By Ancillar Nombewu
Sonto Pooe is one of the few South African women taking the hair care manufacturing industry by storm. She has risked her own money and went up against giant companies like L’Oréal and Revlon to claim her share of the African hair market.
Her hair journey began at the age of eight when she attempted to braid her own hair after a gruesome experience with a hairdresser who plaited her too tight, making her unable to sleep for days.
“My first attempt led to me being mocked at school. But, I continued plaiting because I didn’t want anyone touching my hair. I’ve always been somewhat of a fashion and hair entrepreneur from a young age. I just thought of it as a side hustle, something I loved doing which helped me make extra money,” she says.
Over the years, the qualified Quantity Surveyor says her hairdressing skills improved, but she struggled to find products that strictly catered for African natural hair.
“Most of the natural products I found contained chemicals, and this frustrated me. So, I decided to locally develop and manufacture my own products. As a black woman, it was important for me to develop products that cater for our skin and hair type,” says Pooe.
In 2015, she founded NativeChild, a natural hair and body care range. She named her business NativeChild to represent who she is – an African woman with strong roots.
“NativeChild was born out of a combination of three things: an unquenchable passion for hair and particularly long and strong natural hair, a desire to see more people like me wear their crowns proudly and a strong desire to have a social impact where we start to see less people of colour use and absorb chemicals through their hair & body care products. NativeChild is a modern version of natural care. It is meant to evoke a feeling of appreciating one’s beauty and uses natural organic ingredients to heal, restore and maintain optimum hair and body,” she says.
She started out small, developing products in her kitchen, with just three employees – her husband, her son and herself and with just one product, the NativeChild castor oil which helps with hair growth. Over the years, the business has grown to include a wide range of products, accessories and even a kids range.
Pooe sees her business as a pioneer in the Afro hair care space in South Africa.
“We are the only brand whose products are clean enough and can be used on both body and hair. Our butters and oils can be used on newly born babies too. So, when we talk about quality ingredients, we mean it.”
Although the Afro haircare market continues to grow and even big international conglomerates now cater for the market, Pooe says she never thought she wasn’t going to be able to do it or compete with industry giants.
“I am my target customer. I know the needs of our target market from experience. I live it every day. Big giants are so big and generally, decisions are made by people who don’t share the experience of those they are trying to sell to. No amount of money or schooling can substitute for experience,” she says.
Born in the dusty streets of KwaZulu Natal, Pooe was raised by a single mother and is the eldest of three which comes with responsibility and leadership which has helped her in business. Even so, in the beginning, finding a team that understood her vision was difficult. But through trial and error, she finally found supportive staff members.
“I no longer hire anyone simply because they need a job but rather the right person for the job…The fact that there are many natural products on the market can be challenging, but I have managed to keep moving forward. This is because I also educate my customers about which products will work best for their individual needs.”
Pooe is leading the pack in teaching women how to take care of their tough kinks and skin. Her products have been used by thousands of women across the world. They are sold in major stores like PicknPay and are also available in South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, USA, Botswana and Ghana with shipping available worldwide including in Zimbabwe.
“I dreamed about this but I have been humbled at how quickly it came. The initial dream was to have every family in South Africa have at least one NativeChild product but I soon realized how connected the world is and that people move around and before you know it, you have requests from all over the world. That helped expand my vision to the world,” she says.
The growth also meant some challenges. One of the big hurdles she faced is the e-commerce resistance from some customers.
“Using technology to buy products and buying online is ever-evolving so educating our potential customers on online buying has been a massive task. Not everyone is comfortable venturing out into the unknown,” she says.
She adds that assuring customers that it’s safe is also a massive responsibility but with COVID-19 lockdowns the company saw a massive boom on online sales. Product demand tripled and overall sales went up five times during the lockdown period.
Pooe says she wants to be known as an entrepreneur who not only wanted to grow an industry but actually made a difference in the lives of those NativeChild touched.
“I am a game-changer. To this day a large portion of our work as NativeChild is to educate. We were the first black haircare & body care brand to sell online / have an e-commerce website. We are doing a lot in teaching about the dangers of chemicals. We are also doing a lot in the space of changing the beauty narrative.”
This November, Pooe was awarded the Pick’n’Pay Small Supplier of the year award which is testament to the notion that hard work pays.
Clearly, Pooe is determined to defy all the negativity like the Afro hair she caters for defies gravity.
Eight Start-up Lessons by Sonto Pooe:
1. Be ready to work. The number of hours you will have to put in will far exceed your expectations
2. There are many moving parts to a business. The whole supply chain affects the end-user experience
3. It’s important to partner with those who value customer service and if there’s an issue, to be able to make
the difficult decision to change/find alternatives
4. Although there is an urge or desire to provide employment to everyone who needs it, It’s important to hire
quality employees, to get quality output
5. Everything you need to bring about that dream you have is already inside of you. Limit exposure of negative
voices or voices that tell you can’t, you won’t, you shouldn’t
6. Don’t take business advice from people not in the business
7. Being the founder, you’re the visionary and the engine of the company. You need to know everything there is
to know about running your business. You can’t rely on others to move the vehicle for you
8. Avoid debt where possible. It’s ok to start small and grow organically. Don’t run faster than you have strength