2009, really had the natural conditioning agents that our hair needs to be hydrated and stay soft. So my first option was to try and bring products from the states (USA) but when I did eventually order some, they didn’t work well as my hair is coarse and coily. When I thought about starting my own product line, I looked at the start up costs and pricing and thought it would be too much,” she said.
But, it was after a visit to her grandmother, a traditional medicinal woman who showed her how women used to soften their hair in the olden days, that she was finally sure about making her own products.
“It was important for me to be able to wear my hair naturally. Before that the only way I wore it natural was in dreadlocks and I got tired of them. I also just wanted to tell a different African story.”
Khathwane studied politics and philosophy in university and she was part of the people who were excited about Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance.
“I wanted to build a brand that could go to other parts of the world. There were very few African products going international. It’s crazy how natural ingredients like shea butter and marula oil are only found on the continent but they go out into all these expensive products all over the world and we don’t make money out of them.”
Khathwane said she saw this opportunity as a chance to compete and grow the economy.
“Our economy is a consumer economy and that is not a good thing, we need to move towards manufacturing so I wanted to be part of changing that.”
Her journey to bringing her products to market was a long one. She quit her job at the end of 2010, registered the company the following year after testing and formulating products. I then took her four years to get her products into Game stores. By 2016 she was able to get into more stores like Pick n Pay and Clicks.
“It was a long and difficult journey. As a black, female entrepreneur I faced many challenges. I was only able to get products into the stores at that time because the people who were making the buying decisions then were black females.
A lot of the time when you try to produce and sell products that black women use, the people you pitch to are usually white female or black male- they don’t understand or relate.”
She was once told that she would not be given a chance because black businesses don’t produce quality and at that time the retail outlet did not have any local hair products.
“There is also a major challenge in funding. Manufacturing needs a lot of money. In retail we get paid in 60 days - if I deliver products now in March, most of the time you get your payment only at the end of May. As a small business, that kills you because every week you have to deliver products meanwhile you are not getting any money. Retail is a big boys game made for the Unilevers and Tiger Brands. It’s not made for small companies like us<” she said.
She added that small brands needed to scale up quickly by getting more products ready as soon as they got the chance to be in retail stores.
“Natural hair is still a niche product. It is a small category compared to relaxed hair or body lotions and things like that.”
The journey has also come with some great wins along the way. Her products were the first to be listed in major retailers.
“We got in and were able to contribute towards changing the conversation around beauty. Our tagline is ‘My Own Kind Of Beautiful’ so we are saying that beauty standard society tells us to meet is rubbish. As women we need to redefine our own standard of beauty within ourselves first and being able to contribute in challenging the narrative of beauty has been rewarding.”
Another win she appreciates is the support she has received from black women.
“That saying that black women pull each other down is not true. AfroBotanics wouldn’t be in the top three selling products at Clicks if it wasn’t for black women supporting us.”
Her products have also been recognised internationally.
“We are making headway and are busy with a brand we are going to take internationally called Buntu. It’s a range of natural body products. We are using the ways our ancestors used to take care of their skin and practise the philosophy of ubuntu, loving self, nature and the next person. It is a powerful message to take overseas.”
Khathwane is also happy that the natural hair product category has grown in leaps since she first started. There are now over 200 black women-owned natural products available.
“When I first started my competitors were American brands. In the US, stores like Clicks have shelves that are packed and owned by black women. The majority of products on our shelves aren’t owned by us. Black women are more than 50% of the population, we are the decision makers when it comes to purchasing, but how many brands do we buy on shelves that are owned by black women? It’s important for that to change and for us to diversify the economy by participating in it.”
Khathwane has spread her wings into other products including natural body products and a new brand called Girl Boss.
“It is a beauty for purpose brand. I want to become like a mini Unilever in the next five to 10 years. We need to become the Unilevers of this country. People can make a difference by spending their coins with manufactured products from here. It all counts.”
At the end of this month, Khathwane will be hosting her fourth My Own Kind of Beautiful event that is all about women inspiring each other about how they have found their own kind of beautiful.
“The event will close off International Women’s month. We will be celebrating women, finding self love and taking care of self. It is a workshop where we have speakers who share tools. The women in attendance will get a workbook they can use throughout the year to stay in a positive light. People have become more anxious and worried. We will be giving them the tools to sustain a thriving life post the pandemic,” she said.