Joycee Awosika started her cosmetics line ORIKI in 2015, using indigenous Nigerian ingredients to make high-quality skincare products. The brand has since expanded to include a contract manufacturing business and a chain of spas. Awosika spoke to James Torvaney about how she built the business as well as dealing with supply chain and production challenges.
When you moved to Nigeria from the United States in 2011, you had a good career in the energy sector. Why did you leave that to start a cosmetics brand?
I moved to Nigeria in 2011, when I was working in the energy sector. I was born and raised in Washington DC but I’d always had this dream of creating Nigerian products that could compete side-by-side with the best international brands.
In the United States there was this increasing awareness people had of the origin of their skincare products, and of wellness in general, and I knew of all of these indigenous ingredients in Nigeria. So in 2015 I left the energy sector and created ORIKI as a farm-to-skin and wellness brand. I was inspired by shops like Lush and Body Shop which managed to build brands around ingredients like shea butter; taking something very ordinary for West Africans and turning it into something premium.
You talk a lot about natural and indigenous ingredients. What kind of ingredients do you mean by this?
There are just so many ingredients grown here in Nigeria, and we are just scratching the surface of all the different benefits of them. Things like aloe vera, moringa, even okra. And for each one of these there are many different ways you can use them, different extractions, different tinctures.
For example, we use hibiscus in three or four of our products. People call it the ‘botox plant’ because of its anti-ageing properties, how it lifts the skin on your face. We also use extractions of kola nut in our hair oil and conditioner – it is a great source of caffeine, which helps stimulate hair growth. Turmeric is another amazing ingredient – it acts as a lightening agent.
There is a lot of science involved in creating some of these products. Was there a steep learning curve in order to understand some of the technical aspects of production?
When I decided to go into the cosmetics business, I enrolled in Formula Botanica – the best formulation school in the UK – which gave me enough knowledge to talk with manufacturers. But one of the things about being a founder is you need to build a team who specialises in these kinds of things, especially as we grew to offer contract manufacturing for other brands. We now have a team of scientists and botanists who work on the research and development of the products in our lab in Lagos. It was really difficult to find these people in Nigeria but we did it.
A lot of the work we are doing is very scientific – I think there is definitely opportunity for more research on African ingredients and turning them into skincare products that can become the ‘next big things’ internationally. At ORIKI we want to become a thought leader in this space and we are working on a bigger laboratory to do more work on all the different plants, herbs and oils that are grown here in Nigeria.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced?
The biggest issues for me have been around supply chain and production. At the beginning, I wanted to manufacture everything in Nigeria. But people told me it was better to produce it outside the country because consumers wouldn’t want to see a ‘made in Nigeria’ label. Eventually, I ended up using a manufacturer in Canada for the first two years that specialised in formulating products using unique ingredients from Africa and Asia.
But as we have grown we have moved a lot of the operations back to Nigeria – right now we are sourcing around 60% of our products here, and manufacturing everything domestically, including manufacturing products for other cosmetics brands.
The difficulties are things like: making sure the products all have the same consistency, making sure we always receive the same ingredients, that we are receiving what we are supposed to. Many of the ingredients are compromised or haven’t been stored properly. There isn’t a proper standards organisation that makes sure these systems are in place. Just last week, I had to send a batch of ingredients back to a supplier because it clearly wasn’t what they said it was.
Within a few months of business, you changed your strategy away from focusing purely on products and started an ORIKI spa. Why was this?
My original plan was focused solely on creating products. I had never intended to own and operate a spa. But we didn’t have a massive marketing budget, and without that it’s really hard to crack the market. The domestic market then was more interested in lightening products than wellness.
I realised I needed to be innovative with our marketing approach, so I decided to create an experience that could attract customers. I turned the top room of the showroom into a spa. It was a painful decision at first, but it was the most important decision I’ve made because the ORIKI Spa is what became known. The spa gave us a ready revenue stream, helped establish the brand and brought exposure to our products – many of our spa customers go on to buy our products for their own use.
Now the spa is a successful business in its own right. We run four spas across Lagos and these generate half of the ORIKI’s group’s revenue.
What are you planning next for the ORIKI brand?
We are working on spas in Kano and Abuja and also looking at franchising to expand into international markets, starting with Accra. The beautiful thing about franchising is that every time we open up a new spa location we create a new platform for the product range to thrive, and for more people to see and engage with the brand.
On the product side, the ORIKI brand is already present in some of the biggest beauty stores in Nigeria, and we are launching internationally on Amazon in the United States and the United Kingdom this month. That will be a real game changer for us. For us to really scale, I’d like to double the share of our overall revenue that comes from the products business.
The issue right now is that demand is far outstripping supply. I can’t wait to move for us to scale and move into our next facility.
How does your franchising model work?
I’m really excited about the franchising but I realise we are taking a big risk. It’s a much more difficult model in this part of the world than in, say, the United States. There are infrastructure challenges, difficulties managing franchisees, making sure they follow set rules.
We took on specialised franchise consultants to help us set everything up – we have training set up for staff and management, thorough background checks, a dedicated technology platform for franchisees to use, and a comprehensive manual that has every single standard operating procedure you would need to run the entire company, even things like how to find the right location. We handhold our franchisees all along the way and make sure the system is completely plug-and-play. The minimum investment required to open up a standalone spa as a franchisee – if you don’t already have the space – is around $70,000. However, we are also looking at launching mobile franchisees – trained spa therapists that could deliver treatments on-demand – that would require a much lower investment, around $1,000.
In the six years you have been in this business, how has the market changed? What trends do you foresee in the future?
The market has changed a lot. In Nigeria, trends tend to follow other countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom. Internationally, consumers have become more interested in the ingredients and source of their products, and much more focused on wellness and safety. People are more educated about what they are buying now. We have started to see this in Nigeria too, particularly among the more internationally exposed. When we started, there was more of a focus on products that change your skin, such as lightening creams. Now we are seeing a lot of people who say they are switching towards more natural products.
After Covid, all eyes are on wellness. Even with the restrictions, we did far more revenue in 2020 than any previous year. After lockdown lifted, people took much more notice of wellness. Now we are always fully booked and have week-long waiting lists, even on days like Mondays and Tuesdays, which used to be light.
Another important factor is that over the last three years or so, ‘made in Nigeria’ has become a lot more accepted. Before, it wasn’t so much of a good thing. But in a very short space of time Africa became trendy. Africa is ‘in’ at the moment and I think that is going to continue.
James Torvaney is a business consultant and financial advisor specialising in West Africa. He has worked with clients across a number of sectors, including technology, manufacturing, consumer goods and hospitality.