Going into business was a “very haphazard decision” for Sharon Njavika. The Kenyan social psychologist had never imagined being an entrepreneur, much less manufacturing her own brand of beauty products. She is founder of Ajani Handmade, a Nairobi-based manufacturer of a range of organic hair and skin-care products.
In 2014 Njavika went to a craft fair in Nairobi with 40 jars of oil blend and whipped shea butter. By the end of the fair, the products were sold out.
“People really liked it. I realised they were just interested in a good quality product. After the fair I figured I should start marketing the products,” she recalls. “Of course I was very nervous because this is not my expertise, not something I studied. It was simply something I learnt from taking care of my hair with DIY products.”
Ajani Handmade makes a range of products, including an oil blend, body scrub, whipped shea butter, soap bars and bath bombs. The majority of her clients are women who prefer to style their hair naturally as opposed to using chemical relaxers for straightening.
Discovering a business opportunity
Her interest in natural hair products started while she was studying and living in Staffordshire, England. The city had a small population of black people, and limited access to the hair-care products and services she needed. When she had to get her hair straightened using chemical relaxers, she would either have to travel to salons in the next town, which was an expensive affair, or enlist the help of a friend.
“One time my friend was doing my hair and I got a bad wound from the chemical relaxer. It was a big flesh wound, and the experience was just traumatic,” she recalls. “After that I had a conversation with a Sudanese friend and we asked ourselves why did we have to burn our follicles to make our hair straight? After all, my mother never told me my hair was ugly.”
Njavika ditched chemical relaxers and started wearing her hair natural. But this brought some challenges.
“I was thrown into this unknown abyss of natural hair. I had never seen my hair in its natural texture since I was seven. I had to do some research and learn how to take care of it.”
Njavika started experimenting with products, mixing oils and butters for personal use. But she did not think of it as a business opportunity. In 2012 she completed her undergraduate studies and moved back to Kenya to find a growing number of women embracing the natural hair look. At the time many struggled to access products locally. By the end of the year Njavika returned to England for graduate studies at the London School of Economics.
“Living in London I found natural hair wasn’t special anymore. It is a multicultural city and there were a lot of women with natural hair. There was plenty of salons, shops, websites… and other resources that cater for natural hair,” she explains. “But I continued making my own styling products using oils and butters from shops within London. When I went to buy shea butter I noticed it was sourced from West Africa.
“I kept wondering why we had all these resources in Africa and they are taken to England, processed, then exported back to Africa? In Nairobi I knew many women who were importing hair products from the US and Europe.”
It was then that she began exploring the commercial viability of her DIY products. Today most of her products retail within Nairobi through Ajani Handmade’s online shop and at craft fairs and events dedicated to women with natural hair.
Working towards building a sustainable venture
Some of the challenges Ajani Handmade has faced include limited access to financing, raw materials and high quality packaging material.
“Customers are very demanding so you need to do better branding and have better packaging than the mass products we used for ages. It is also a capital-intensive business. I still have a full-time job because I need money to keep growing the business.
“Thankfully I have a very understanding employer and my work and business are not in competing fields. But it has been difficult because your business deserves all your time, but it also requires capital,” says Njavika.
“I have had to be very meticulous with my time, very disciplined, and forfeiting some things like going out with friends on a Friday night. It is challenging but it is worth it. I don’t think of my business as a side hustle. It is something I do with a lot of passion and I am working towards building a sustainable business.”