How niche entrepreneurs win big by thinking small

Natural health and beauty products are gaining popularity as people become more aware of the lifestyle complications linked to chemical-laden products.

And as the market for these products has increased, so has the number of entrepreneurs making natural soaps, lotions, facial scrubs and other self-care essentials.

Hustle caught up with two businesswomen making and selling natural skin and hair care brands in Kenya and who have ventured into other markets.

They shared their motivations, their vision and how they are carving their own space in a market that’s rapidly getting crowded.

Andia Akidiva

Andia is a lawyer by training who runs Gajimare, a natural skin care brand that operates in Kenya, is planning to set up an outlet in Nigeria and serves several markets abroad.

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The brand is owned by Elvante Group, which Andia set up in 2015 with seed capital of Sh5 million. Two years later, the business rolled out Gajimare. This year, Andia offloaded some shares in Elvante, raising an additional Sh7 million, which she is using to take her natural care range to the next level.

How did the idea for Gajimare come about for someone who studied law?

Gajimare is one part of the Elvante Group, which was set up as an umbrella for various fast-moving consumer goods that will be rolled out across Africa.

In my travels across the continent, I came across very many beautiful languages and words. Gajimare is a pan-African brand crafted in Africa and made in Kenya.

We’ve done very well as East Africans as brand ambassadors for Swahili, but I wanted to bring other beautiful African words to the African audience. I fell in love with the word the first time I heard it when on assignment in Abuja, Nigeria. Gajimare is a word from the Hausa language that means ‘rain cloud’.

How are you ensuring that Gajimare stands out in the fast-growing beauty industry?

Gajimare is a luxury bath and body products brand. We’re very concerned with the efficacy of our products, their sourcing and the nature of ingredients.

Africa has a vast knowledge of beauty and health techniques that have been used for centuries. At Gajimare, we use the base of this traditional knowledge and techniques to create modern products.

What has it been like taking the business outside of Kenya’s borders?

I have always had a deep love for Africa and strongly believe that Africa will only work when we pool our talents, finances and resources together. My dream is not just to create a Kenyan brand, but to also create an African brand, and I’ve been very deliberate in my actions in this regard.

The premise behind Gajimare is simply to source the best and highest-quality natural ingredients from all over Africa to our manufacturing facility in Kenya, and create something unique. We are on course to have our Nigeria facility open in the last quarter of this year. Kenya is known for having some of the best brands in Africa, so what better place to start the journey?

How does Kenya measure up to other countries in terms of consumption of natural products?

Most places in Africa are experiencing a growth in the middle class who have some level of disposable income and are willing to try new products. Globalisation and Internet penetration also influence trends faster these days. Kenya has a higher number of consumers concerned with the ingredients they put on their bodies.

You make your own products – where do you get your raw materials from?

We make the products from our facility in Nairobi’s Baba Dogo, and source materials from north to south (Casablanca to Cape), from the biggest to the smallest (Sudan to Seychelles), and from east to west (Nairobi to N’djamena). We’re a pan-African company.

Quality is one of the most defining factors behind a brand’s success in the natural care industry. How do you ensure Gajimare meets customers’ quality requirements?

We spent more than a year visiting African countries sourcing for ingredients, and developing and testing products. We have strict and exacting standards in our processes. We have also benchmarked our quality control processes with processes used in more advanced economies.

Additionally, we work closely with agencies in Kenya who hold a wealth of expertise, such as Kirdi (Kenya Industrial Research And Development Institute). Such agencies are fully equipped with labs and highly trained staff.

Logistics can be a nightmare in your industry, how do you handle shipping and ensure you meet orders on time?

We have a dispatch process that ensures orders are met on time and when needed. We’ve also partnered with reputable online, logistics and delivery companies.

We fulfil orders all the way to Lagos, France and Dublin. For example, we just provided wedding favours for a wedding in Lagos last week.

Selling is all about listing online, researching the best vendors for your products and finding an arrangement that works for your products.

What challenges come with selling products online?

Possibly the cost of having a good online platform, as well as marketing costs associated with social media advertising.

