By Elaine Pirozzi
Thokozile Mangwiro did not set out to become an entrepreneur. She got her Master’s degree in information and communications technology from the University of South Africa in 2013, having earlier received a Bachelor’s in IT and web development from Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria. She worked for eight years in database administration, analysis, and the intelligence industry and had no plans to change course until a personal need, a frustration really, led her to start her own business.
“Near the end of high school, I began keeping my hair natural. I struggled for a long time, like many other women, with extremely dry hair and skin. After a seemingly endless search for locally produced products, it was clear there was a huge gap in the market for professionally formulated products made for natural hair. I had no experience as an entrepreneur but always had an interest in business. And I’ve always been a high performer so I thought I might as well step out of corporate and be a high performer for myself.”
If Mangwiro couldn’t buy the kind of effective hair care products that she needed, she decided she would create her own. She began the long process of research and experimentation into a better way to maintain natural African hair. She discovered early on that natural raw materials like shea butter and coconut oil could yield real benefits and found a formulator who had experience with ethnic hair products. “We had several late night meetings about the products, how they should perform, look, and feel. The formulator would create something and I would test it, send it back, and ask for adjustments until the products felt just right.”
Throughout this time, Mangwiro continued her own experimentation with natural oils, and she made an important discovery in the form of Marula, an oil obtained from the Marula fruit, which is indigenous to Southern Africa. “It felt like God gave me a little present one day and said, here, meet Marula. The Tsonga women of South Africa have used this oil as a moisturizer and massage oil on babies for years. This oil has protected the African skin and hair against both harsh and dry and hot and humid weather conditions.”
Once she was satisfied with the formulations she’d created, she next had to consider packaging. “I did all the packaging designs and sat with graphics people to get the imagery correct. I took the time to learn about labeling and packaging standards required for a product to be retail ready. Then I met with several bottling and packaging manufacturers to source the bottles for each product. Once the products were manufactured, I packaged and labelled each bottle. It was an elaborate, sometimes exhausting exercise, but so wonderful when you see a single fully produced bottle in front of you.”
On February 2, 2015, Mangwiro’s 34th birthday, her company Nyla Marula Beauty was launched. The company consists of two lines of skin and hair care products: Nyla, the luxury brand that uses Marula oil as the base for all products, and Nilotiqa, which utilizes a variety of natural oils.
Although Mangwiro had confidence in her product, making the leap to entrepreneurship was still a challenge. “One of my biggest fears was entering a competitive market and going against huge, established companies. But the fear subsided when people sampled the products and gave us amazing feedback; that made me more certain and more determined. We tend to overthink things and most times are stopped by our own fear. We scare ourselves into quitting; however, if you just start, you will realize that it was not as scary or as impossible as you thought it would be.”
Mangwiro was still employed full-time when she began the process, so she was able to use her own money to get the formulations made and purchase raw materials. Now, as the business grows, she will need to raise additional money. “Raising funding can be one of the biggest challenges for any entrepreneur. South Africa does however, prioritize women businesses for funding.”
Mangwiro credits her close-knit family in helping her develop her own work ethic. “I was born and raised in the township of Kagiso, Krugerdorp. I attended St Peter’s Primary School where my grandfather was a principal and my grandmother the Grade 1 teacher. I grew up under people who educated a whole community with love and passion. My mother is also a teacher, an extremely passionate educator. Education was said to be the only way to get out of poverty, especially in apartheid times when the environment was volatile. The experience of school interruptions and riots led my parents to reconsider the schools we went to. In Grade 4, I changed schools to attend a private school until my final year.”
Family life was full of love, but also, unfortunately, financial struggle. Attending a private school with well-to-do children proved to be a journey. “When I look back I know that it was difficult, but it made me the person I am today — full of perseverance and strength.”
This fortitude has been necessary to meet the demands of starting a business, but Mangwiro is up to the challenge. “My position as a database administrator was hardly ever a 9 – 5 type of position. The work ethic that I had for my previous jobs is the same I will use in my business: Hard work, perseverance, no sleep until work is done and the goal is reached. I try to find solutions to what may seem impossible.”
- Patience and perseverance is key. It is very easy to give up when you get the first “no”, but it’s important to understand that selling and getting products to the market is a process, and that the journey will be a long but satisfying one.
- Find an incubation hub or mentors that will help you with marketing strategies, cash-flow management, risk-management and getting the operations processing correct. It is vital for your company to grow and remain sustainable. I worked with the Awethu Project.
- Research the industry you are entering. Find the gaps the big players are not filling.
Elaine Pirozzi lives and writes in Washington, DC.