In Africa, women have no troubling finding hair products, as long as it is relaxed or weaved hair. For many years, hair care products for natural, untreated hair were hard to come by. Michelle Ntalami decided to develop the product that would fill the void in the market. Today the 34-year old Kenyan entrepreneur is the co-founder and CEO of Africa’s fastest-growing natural hair care enterprise: Marini Naturals.
After her father was diagnosed with cancer, Michelle Ntalami decided to embrace a healthier and more organic lifestyle. She wanted to eat healthier and exercise more. She also decided she wanted to cut back on using toxins, by refraining from chemically altering her hair. She came across a problem that eventually led to her big breakthrough as an entrepreneur: she found it nearly impossible to properly take care of her hair. The organic products she ordered from Europe were expensive and there was no good local alternative to cater for women with natural hair. That is how Marini Naturals was born: based on her own experiences, Michelle Ntalami began experimenting until she got it right.
Office and factory in Nairobi
“Three years after I co-founded the business with my friend Niyati Patel, Marine Naturals is Africa’s premier natural hair care line”, Michelle Ntalami proudly announces. The company (staff: 12) is based in an industrial area in Nairobi. “Here we have our office and our own factory - a pretty big one of 2,000 square feet where we manufacture our products. Everything we do, from development to testing, production, packaging as well as sales, marketing and distribution is done in this Nairobi HQ. Also, all of our ingredients are sourced locally, in Kenya or in other parts of Africa. It’s true”, Michelle says with pride: “This is Africa in a bottle!”
The natural hair trend
Michelle explains that her company grew on the trend of natural hair. “Before we entered the market, women were not very keen on natural hair care products. Having natural hair – instead of straightened and treated with chemical products - was not considered by many. I think it is fair we to say Marini Naturals played a large part in the new natural hair care trend. I think we managed to educate women and help them style their hair and feel good about it. Natural hair is now the ‘in’ thing and here to stay. Despite what a lot of people told me in 2015 – that it was a hype that would eventually go. Natural hair is here to stay.”
Marini Naturals is all natural and organic, a key product quality in Europe and the US. How is that in Kenya?
“Definitely becoming more important. Africans are getting more organic-aware. Consumers are seeing the importance of living healthy and using natural products. More and more are shifting to natural products. Not just hair care products, but also skin care, nutritional products. Africans are going the natural way – a trend that obviously benefits our brand.”
What sales channels does Marini Naturals work with?
“It is a wide range of channels, from local retail stores to beauty shops, cosmetics stores and hair salons. We have our own shop in the Junction Mall in Nairobi and we sell online as well. I find it amazing that we have come such a long way. After starting so small and selling only in Nairobi, we now sell all over East Africa and further away, as far as Botswana, South Africa, Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We will soon be available in Nigeria. I am proud to say we are also exporting our products to France and the Middle East and Turkey.”
Finding growth money
Michelle Ntalami is grateful for how the company currently develops and how she received recognition for it, by having been awarded an Entrepreneur of the Year recognition. “We’re not big yet, but healthy. On our way to become bigger – scaling up is the next step. The biggest challenge is finding capital, money to help us grow. We had to be very creative in raising the money. I remember a board meeting in 2016, in which we decided to improve our branding to be more competitive towards international brands. We also wanted to improve product quality, with better formulations. Both were expensive affairs – as we had to hire cosmetics engineers to come and assist us. Our plans succeeded, but it made me realise the importance of funding development and growth.”
‘Africa’s premium natural hair care line’ will continue to develop, Michelle Ntalami insists. “We are almost ready to launch a men’s natural hair line. The product has been tested and tried by local celebrities and with the help of Facebook, Instagram and other social media, we are going to take Africa by storm. Another next step on our list is launching a dreadlock product. We want to scale up and grow in the rest of Africa. We want to be known as the preferred African brand and are well on our way!”