#LLAInterview – “Don’t wait for the world to first validate your idea. Do it and do not look back.” Michelle Ntalami, CEO Marini Naturals
Michelle Ntalami, CEO of Marini Naturals, East Africa’s First Quality hairline for women, has been able to turn her passion for natural hair into a strong brand that is well known in East Africa. In our interview with her, she tells us where it all began and how she plans to take over the world with Marini Naturals.
Hello Michelle. Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?
Hello! My name is Michelle Ntalami and I am the CEO & Founder of Marini Naturals; East Africa’s First Quality haircare line for all women of Natural and Afro-textured hair. I was inspired by a holistic, natural and healthier approach to life and beauty. I felt that women should be just as cautious about what they put on their hair, as well as their skin. After three years of intensive and reflective research, the idea was born. Marini Naturals products have a singular goal to help all African and Multi-Cultural women around the world embrace their natural kinks, coils and curls as God intended it to be! Aside from that, I love dogs, the colour red and lots and lots of travel!
Why did you decide to focus on creating products for natural hair?
I cut my hair three years ago because I felt I needed a break from chemicals and costly salon time. However, as soon as I went natural, I noticed there was a dire need to find products that actually work for natural African hair. Necessity is the mother of invention as they say, so I found myself making my own products that work for my own hair. It sparked the idea of actually doing this as a full-blown business. So many of my other friends who had gone natural were suffering just like me! We were all together on YouTube, Amazon and Ebay ogling at products from bloggers reviews and just wishing we could get our hands on them. When I told some of my close friends about the idea, they were sure it would fly! All this made me know that it was high time someone did something, and if it wouldn’t be a multinational, well, it would be me.
How were you able to get the capital to fund your business?
I didn’t get capital – no entrepreneur ever gets capital…lol. Capital is what investors and banks give you, and no investor or bank was willing to put into Marini at the time. What I got was savings from my Branding Agency, Brandvine Group and financial assistance from my family to get me started.
Aside from personal funds, what else did you have to do in order to start Marini Naturals?
I also joined an investment club and after sometime I was able to borrow three times what I had put in, at only 1% interest rate.
Your products are produced locally. How easy has it been to sustain this?
It has not been easy, and we do face challenges here and there with local production. However the beauty is that the raw materials come right from our very own African backyard so every time we go into a production run we are sure that the end-product is quality and great for human use.
What strategies did you use to grow Marini Naturals to a team of 11?
The business demands human resource on its own as it grows. It’s kind of like a child in pre-school who, aside from his parents, needs a nanny, a tutor, a paediatrician, etc. We began with the most critical staff; a sales person and a finance/accounts person. Later on, the business demanded for more staff to help sustain it such as a logistics executive, social media manager and the like. We then hired accordingly. However, we did not hire until a genuine need was felt and it was almost detrimental if we didn’t.
In 10 months, Marini Naturals grew to become one of the most preferred brands for natural hair in Kenya. How were you able to achieve this?
Thank you very much for the kind words. We made sure we captured the three essential components of a product which have propelled it into a growing multinational brand;
- The core – The product itself and its intrinsic value. We produce quality products that actually work.
- The basic – our packaging and labelling is attractive and professionally done. Most customers think our products are imports from first glance.
- The augmented – how our products make the customers feel. We have done several exciting videos and campaigns that showcase the “feel good factor” of going natural and appreciating oneself as you are.
Surely you must have faced some challenges in your entrepreneurial journey. Can you tell us about these challenges and how you were able to overcome them?
Yes I have. The entrepreneurial journey is not easy and that is the truth. It is sometimes painted out as an easy-to-do quick fix which gets you to be your own boss and life is easy forever more. Not true. I have faced a lot of emotional, financial, social and mental challenges. Socially, it has been an uphill task convincing women that natural hair is indeed beautiful. We have done several campaigns via our YouTube channel on this, and so far this has done a wonderful job at shifting the mindset. Additionally, cash flows is always an issue with any start-up. However we have since partnered with a lending firm that is able to lend us on our recievables and this has greatly boosted our liquidity.
Can you take us through what a typical day in your life is like?
I get up every day at about 8 am. First thing I do is thank God for an opportunity to see another day. I then do a few stretches & crunches. Finally I plan my day on my phone’s to-do list. I handle any meetings or pending emails that I have. A lot of my time is also spent mentoring others and giving motivational and educational talks, therefore at least two times in a week I have these planned out. Occasionally, I carry out site visits to my retailer’s stores to see how the brand is doing. During production, I also visit the factory to make sure all is going smoothly. My day typically ends around 6.30 pm where I go to the gym, then go home and relax with my family and my dog Mellow.
Aside from producing hair products, do you have any other interests?
Yes. I am a designer by nature. I love interior design, graphic design, branding and marketing. Also, I love to travel! If I had enough money, I would travel the whole world for as long as I live. This is still in the works. J
Many African women complain that it is difficult to take care of their natural hair. What are your thoughts about this?
It is only difficult when you haven’t yet understood your hair. Once you do, it is the easiest thing ever. Your hair speaks to you. Be patient with it, and just give it some time to talk to you. After a few months, you will understand it fully and know what it needs to be taken care of.
Do you think we will ever get rid of the mindset that African natural hair is bad hair?
Yes, definitely! The mind-shift is happening and people are slowly starting to love their natural kinky African hair.
Where do you see Marini Naturals in five years?
Our African sisters in other countries want to be Marinified too! We’ve felt a lot of demand from East Africa, Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and even Dubai. So we’ve got plans in the near future to expand strategically but organically to the rest of Africa and the Middle East. We want to be the top of mind natural haircare brand in Africa and Sub-saharan Africa. We are also releasing a deep conditioning treatment for both protein and moisture, as well as a few creative products that we know we’ll get our customers very excited including a product range for men and kids. We are confident that these are going to be a big hit in the market based on their demand.
What has been the most rewarding moment in your entrepreneurial journey?
One of our most successful sales is getting listed in CarreFour, which is an international French retail store that has set up in Kenya. Our most successful achievement is receiving “Brand of the Year, Kenya” Award early this year, an award that was hotly contested by bigger and older brands than Marini Naturals. It was a wonderful feeling receiving this award after only one year of being in the Market. Finally, recently we also expanded to Europe! We had no idea the natural hair market in France was that big, but a close connection assured me that Marini Naturals would do well there, and indeed it is.
What advice do you have for women who want to tow your path as an entrepreneur?
Don’t wait for the world to first validate your idea. Do it and do not look back. When I began Marini Naturals, almost everyone told me that Africa was not ready for such a product. Today, at least 60% of all queries on distributorship for our products come from Africa. And it’s only a matter of time that it catches on in US, UK and Europe. Go for it and don’t look back. Your instincts and passion are your best guide, not people’s opinion of your idea.
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.