With the creation of Marini Naturals, Michelle Ntalami is the creative and entrepreneurial force behind Kenya’s first organic hair line for Black women with natural hair.
After her father was diagnosed with cancer, Ntalami was moved to embrace a healthier and more organic lifestyle, and in addition to eating healthier and exercising, she began to rid herself of toxins by refraining from chemically altering her hair.
Once she chopped off her chemically processed strands, though, she found it nearly impossible to properly take care of her hair due to the lack of organic hair products for Black women with natural hair.
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She began ordering products from abroad, but found it to be too expensive. When she had, had enough, Ntalami went back to the basics by making her own DIYs in the kitchen, experimenting not only on herself but also on her friends as well.
And the reception was overwhelming, prompting her breakthrough that someone needed to pioneer a organic natural hair care line and that someone should be her.
Luckily, starting a company was nothing new to her since, prior to founding Marini Naturals, she co-ran the Brandvine Group, a branding agency, with her best friend Niyati Patel. This experience came in handy with Marini Naturals in addition to her educational background in branding, graphic design, and marketing from her undergraduate degree in Corporate Communications & Design and diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a Florence Design Academy.
In a recent interview with Face2Face Africa, Ntalami discussed natural hair, Marini Naturals, and Afropreneurship.
Face2Face Africa: You are a multifaceted woman. Not only are you academically accomplished, but you are also a designer by profession. What inspires and stimulates your creative mind?
Michelle Ntalami: Thank you for that compliment. I would say I’m a very optimistic person. I see possibility and opportunity in everything. I identify gaps easily and fill them up. So with this in mind, I almost have no choice but to be creative and innovative in my thinking. Solving a need is always about the creativity and convenience of your solution.
F2FA: With an educational background in marketing, branding, and design, as a creative/artist and entrepreneur did you feel like you have ever had to choose between the arts and academics ?
MN: Yes, for a while I did. It was only [at] 25 that I realized my academics is only used to supplement my already existing talent of creativity and design. With this in mind, I went ahead to pursue things I love doing and I’m great at as opposed to the things that I scored an A+ in.
F2FA: I understand that the idea of Marini Naturals came to you after you noticed the void in the market. But why do you think it took so long for their to be a brand that caters to natural hair?
MN: When I was doing my research prior to beginning Marini Naturals, I got the impression that the market, formulators, and industry professionals felt that the consumer market is still too small for natural hair.
Most felt that the “big money” is still in the relaxed hair and weave market, which is still true by the way, but I asked myself, Why not take a chance in unfamiliar territory? And I went ahead and did it.
Quite a number discouraged me from doing it; I know they didn’t mean this with bad intent, [they were] just looking out for me from a business perspective. But in life you will always fail all the chances you never took.
F2FA: Not only is Marini Naturals Kenya’s first natural hair care line, but the products are 100 percent organic. Why did you choose to go against the grain and not work with the readily accessible, cheaper synthetic ingredients?
MN: As mentioned, the synthetic hair market is already saturated with everyone trying to make a quick buck — some not adding any value in their products, which are laden with chemicals and harmful ingredients. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be that woman who took the risk and did something unique, safe, and natural for my fellow kinky-haired ladies.
F2FA: The natural hair movement is certainly making waves in not only Kenya, but other African countries. Do you think companies, such as Marini Naturals which cater to women with Afro-textured hair, have had their influence in the rise of women ditching relaxers and embracing their natural hair?
MN: Definitely! When I went natural, it wasn’t a “thing” as it is today. At the time, it wasn’t because it was trendy, but more because I wanted to live a more natural and healthier lifestyle. Since Marini Natural’s inception, more and more women have chosen to go natural. I like to think that Marini Naturals and other upcoming brands have played a role in this as women now feel that — today more than ever — products for natural hair are more readily available and affordable.
F2FA: What does your natural hair regimen look like with your tight schedule?
MN: I get really busy but I never forget to cater to my tresses. I wash and condition with Marini’s “Kind Cleanse” shampoo, then detangle with our “Goodbye Tangles!” Leave-In Conditioner. Afterward, to get those lovely defined curls, I style with one of my favorite products, the “Curl Me Pretty” Curling butter.
F2FA: You have certainly surpassed being just a national brand, so in what countries can we find Marini Naturals in?
MN: You can find us in East Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda; France; and Turkey. We shall soon be in South and West Africa.
F2FA: Previously, you mentioned that Marini Naturals is looking to expand its product range by including products for men and children. When will this happen?
MN: I’m always wary about overpromising and underdelivering, so let me just leave it at we can all expect a pleasant surprise in the near future.
F2FA: You are one of the mentors at Blaze by Safaricom. What does that entail?
MN: This has probably been one of my biggest joys of 2016. I reached out to Safaricom to be a part of this initiative because I love mentorship and inspiring people to be the best they can be. We have been to major cities and towns all over Kenya, sharing our stories of entrepreneurship.
Each time I wrap up a summit, my social media mailbox is full of messages from youth telling me that I have inspired them in some way to begin their business journey. So gratifying!
F2FA: Entrepreneurship can be somewhat romanticized. People think it is a quick and easy way to be rich that is why people find themselves starting up business ventures that do not last. What piece of advice would you give to anyone embarking on entrepreneurship who has little to no information on what it takes?
MN: It’s not easy! Even when I began, I had no clue it would be this difficult, but nothing good in this life comes easy. You’ve got to put in the work, time, effort, and sweat. Sometimes even tears! Search inside your soul and ask yourself if you are really ready to do this. If you feel such a strong pull and your answer is yes, go get it and don’t look back no matter what! In the end, it’s all worth it.
F2FA: In every essence you are what I consider an Afropreneur who is adding value to the market continentally, so what is the one myth or stereotype you hope to dispel about Africa through your brand?
MN: Thank you for that very kind statement. The one myth I hope to dispel is that Africa cannot make world-class products and brands. This is not true. At Marini Naturals, we have already been featured on CNN as one of “Africa’s Most Promising StartUps” and by CNBC as the “World’s Top 10 Hottest Start-ups.” This goes to show we are well on our way to making waves internationally, and if we can do it, so can any other African start-up.