We also have physical outlets though. You can find our products at beauty stores, salons and pharmacies that we’ve partnered with, and we’re in the process of completing a listing in major outlets.

What’s your advice to people looking to sell beauty products online?

As a manufacturer, I explore all avenues of delivering products to my clients, whether that’s eCommerce or via physical retail outlets. Those who want to concentrate on eCommerce, however, should ensure they have high quality images.

You don’t have a chance to interact with the consumer and so the images speak for you, and what they see is what they should get.

Invest in high-resolution imagery, take the time to write your copy well and communicate the value of what you’re selling concisely and precisely.

Also, ensure you deliver your products to clients on time. The goods should be in a good state, not damaged. Building trust with online selling is something a vendor must do, and this can only be done by offering good service.

Catherine Njane 

Catherine battled eczema for a long time. Her experience inspired her to start Zerufi Organics, a company that makes and sells natural skin care and hair care products in Rwanda and Kenya through Kasha, a women’s eCommerce platform.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Not really. I was always very career oriented. I’m an advisory consultant by profession, with more than seven years of experience in the field. Entrepreneurship was never something I seriously considered before, at least not full-time. I loved the stability that my job offered.

I tried to do business part-time for a couple of months, but it wasn’t sustainable, especially with my tight work schedule. I hadn’t even started actively advertising the products at the time, but I was getting a lot of customers through referrals from friends and co-workers.

I didn’t know how I was going handle the demand if it grew beyond that, so I decided to quit my job to see where this passion would lead me.

It was a hard decision to make, but I’m grateful for the great support system that I have in my family and friends. I couldn’t have done this without them – they are truly my heroes.

Why did you venture into natural products?

I was interested in healthy living. I like to be in control of what I put on my skin and hair. I struggled with eczema, which got me to start making my own body products.

I visited a dermatologist who told me the condition could only be managed with corticosteroid creams. The thought of using chemicals indefinitely didn’t sit well with me.

I started doing research and began mixing my own butters because the lotions I bought caused irritation. This slowly turned into a hobby. I’d research and come up with different recipes for myself, my friends and family. They really liked them and kept asking for more, and that’s how Zerufi Organics was born.

Zerufi is a name my sister and I came up with – it sounded like an exotic Swahili word, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

Where do you get your raw materials from?

I make the products myself with some help from a small team, and we source our raw materials from different areas within the East African region. Our key focus is on the quality of the materials we get.

What’s business like in Kenya compared to Rwanda?

A lot more people are aware of the benefits of natural skin and hair care products in Kenya than in Rwanda. This, however, has translated to more players in the Kenyan market.

How do you satisfy your customers’ quality requirements?

We’re strong believers in not putting anything on your skin or hair that you wouldn’t want near your mouth. Our customers are people looking for effective skin and hair solutions in nature without having to resort to chemical-laden products.

Zerufi Organics tries to offer that with its product range, which is carefully formulated with natural ingredients backed by extensive research to ensure they’re not only gentle but also effective.

The interest in natural products has attracted a lot of entrepreneurs. How do you beat the competition?

We are always looking for ways to reinvent our brand through better promotions and a wider range of quality products, among other strategies.

We also engage with our customers through online platforms to get their feedback to ensure we’re constantly improving and catering to their needs.

Quality and consistency have played a very big part in our success. A lot of our business comes from repeat customers and referrals from those who’ve used our products. We don’t have physical outlets at the moment.

What drove you online?

When Zerufi Organics first started out, we were doing the deliveries ourselves, but this quickly proved to be hectic and expensive without the proper structures for this kind of business. We eventually partnered with businesses that have online platforms, like Kasha who are our distributors in Kenya and Rwanda.

I’d say that we’ve been very blessed to form amazing partnerships that are mutually beneficial.

What challenges come with selling products online?

One of the biggest challenges is finding the right service providers. An unreliable service provider could hurt your brand just as much as a bad product would, especially if you operate your business purely online. We’ve been very lucky on that front; we have amazing service providers.

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chemical-laden productsNatural beauty productsGajimareZerufi Organics