Michelle Ntalami: Africa in a Bottle

Just one year into her new business venture and barely into her 30s, Michelle Ntalami already feels like she’s won a Lifetime Achievement Award. With a spot on the list of “40 Under 40 Women in Kenya” and a coveted feature on CNN’s African Startup, the 32-year-old founder of Marini Naturals East Africa – an organic haircare line for women with natural and Afro-textured hair – has reason to celebrate. The haircare industry in Africa is, after all, an exploding billion-dollar market.

Highly motivated and enthusiastic, Michelle’s drive and self-confidence is palpable.

“A mentor once told me that the difference between a president and a sweeper is not background or upbringing but state of mind. If you don’t see yourself worthy of accomplishing anything in this world, you will never move forward. You can only be as great – or equally as unaccomplished – as how much you think you are. I take those words to heart and don’t feel anything can stop me from achieving what I want to do.”

Michelle’s foray into the organic skin and haircare industry may be a new direction for the Kenyan entrepreneur, but she’s been an experienced business owner already for six years, running a successful branding and marketing agency, Brandvine, together with her cofounder Niyati Patel. The inspiration for Marini Naturals came almost three years ago when Michelle decided to get rid of her chemically treated hair to improve its growth.

“I cut my hair and started afresh but couldn’t find products on the market that catered for women with natural hair. So I mixed organic products at home and eventually shared the results with friends. I got a lot of positive feedback and was encouraged to take it further. I reached out to a top certified cosmetic formulator with my ideas and Marini Naturals was officially launched with help from family and friends.”

The initial investment of about $70,000 needed to purchase supplies and packaging and to work with the formulator came from Michelle’s own wallet supplemented by capital from her brother and mother and a SACCO (savings and investment cooperative) club. A graphic designer by training with a BA from University of Nairobi and diplomas from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing and Florence Design Academy in Italy, Michelle initially created all the branding for Marini Naturals, which incidentally is Swahili for “naturally beautiful”. As the business grew, the Brandvine team came on board to run operations, including Niyati who continues to be Michelle’s cofounder and partner in the new business. 

“Niyati and I are a perfect complement to each other. Our style of working is very different, but we balance each other really well. I didn’t anticipate that in one year I’d have eight people depending on me for their livelihoods. That’s a whole new experience, and I’m not sure I would have done it if I had known I’d have this responsibility towards others. But I really appreciate my team and couldn’t have gotten to where we are today without them.”

“Have a healthy relationship with your finances: know when to hold purse strings tight but also when to spend. Understand where value lies.”

When asked to recall a few significant turning points or critical factors that have made a difference in the business, Michelle doesn’t hesitate: “To get the brand name out there, in the beginning we sponsored and gave away a lot of product, but I’ve learned how to say no and only spend where there’s value for the business. Putting everything on paper is also very important. Unfortunately, I came to that realization the hard way after getting burned. It doesn’t matter if we are friends from way back or if we just met, any agreements we make are written and signed. On a positive note, our social media presence has been a huge success factor for us. We won brand of the year award in Kenya and perhaps that was one of the reasons CNN sniffed us out. Our product is excellent but our fulltime dedicated social media team and strategy has significantly impacted the brand for the better.”

Sourcing its ingredients from across Africa, Marini Naturals’ current range consists of sulphate-free shampoos, detangling conditioners, stylers, butters, gels, hair growth oil and a moisturizing spritz. A new skincare line will be launched this year. After only one year in business, the all-natural product line is sold in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria, South Africa as well as France and Turkey. And that’s just for starters.

But in order to maintain success on an international scale, Marini Naturals needs a cash injection.

“We’ve reached that first growth stage where we need investment to grow. Demand has surpassed what we can supply. But the bank packages are not good, collateral demands are far too high, and many institutions are not keen to support small businesses. So we’re looking at alternative lending sources such as venture capital and crowdfunding options such as Kickstarter or the Lelapa Fund, an equity crowdfunding platform unique to Africa.

Funding is a challenge but Michelle is optimistic.

 “We are positioning ourselves to be the brand for women everywhere with natural, curly textured hair,” she explains, adding with emphasis: “The market potential is really large and certainly not limited to our current sales locations. I envision international billboards with the slogan ‘From Africa with Love,’ showcasing Marini Natural as Africa’s leading natural hair and skincare line across the globe. In five years, you’ll be able to buy us anywhere in the world and anyone, anywhere can become ‘marinified’.”

Now that’s confidence you’ve got to love.

Michelle Ntalami’s startup tips:
  • Have a healthy relationship with your finances: know when to hold purse strings tight but also when to spend. Understand where value lies.
  • Get a mentor, and when the time is right, become one. When you mentor, you learn from your mentee’s drive, their perspectives, it’s a two-way relationship.
  • Stay humble and grounded. Never let success get to your head and never let failure get to your heart.
  • Take time to clear your head and heart. It gets very involved in business and a lot of decisions need to be made. Taking time out helps you rejuvenate and reflect on what is truly important.

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