Nigeria: Founder takes baby products business from kitchen to global markets

Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo, founder of Amal Botanicals

Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo is the founder of Amal Botanicals, a company known for its baby skincare products made from Nigerian-sourced ingredients. Amal derives 80% of its sales from digital channels and has expanded beyond Nigeria’s borders. Isah-Ikharo speaks to Jeanette Clark about how she started the company, growing the business through a reseller programme, and dealing with forex challenges.

In 2015, Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo was working as a forensic tax expert at the Nigerian Federal Inland Revenue Service. That year, she discovered she was pregnant with triplets. Her pregnancy was classified as high-risk, and in 2016, the babies were born at only 33 weeks. They spent six weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. During this time, Isah-Ikharo struggled to find local, natural skincare products for their delicate skins. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen premature babies, [their skin can] really look dehydrated and needed a lot of care and attention,” she explains.

Out of necessity, Isah-Ikharo developed a moisturising cream in her kitchen, blending shea butter and extra virgin olive oil. Noticing the improvement in the triplets’ skin, friends and family wanted to purchase the cream for their own children. This led to her first sales under the brand, Amal Botanicals. She expanded her range to include shea hair and skin oil, a bath wash, and African black soap. All ingredients, like shea butter, coconut oil, neem powder, baobab oil, cocoa pod ash, and cocoa butter, were locally sourced in Nigeria.

By 2017, Isah-Ikharo was back at work after maternity leave but continued to sell her products. Her clientele began to expand beyond just friends and family, thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations and her growing Instagram following.

“That year, 2017, was a really challenging period for me,” says Isah-Ikharo. While working full-time, she also managed online inquiries for her sideline business during the day. At night, after the triplets had gone to sleep, she would begin her production.

Adding new sales channels

From the outset, Amal Botanicals operated as an e-commerce venture, Isah-Ikharo notes. Before establishing an official online store, she managed orders through social media channels and coordinated deliveries.

In 2018, order volumes grew so much that the operation expanded beyond Isah-Ikharo’s kitchen, extending into her living room and balcony. She completed a diploma in organic cosmetic formulation from Formula Botanica in the UK and began seeking accreditation from Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).

By this point, the production process had evolved to be less hands-on, with mixing and dispensing machines as well as soap cutters and shapers. These additions were financed through Isah-Ikharo’s personal savings, her salary from her day job (from which she only resigned in 2022), and the profits from the business. The company has never taken out a loan.

In June 2019, the company opened its first retail outlet in Ikoyi, Lagos, featuring a dedicated production area at the back of the store.

Interest in Isah-Ikharo’s baby products was on the rise, due in part to accolades from local entrepreneurial platforms like the Her Network and media exposure from outlets including CNN.

A selection of Amal Botanicals products

A selection of Amal Botanicals products

Customers began expressing interest in becoming resellers in other parts of Nigeria. Recognising this as a promising avenue for expansion, Isah-Ikharo established a structured reseller programme. Depending on the purchase volume, resellers receive discounts ranging from 20% to 40%. Today, the company has 98 resellers globally, spanning across Nigeria, West African nations like Ghana, Togo, and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as international territories such as the UK, US, and Canada. Wholesale orders from these resellers vary, ranging from 100,000 naira (US$128) to 5 million naira (US$6,400) per transaction.

Amal Botanicals avoided selling through third-party retailers due to the strain of their extended payment terms on cash flow. “We don’t go looking for them, they actually reach out to us, and we only work with those who are willing to pay us cash up front,” Isah-Ikharo says. Today, 80% of Amal Botanical’s sales are online, with only 20% coming from conventional retail.

Sourcing locally as far as possible

Amal Botanicals currently offers over 20 products spread across three primary categories: skincare and accessories (featuring balms, soaps, and creams), motherhood care (with items like natural deodorants and belly balm), and hair care and accessories.

The company works directly with farmers to source the raw materials for its products. It collaborates with one cooperative in Nigeria that taps into its broader network to provide materials like shea butter, a variety of natural oils, and moringa.

One challenge Amal Botanicals faces is sourcing packaging locally. At present, it imports most containers, tubs, spray bottles, and the like from China.

Isah-Ikharo has crunched the numbers, and found it would make financial sense for the company to invest in its own packaging moulds. This approach would also address a significant hurdle for Nigerian manufacturers like herself – the fluctuating exchange rate and access to foreign currency. “We have no control over [the exchange rate], so all we can do is to try and source as much as we can locally.”

Getting the marketing mix right

In the early stages, Amal Botanicals benefitted from Isah-Ikharo’s personal journey as a mother and the fact that she openly shared her struggles on social media. Word-of-mouth subsequently played a pivotal role in establishing a reseller base.

Today, the company’s online and social media engagement remains strong, with over 68,000 followers on Instagram from where it also sells directly. However, Amal Botanicals also allocates funds for traditional marketing, makes an effort to exhibit at fairs across Nigeria, and runs pop-up stores in other African countries like Ghana, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire.

Urgent need for additional capacity

From its start in a home kitchen, Amal Botanicals now has 15 permanent employees and annually sells around 30,000 units of each of its products. “We’ve grown exponentially each year [since inception],” says Isah-Ikharo.

Amal Botanicals has outgrown its current factory and Isah-Ikharo is currently scouting for a new facility to double production capacity. Only once this is in place, will the company look for new markets for its products.

Amal Botanicals founder Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo’s contact information

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