A hair rising conversation with Kentaro hairpreneurs
Charlyn Kentaro and Tasha Nkwanzi are proof that ninjas are not only those that wear masks. The sister and co-founders of organic hair products Kentaro are working diligently to change the way we think about and treat our hair. Every change starts with the right information, and there is a shift that is starting to gain momentum not just here in but all over the world and Kentaro is one of those companies at the forefront of availing products that are not only safe and healthy but also empower lives. The company believes that good hair is not the texture of your hair but its condition.
“All hair is beautiful you just need the right products to help you manage it,” Kentaro asserts. And she should know. For the past six years, Kentaro has turned what her sister Nkwanzi describes as a brilliant idea into a profitable business with a loyal clientele and a growing number of products.
Kentaro, the dreamer started mixing butters in her parents’ kitchen after failing to find products that could work on her natural hair. “The products on the market were either poor quality or cost beyond my budget. I decided to look for products on the internet but they were extremely expensive so I did a bit of research on the popular products. Everyone was in love with this thing called Shea butter. I discovered that Uganda is one of the leading producers of Shea butter. I went out, looked for it but using it was disastrous not only did it smell awful but it left residues in my hair. Determined to find a lasting solution, I bought a bottle of peppermint essential oil added it to the whipped Shea butter and was pleasantly surprised by the result. It was smoother, smelled nicer and was really effective on my hair. Soon people started complementing me and asking what I was using on my hair but since it was not a product they would go and buy from the shop, I gladly shared mine. At that time I worked as a legal researcher for an NGO, so I did not see this as a business opportunity. But I continued doing research and saw how other people had embraced such ideas and benefited their communities,” Kentaro recollects her journey.
But having a good product is not guarantee for success so Kentaro was reluctant to leave her day job to dive into the world of business. She decided to play it safe by sticking to her job while dabbling in the cosmetics on the side. “I was also afraid to jump in headfirst because essentially I did not consider myself a business person and I had this untold fear of numbers. But my husband, who is a finance guy, encouraged and pushed me to start. He showed me the basics; there is demand, you have the know-how and you have easy access to the raw materials. So I started to do it as a side job but it eventually took over. The whole thing was so fascinating to me that I could take these things in their raw state and turn them into something so beautiful. It spoke to my creative soul,” Kentaro relates. Even with this fascination the decision to leave her legal consultancy job did not come easily. Her family could not understand how she could decide to chuck her law degree on the side and make ‘bizigo’. But Kentaro was hooked and she stuck it out. It was not long though before big sister Nkwanzi joined forces with her. “I saw the potential in it when she was determined to make shampoos. So I helped her set up a stall at a festival and helped her sell. At that time we had three products. Tea tree shampoo, Orange whipped butter and a vanilla butter, all being handmade by Kentaro. Then the company was called The Good Hair Collective but we eventually changed it to Kentaro Handmade Organics,” Nkwanzi clarifies.
Before combining forces with her sister, Nkwanzi worked at KPMG in the advisory department for seven years. “It was my ﬁrst job straight out of University. Although I found the work incredibly fulﬁlling, I had a four year old son and a one year old daughter. At that point I felt that I needed to be more involved in actually raising them and having flexible working hours gave me that chance,” Nkwanzi relates. Remembering the enthusiastic beginning of their journey, Nkwanzi comments, “We were dreamers. We saw a product with our mind’s eye went to the Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI) laboratories and worked with a chemist until we found a formula that worked and kept reﬁning it. It was a lot of hard work, there were many failed attempts and a fear of taking a wrong turn, but we kept doing it anyway and we are still going,” she shares.
With an all hands on deck attitude, the sisters invested in learning about how to run a business through the Business Development Centre that works with Regent University. “That gave us a solid foundation,” Nkwanzi quips. Kentaro says the business course changed her life because it equipped her with the formal training she needed to run a business since she is a firm believer that if you commit to growing something, you have to make it work at all odds.
The sisters play different but complimentary roles, Nkwanzi is in charge of all the production and oversees the making of the product, sourcing ingredients, quality control, packing, sealing, labeling, safety, transportation. “I now work in a totally different environment from my former job. For starters, I now work with a lot of formulas, so accuracy is very important. In terms of workload, to be honest at this point there is not very much difference. It starts out slow but then it picks up and you have to be mentally prepared for the hours you pour into running a business. We currently have a team of four permanent staff including myself,” Nkwanzi relates.
Kentaro is the visionary of the two dreaming up formulas for new products. The company currently boasts of four products for each particular hair problem. “For instance if the problem is dandruff, we have created a hair oil, shampoo, conditioning treatment and moisturizer for it. We also do consultations for people at our outlet on Crane Building in Kisementi who cannot reach us through other means. The beauty of our products is that they are for every person who has hair on their head so our market is not limited to Uganda we deliver within the region, in Nairobi and Rwanda,” Kentaro reveals.
But the sisters are not yet done with innovation, “right now I am loving the Mango kids line. We are making Uganda’s ﬁrst two in one co-wash shampoo. It comes in handy for moms who need to quickly cleanse and condition their children’s hair (and theirs) in one go. It also works great for short hair (which I have) and regular swimmers. The line also has a mango butter. Mango butter is rarely used here (even though we have an abundance of mangos) but its beneﬁts for skin and hair are out of this world,” Nkwanzi reveals. The duo is also taking cosmetology classes to increase their skills in order to realise their dream of turning locally sourced organic ingredients into quality but affordable products. “We have succeeded in doing just that. Now we want to make Kentaro a household name. We want to see our product in every bathroom, beauty aisle and salon in Uganda,” the sisters affirm.
Managing the work-sibling relationship
We have a great synergy. We have a genuine respect for each other’s abilities and we do not interfere in the other’s work. Kentaro is the vision bearer and I am the executer of that vision. We work incredibly well together and honesty helps a lot as well. When we do have issues we will have an honest conversation. At the end of the day we act professional at work and turn it off when we leave the workshop.
The biggest lesson I have learned is not to limit God. I believe we can take Kentaro to the world one product at a time. That takes consistency and excellence.-Nkwanzi.
I have come to learn that a quality product sells itself. Women, especially in Kampala are generous with their information and once your product gives one woman a positive experience, she will tell a friend who will tell a friend and just like that, by word of mouth you will establish a loyal clientele. Kentaro.
My faith in God keeps me motivated. We work as if we are doing it for the Lord not men. And the products work! I love hearing all the reviews (both positive and negative) because it helps us gauge, tweak reﬁne and keep innovating. –Nkwanzi.
I believe that I am on this planet because God wants me to be here, this helps me through challenges that come my way. I am motivated to work harder because I want to set a good example for my daughter and most importantly create a legacy for our families. – Kentaro.
Call to arms
With all the available information I think it is everyone’s responsibility to seek and share knowledge that heals and impacts. From the time she discovered the devastating side effects of the ingredients found in the chemicals black women use to relax their hair, Kentaro set out to save lives by providing a safer and healthier alternative to black women’s hair. Research links these chemicals to liver and kidney failure, fibroids, cancer and even early onset puberty in teenage girls. She can only do so much, but together we can make a difference ultimately the choice is yours. I hope you choose wisely.