For many successful entrepreneurs, their journey’s begin with trying to find solutions to key challenges. In the case of entrepreneur Ntombenhle Khathwane, founder of AfroBotanics, the inspiration to startup a business and natural hair and body care product brand came from the frustration of not being able to buy high quality products locally - the rest, as they say, is history!
LoA was fascinated to find out more about this natural beauty brand on the move…
What does your company do?
AfroBotanics is redefining the beauty narrative to say there isn’t, and can never be, one standard of beauty and each person must strive to embrace and show off that which makes them different. We do this by manufacturing natural hair and body care products that retail at Game, Clicks and Pick n Pay.
"AfroBotanics is redefining the beauty narrative to say there isn’t, and can never be, one standard of beauty and each person must strive to embrace and show off that which makes them different."
What inspired you to start your company?
I was based in Nelspruit working for government - I had worked for government for 8 years and although in management I was bored and knew I could never find working in the civil service challenging. I started looking for entrepreneurial ideas. Most were not suitable. One day when I was taking a break at my grandmother's home in rural Swaziland she asked me to help her prepare for Mass in two days’ time. She asked me to help her with her hair. I had never seen my grandmother's hair before because it was always in a head wrap as most rural women respectfully wear. When she removed her head wrap she revealed an enormous soft white puff. Her hair was huge, long and soft. I was confused. How did I have hair that was hard, coarse and brittle and she had soft hair. She told me she hadn't used any chemicals. She proceeded to direct me to wash her hair and then apply an Aloe Vera based mixture, followed by a marula oil base balm. The comb glided through her hair. Her natural hair stretched and it was easy for me to braid it as she wanted. When I went home I tried the DIY mixture a few times - I didn't fancy mixing stuff for my hair and because it was wasn't preserved it often went off. I was able to wear my very coarse, dry, coily, brittle hair natural for the first time ever. When I went looking for similar products in stores in 2009 there was one called J'om but it wasn't readily available in Nelspruit and the range wasn't extensive. When I did some Google research I found there were many brands in the States and the natural hair movement was big there already. I thought possibly there are African women like myself who would like to have manageable natural hair without chemically straightening it. My first thought was to import from the States, but then I thought I want to create a brand that rivals international brands so that Africans manufacture and benefit from an economic multiplier effect through products produced in Africa. I started formulating and testing AfroBotanics products with a range of 10 products and started retailing online in 2011. I eventually got listed in Game Stores in 2014, started selling in 2015, and listed with Clicks and Pick n Pay in 2016.
Why should anyone use your service or product?
We honour African wisdom in our formulations and importantly honour African beauty. As a brand we don't make women feel as if what they have or how they are they good enough, we work to assist them to embrace what they have, to learn to work with it and to redefine the dominant beauty narrative. We offer a full range of hair products for the natural woman from sulphate-free shampoos, conditioners, treatment masks, to different types of leave-conditioners, moisturizers, butters and oils and products for children with natural hair. We also focus on educating our customers on the science of African hair and caring for it because much of the prevailing knowledge is based on myths.
"My first thought was to import from the States, but then I thought I want to create a brand that rivals international brands so that Africans manufacture and benefit from an economic multiplier effect through products produced in Africa."
Tell us a little about your team
We are a growing family business at the challenging scale-up phase. I am CEO, my life parter is COO. And then we have 3 factory workers and 1 brand marketing assistant.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I studied politics and philosophy at Durban, University of Natal and getting into entrepreneurship I had no business skills but my research and writing skills helped me in market research and business planning. My academic background also gave me critical skills and the ability to learn quickly.
- In 2012 I was in the first cohort of the Goldman Sachs-GIBS 10,000 Women Programme and I got a business management certificate.
- I also did a course with the Branson Centre For Entrepreneurship.
- I was named Destiny Magazine 40 Trailblazers in 2011. In 2014 I was accepted into the Archbishop Tutu-Oxford University Leadership Fellowship.
- In 2014 I was runner-up in the Standard Bank - SABC3 Think Big Competition
- In 2015 I was named Mail & Guardian 200 Young Leaders
- In 2015 I was selected as Investec Young Treps
- In 2016 I was named as one of 30 Young Entrepreneurs To Watch by Forbes Africa
- In 2016 I was selected as the South African representative to spend a month in the USA as part of the AWEP Programme sponsored by the US government
In 2014 Game agreed to list AfroBotanics but to give us a 3 month probation. To ensure our products moved we approached natural haired celebrity Pearl Thusi to work with us, by the time we started supplying Game in 2015 our products flew off the shelves. Our performance at Game exceeded expectations and made it easy for us to convince Clicks and Pick n Pay to list us.
"We also focus on educating our customers on the science of African hair and caring for it because much of the prevailing knowledge is based on myths."
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
We are currently in 200 formal retail chains as of January 2017, we aim to be at 600 by year end. We plan to add one or two more formal retailers and also expand our product offering available from only natural hair care to include natural body care.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
I am still in disbelief that I can walk into select Clicks, Pick n Pay and Game Stores and find my products. The road to retail is so hard and challenging. I also love that everyone we employed was previously unemployed. As the leader and first mover in natural products in formal retail in the premium mass segment we are pioneers in showing that small black women owned brands can succeed and perform well.
"We honour African wisdom in our formulations and importantly honour African beauty."
What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
That there are business basics that should guide you in deciding to do a business, such as, start a business that is unique and not solving a problem the same way another business is, it will be difficult to break into a crowded market place even if you are very passionate about that business sector.
Contact or follow AfroBotanics
Why LoA loves it….
At LoA, we love those entrepreneurs who see a challenge in life and then see it as the inspiration for a business to provide the solution. For entrepreneur Ntombenhle Khathwane, that inspiration stemmed from the frustration of not being able to find hair and beauty products that were created specifically for African women who longed to have natural hair kept in great condition. Her brand, Afrobotanics, is now winning fans across South Africa and beyond. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa