Two years ago, Michelle Nkatha Ntalami was a nondescript designer and marketer. However, it is the release of her organic hair care product line, Marini Naturals, which catapulted her into the limelight. Since then, the hair care line tailor-made specifically for women with natural hair has spawned a movement of dedicated natural hair loyalists aptly dubbed ‘naturalistas’. The entrepreneur had a chat with ESTHER AKELLO on her vision to conquer the African hair care market.
Many Kenyan women will tell you dealing with natural hair is nothing short of a nightmare. Couple that with the fact that for years, very little had been done to have affordable natural hair care products developed locally. This is the predicament that interior and graphic designer Michelle Ntalami faced when she cut her hair in 2013. Not only were natural hair products expensive, but also scarce.
Just two years before that, the journey that would lead to the drastic change in her lifestyle had started playing out when the
“then 27-year-old ventured into business. Brandvine Group, a brand design company, was born in 2011. The decision to start the company was reached after a partial scholarship to study brand communications at Oxford University in the UK slipped through her fingers because she could not raise the remaining fee balance.
Having already quit her job at a leading advertising agency, she decided it was a good a time as any to venture into entrepreneurship. There was only one problem; she did not have capital. So she did the next best thing; she turned to her parents.
“My dad offered to pay rent for my office in Lavington but on condition that I pay him back the money after three months. I was so scared,” says the University of Nairobi alumnus.
True to his word, her father demanded his money at the end of three months. She didn’t have it. Her ever supportive father extended his offer to aid her for another six months, but on condition that if she was unable to raise the rent, she would promptly go back to employment. Unknown to her at the time, her Father was simply trying to push her limits and let her know she ought to believe in herself that she can succeed. Determined to prove she was worth her salt, the design and communications graduate immediately worked on a website, business cards, social media pages and got word out to friends and anyone who cared to listen about her fledgling business. By the end of the six months, although she didn’t have money to pay her father back, she asked him to stop paying her rent.
The genesis of Marini Naturals,
By 2013, the business had picked up and clients started asking for more than Michelle was offering. “When I started Brandvine, I was largely doing graphic design but clients started asking for interior design solutions so I thought maybe it would be good to refine my skills on the same,” says the 32-year-old.
Setting her eyes on one of the best art and design schools in Italy, the Florence Design Academy, Michelle got resourceful and obtained a scholarship. Her parents cautioned her against leaning on them for funds, as she was old enough to fend for herself. They did, however, offer to pay for her upkeep. The tuition was solely up to her.
“Looking back, I appreciate the fact that my parents did not baby me. Not because they were lacking in resources, but it was their way of pushing me to push myself to make things work,” she says. Just when she was about to set off, her family received the worst news. Her father had cancer.
“My dad’s diagnosis was surprising and a jolting reality check. He did everything right – ate healthy, avoided the usual trappings of alcohol and smoking and up until that time, had always had a clean bill of health. If he, of all people, could get cancer, how much more someone like me, who invested little in healthy living,” she says emotionally.
In the course of reviewing and re- evaluating her life’s choices, Michelle decided to make a clean break from processed materials. Her hair, which was relaxed, was among the first things to go. Next on the line was her skin care products (aside from some makeup lines and perfume, which she admits she is addicted to) and eventually food. Shortly thereafter, she set off for a year’s Masters study in Italy.
While the feeling of liberation that came with chopped locks was blissful, it did not last long as Michelle realised natural hair needed just as much attention as any other type of hair, maybe even more. Additionally, her go to hair products, the processed ones, were out of the question prompting her into a relatively unknown world of natural hair and its products.
“I ended up going to various shops and buying everything – coconut, glycerine, avocado and soya and mixing them up until something worked,” she says adding that her knowledge was largely informed by Google and her study time in Italy.
“When I was not busy doing my assignments, I would go to factories and perfumeries and speak with industry stakeholders on their products,” says the designer who confirms that while she does not have a background in biochemistry or cosmetic science, her determination was largely fuelled by passion to make her lifestyle choices work.
According to Michelle, the first Marini Naturals product that finally worked was the daily spritz, a liquid mixture of glycerin and rosewater. Having had such success with it, she gave her friends some samples. They were blown away. Amazed at the results, it dawned on her that she may be on to something and after a discussion with her mother, decided to package her product.
“I tried to look at the alternatives in the market and realised there really was none and local hair products manufacturers and suppliers were in no hurry to supply similar products. So I pulled out my spritz, made 500 samples of other products as well and decided to hit the market by sponsoring a hair event in November 2014. When we showed clients what the products could do, such as instant curls, it was only a matter of time before we ran out of products. By January 2015, we were out of stock,” says Michelle.
Chasing the African dream
Sadly, Michelle’s father who had inspired her foray into living a healthier lifestyle and the entrepreneurial bug in her owing to his career in the finance industry, passed away in November 2014. Sad but determined to keep his spirit alive, Michelle started moving to retail shops, stockists and chemists in a bid to get her product on the shelves. By then, the product package that is Marini Naturals today did not even exist.
“I wanted to get the conversation going and walked into shops with a product still packed in lab tubes. BIG mistake! They did not even give me the time of day. All they said was come back when you have a fully packaged product then we can talk,” says Michelle.
Thanks to her background in design branding, she set to work and inspired by Africa, she knew just what she wanted her product to represent. “Marini is Swahili for naturally beautiful – without enhancements. The package colour is brown and black to represent our beautiful skin tones and the logo, a woman with leaves on her hair, is to represent us and our natural crowning glory,” she says.
With that mindset, who could deny Marini Naturals a place on the shelves? The next time she pitched, Marini Naturals went up on the shelves of retail shops like Super Cosmetics within weeks. Other outlets such as Chandarana and HealthyU followed suit.
“I hope in a matter of years to see Marini Naturals in most African Households. I want it to be the go to product for women of natural hair all over Africa,” she explains.
While Michelle shrinks in modesty every time someone quips about how the hair care line has become an instant hit, she is thankful to her clients and especially those on social media for creating buzz around the products.
“So many people who don’t even know our story share about their experience and give us reviews on other hair related pages. We started the online campaign, ‘Get Marinified’ in June to teach women about caring for natural hair and since then, 16 women have chopped off their hair,” she states.
Success comes with its own challenges as well. Michelle remembers a time when a competitor paid people to give bad reviews about her products. Instead of putting the competitor on the spot, she invited the affected women and gave them a free makeover and proved them wrong.
Her action was informed by the rules she lives by in business – to pick battles wisely – saying it makes sense that not everyone is happy to see other people excel or to be rendered redundant. Other lessons that Michelle says she has learnt along the way include managing cash flow in business. Although Marini Naturals is doing well enough to pay her a salary and her team of eight, she does not splurge on luxuries, at least not yet.
When she is not working, Michelle is busy trying to set hearts and passions ablaze. “My personal CSR is mentorship. I cringe when people don’t do engage in something they love either in business, career or life in general. I just try to spark fires and let people learn from my journey and see how we can forge ahead,” she explains.
Michelle also likes to spend time with her family and is a big advocate of strong families. When asked about when she plans to start her own, she laughs out loud saying, “Everything happens in God’s time. I am old school about that too. I believe in a man being the leader of the home and in wives being helpers. While I am a tigress in the boardroom, I am subtle at home. I can control my work life, but when it comes to love and children, I’m going to let God handle that,” she concludes.
Published in August 2016