How a rule-breaking Kenyan succeeded in the hair industry… in South Africa

Yesterday I had the pleasure of chatting with Tracy Wangari – an expert hairstylist and entrepreneur known for her extraordinary skill and good service. A Kenyan national, Tracy launched her Cape Town-based salon in 1999 and maintains a hands-on role in the now successful venture.

Tracy Wangari

Tracy Wangari

The salon is located in a busy shopping area near the University of Cape Town – a major source of business, she says.

Assisted by two employees, she proceeds to work on a client’s hair, transforming her in front of my eyes. I watch her intently, noticing the command and confidence – an aura that seems to communicate, “I am great at what I do. I help to make women look their best.”

The salon was started with very little capital, just enough to meet rent and buy basic equipment and products. Now her small business brings in profits close to R500,000 (about $42,000) a year.

Cut-throat industry

When I called for an appointment I said I wanted to understand how she had managed to thrive and sustain Elegance Braids in a cut-throat industry. I had read several reports about Africa’s hair industry – now worth billions – and that multinationals such as L’Oréal and Unilever – and even a venture capitalist – are reaping massive profits. From South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria to Kenya, Ghana and Cameroon – hair is big business and growing, driven by an expanding middle class and increasing discretionary incomes for women.

So, what has Tracy learned from her success and failures, and what can she share with aspiring entrepreneurs?

Venturing into hairstyling

“I planned to be a hairdresser. I am very creative and visually oriented, but I knew pursuing drawing and painting in Kenya at that time would remain a hobby. Artists needed a ‘day job’, I was told.

“Encouraged by my family, I learned how to braid and style hair. I worked during school holidays, perfecting my skills and making some pocket money. Naturally I attended a hairstyling college after high school and worked in Nairobi. My sisters and I have beautiful hair, and as a woman, I know great hair can give one confidence.

“I knew this was going to be long-term and actively sought my big breakthrough. It came quickly. On a trip to South Africa in 1998 many women in the streets stopped my sister and her colleagues, enquiring where they had braided their hair. Shortly after, I packed my bags for South Africa, determined to make it.

“Being very young I thought that I couldn’t make it alone, especially in a foreign country with different regulations and rules. So I got myself a partner. What a disaster! We parted ways because we didn’t share the same vision, passion, values and common strategy on how to build and grow the business – all very important factors for any successful partnership.”

Making it in business

“To aspiring entrepreneurs that believe you require huge capital to have a successful small business, and that it takes many years to make it, get out of your paralysis and pursue your passion. Don’t listen when someone says it’s impossible.

“I know very many African entrepreneurs who had little cash when they started their now profitable businesses.

“To do well in the hair business you’ve got to move operations out of your house to a suitable location. Find reliable and qualified employees, manage the business well, and particularly money, and work to attract and retain customers.

“Get the pricing right and keep revising accordingly. Every day I’m flabbergasted at the money a woman is willing to pay for good hair. Know your self-worth. I know what I can deliver and I value myself. Therefore I ask for a premium, and yet my customer base has continued to expand – repeat visitors who tell their friends, colleagues and strangers about us.

“And don’t ever underestimate word-of- mouth advertising.

“As an entrepreneur or owner of a small business, what do you want to achieve? How are you going to achieve your goals? I can attribute most of my successes to being crystal clear and focused on my goals and the path I want to take. Know everything about your industry and stick to what you know and do well.

“What I know, constantly keeping up with trends and being inventive, has brought me this far.”

Challenges with staff

“The thing that keeps me awake mostly at night is that tomorrow some of my employees won’t show up for work. Staff turnover in this industry is outrageously high and a serious threat to the stability of businesses. Many times I have spent resources on training only for an employee to get poached, leave to attempt their own ventures or to find freelance work.

“It’s draining – the inability to retain employees due to circumstances beyond my control. This brings me to the competition aspect – it’s crowded around here – there are over 10 salons in the vicinity. Over the years I have seen many of them fold. Maybe the owners weren’t good at what they do, or the service was poor. Maybe they didn’t manage their businesses properly and they probably lacked mentors. Maybe.”

Breaking all the rules

A customer at the reception is adamant that only Tracy can touch her hair. I know my time is about up.

I ask her who has had the biggest impact on her life and career, and what her future plans are.

“Wangari Maathai (the late Kenyan Nobel laureate and renowned environmentalist) – my namesake. She broke all rules and did what a woman ‘wasn’t supposed to do’ in our country at that time. Because of her, many girls and women have the confidence to stand up and fight if need be, for what is right and to achieve their dreams.”

Wangari plans to set up a factory to manufacture hair products, which she would sell across Africa. “Of course this is a big and different elephant,” she says. “I would have to educate myself, and seek financial and technical partners. Many foreign companies are producing hair products in Africa and doing well. It is time local businesses got into the play.”