When Michelle Ntalami’s father was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, she decided to adopt a healthier lifestyle. The Kenyan marketer-cum-interior designer began exercising, eating healthy, and she even chopped off her relaxed hair to grow it naturally.
Like many African women who have adopted hair extensions, weaves and plaiting, Ntalami had been using chemicals to straighten her hair. Natural hair was considered unkempt, especially at the workplace.
But this has changed in recent years, with more and more black women flaunting the natural hair look. Some famous personalities who keep their hair natural include Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, South African musician Lira, Kenya’s first lady Margaret Kenyatta and her Ugandan counterpart Janet Museveni.
But when she started wearing her hair naturally, Ntalami struggled to find chemical-free hair-care products. She ordered from abroad, but this was expensive and shipping took about two weeks. Her friends, who had also started keeping natural hair, were facing similar difficulties.
Launching the business
“It would have been dumb not to start my own natural hair-care line because there was a clear need,” says Ntalami, founder and CEO of Marini Naturals, a natural and organic hair-care products brand. “I began literally developing products in my bathroom – boiling flax seed oil every other week, melting shea butter [and] putting it in the blender to mix with other things. My whole bathroom soon was full of products I was developing for my own use.”
Initially, her lack of background knowledge in cosmetics made her hesitant about starting a beauty products business. But her family and friends appreciated the products she was mixing up in her bathroom, and encouraged her.
“I kept thinking it should be some multinational company doing this, not me,” she recalls. “But I have since come to learn most consumers are not bothered by whether a product is made locally or internationally – so long as it is good quality and it works for their hair.”
When she gained the courage to commercialise her passion, Ntalami made an investment of Ksh.5m (about $49,000) in research and development as well as initial production, but that “figure has grown exponentially by now” with additional investments.
Today Marini Naturals has six products in its portfolio, including shampoo, conditioner, hair growth oil, curling butter, curling gel and moisturiser mist spray. They are manufactured in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and made out of organic ingredients and essential oils such a tea tree, neem, castor and peppermint. The raw materials are sourced from Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, South Africa and even Australia.
Marini Naturals products are stocked at major beauty stores in Nairobi and Mombasa. Last month the company also opened its own branded shop in Nairobi.
“That outlet is for educating consumers, it’s a collection point for distributors and it’s a consultation point for customers who have questions,” says Ntalami.
Growing demand for natural products
Ntalami says her brand is not just aimed at women with natural hair.
“Our target customers are women who are making a conscious effort to live a more natural way with regards to their health, lifestyle and beauty. You could have relaxed hair, but are tired of using chemical-laden products – so you will use our sulphate-free shampoo, for example.”
According to a 2015 Euromonitor report, there is a growing interest in natural products among Kenyan consumers, and even traditional beauty products manufacturers are incorporating natural ingredients such as shea butter, coconut oil, jojoba oil, neem and aloe vera in their products.
Initial financing difficulties
Besides her family, Ntalami has not taken outside investment, although recently “certain serious people” have approached her. In the early days, Ntalami says, accessing financing was difficult.
“I knocked on peoples’ doors and they all said ‘no’. I would go to a bank with my lab samples and they’d say ‘that is just a concept’. When the door is always closed on your face, you toughen up and decide to do it with or without other people’s support.’’
Ntalami plans to expand her range to include skin-care products such as natural oils, soaps and cleansers, as well as catering for children and men.
“I want to take the brand international. I want Marini to be competing in the US with Cantu (an American skin and hair products manufacturer),” says Ntalami. “The possibilities are endless. I can take my brand to beauty stores in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic.
“I am the pilot of this jet – I can take the Marini brand wherever in the world I want.”