Gisèla van Houcke has discovered that hair is big business in Africa. Since 2016, her beauty company, Zuri, has been involved in the creation and distribution of beauty products, including hair extensions, wigs, hair care items, and cosmetics. Operating primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, Zuri also caters to the African diaspora through its e-commerce platform. Jeanette Clark interviewed Van Houcke to discuss how she identified an opportunity in the market and subsequently built a business around it.
In 2015, Gisèla van Houcke relocated to Rwanda to serve as the head of legal for a pan-African renewable energy company. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Van Houcke was raised in the UK from a young age and pursued studies in British and French law at Cardiff University and Nantes Université. While residing in Rwanda, she was surprised to find that hair extensions, a product she had been using since the age of 14, were not easily available.
“Back in the UK, I was able to just walk into a hair shop and buy good quality beauty products at affordable prices. Here I was, thinking that now that I have moved to Africa it would be easier because there was a bigger concentration of black women who needed these products, but it was the opposite,” says Van Houcke.
She procured her hair extensions while traveling in Europe. When friends and acquaintances began requesting her to provide them with these extensions, she recognised a potential business opportunity.
Initially, it was simply a hobby, and Van Houcke continued with her corporate job. She imported extensions and wigs, which her sisters would sell from their father’s car in Kinshasa, DRC.
“We immediately had way more demand than supply; it spiraled quite quickly,” she remembers. “We then started marketing exclusively on digital platforms such as Facebook. Within the first year, we had more than 150 000 Facebook followers.”
Within a few months, she had sold hair extensions worth several thousand US dollars. In early 2016 Zuri, meaning ‘beautiful’ in Swahili, opened its first store in Kinshasa.
Expanding beyond Kinshasa
After approximately a year of operations in Kinshasa, selling from the store and delivering hair to clients who placed orders over the phone and through Facebook, Zuri received an offer to expand into Uganda through a joint venture.
“We started distributing in Uganda from a Zuri shop in Kampala and by providing our products to other hair extension retail outlets, mostly advertising on Facebook. This was in August 2017. Later we added other digital platforms like Instagram,” Van Houcke says.
Then, in 2018, Van Houcke was included on the Forbes ’30 under 30′ list.
“This was the biggest thing that had happened up to that point for my young company,” says Van Houcke. “Leaving my job to run my own business had been a big shock for most people, including my family. The recognition of being included on that list gave my confidence a boost that I could really do this and build this company into something.”
Zuri gained prominence through interviews with BBC, CNBC, and others, which resulted in international demand from the African diaspora. This proved to the Zuri team that an e-commerce platform was necessary, leading to the launch of MyZuri.com.
Today, Zuri operates three retail stores in the DRC, which have now evolved into full-service hair bars, with a fourth set to open by September this year. The company also maintains its original store in Kampala, Uganda, and another in Kigali, Rwanda. It has just opened its first franchise, managed by Icchi Corp, a Congolese makeup brand, in Goma called ‘Icchi Powered by Zuri’.
The company supplies over 100 resellers across these three countries.
“I still believe the biggest growth opportunity is in the Zuri-branded hair bars and franchises. People want to be able to see and touch the hair before they make the investment,” Van Houcke asserts.
On MyZuri.com, various hair extensions are retailed between US$163 and US$524.
Sourcing the hair
Zuri’s extensions and wigs are manufactured in China. The human hair utilised for these products is sourced from various hair collectors who procure from countries including India and Peru.
For quality control, Zuri maintains a warehouse in China where the products are inspected before being shipped to different locations.
Expansion into hair care and cosmetics
Zuri already sells a range of hair care and cosmetic products from its hair bars. These items are not yet available on the e-commerce platform and were initially incorporated into the product line-up because Van Houcke and her clients struggled to find the right products for installing the extensions, such as glue, primers, and hair colour.
Zuri recently announced the closure of its latest funding round, raising US$1.25 million. With this capital, the company aims to drive expansion not only within Africa but also amongst the expat and diaspora communities in Europe.
“The cosmetic line was limited previously because of the limited finances that we had. Now that we’ve raised the money, I am happy to say that we will be launching a whole new collection of cosmetics aimed at black women in the next couple of months,” says Van Houcke.
Since the start of this year, Zuri has made a deliberate effort to obtain more raw materials for its products from Africa rather than China. Some of the cosmetics will be sourced from South Africa, and there are plans to procure shea butter products from Ghana.
Van Houcke describes Zuri as a tech-enabled beauty platform. She explains that this label reflects Zuri’s commitment to digitising every aspect of its operations, a strategy that has been key to its traction so far. “We are not developing our own software, but we use cutting-edge technology in all we do to make sure that good quality data can drive insights that we use to optimise, for example, our distribution costs or reach our customers faster.”
Currently, the company is developing a Zuri app and exploring the possibility of a traceability platform. This platform would enable customers and other stakeholder to trace the origins of all raw materials used, including the specific source of human hair used to create each individual wig or extension.
“Investors want to be sure of the source of a human product, such as hair. They want to know that it is being sourced ethically, and that is why we want to use tech to give this assurance. Not only for the extensions but for all raw materials that we include in our other hair care and beauty products.”
Natural hair vs extensions and wigs
Van Houcke does not believe there is a conflict between the natural hair movement, with women increasingly embracing their natural hair texture, and the growth of her business.
“Afro hair is the most difficult hair to manage, look after and grow. Natural hair grows faster and better when you leave it alone, so as the need to keep afro hair increases, so is the need for wigs and extensions used in protective hairstyles in parallel,” she says.
“African women love diversity. We want to be blonde today, brunette tomorrow. Our customers want that freedom and that is what they get through wigs and hair extensions,” she adds.