Majiri Otobo is the Chief Executive Officer of KUI Care Products, manufacturers of a range of hair care products that one can easily reckon with in the hair and beauty market. The graduate of Chemical Engineering from Imperial College, London, told Funmi Ogundare about her interest in hair care, how she had been able to cope running such organisation and why entrepreneurs must be focused and open to criticism in order to succeed

Who is Majiri Otobo and why KUI Care?
I’m a Chemical Engineer by profession and the CEO and founder of KUI care products which means Star in Ijaw language, and brought up by an Isoko father and Ijaw mother. The purpose is to bring out a woman’s inner star and the four products; the Kui Tea Tree Oil and Cinnamon range designed to keep natural (or relaxed hair), soft long and healthy; and enhance one’s looks. The product can be used for natural or relaxed hair.

I studied Chemical Engineering and worked as a process engineer in a food company abroad, which means you look at the processes to make a certain product like upgrading the equipment. My role was more of engineering from a holistic point of view. During my time there, that was where I learnt how to make any kind of product like the sweet factory for instance, that gave me the opportunity to learn about an idea that I didn’t have knowledge of. So my job was proffer solutions and make a product better. After doing that for three years in four different countries; Holland, Germany and a bit in Ireland. I then moved back to England. This gave me the opportunity to see different people and factories and different ways of working.

I moved back to Nigeria for my NYSC and started KUI and the reason is that during my time in the factory, I had to stop wearing weaves because I was coming from a cool climate, so I decided to go on natural hair and in the process I try to understand what I was using. I knew that there was a growing market for it because a lot of American girls were going natural and a lot of Africa American owned companies were starting up in America designed for the natural hair market. Relaxer sales started decreasing as well at that time and a lot of people became aware of how to take care of their natural hair. I realised that these products were designed for the African American market not the Nigerian or African market. When I came back, I was trying to import this, but the cost involved will not let me get the kind of affordability involved.

At what point did you develop a passion for making products?
I developed a passion when I was 15 years, I knew I was more science inclined, because I liked sciences more than English or History. In my A levels, I had distinctions in Sciences and Mathematics and I knew I was going to do Engineering. The reason why I chose Chemical Engineering is because one can be versatile in most fields and I chose it because I wanted to make products and be an entrepreneur and initially when I turned 16, I was thinking of going into cosmetics. There were cosmetics focused on white skins at that time.

What were the challenges you faced in the process?
Initially it was finding the factories, emailing lots of people in Asia and hoping that many people will respond. Then I had to go there and access the factories myself. The good thing is that because I was working in a factory, I knew what I was looking for. The transparency of the people and how opened they were, gave me the information I needed to know. I got a good factory and company to work for in Asia, and when I worked in the factory in Germany, every sample had to be flown in to you so I had the delay of three weeks before I actually got the products, tested it , give your feedback and get the next products. It was a very slow process, but then, by the time I started calculating what it will be to do it long term here , like adding transportation cost, paying people in dollars and by the time you add all that and distributing it in Nigeria, it was just crazy. Even getting a license to bring in an imported product is ridiculous. That is why the Nigerian Government is encouraging people to patronise Made-in-Nigeria products. I decided to make the product locally and get the right partner.

How has it been in terms of sales and marketing?
It has been good but it could be better. Since we started two years ago, we are now in 150 locations and in Nigeria. Some people have seen us on Instagram and have reached out to us. It has been generally quite good. However, when we started, that was when Nigeria financial crisis actually started. So the moment we were ready, NAFDAC was also ready. The cost doubled and so our revenue slashed. Because we were buying everything before the market crashed, so the money that was coming in was not the same value as before, there were certain things I had to pay for in foreign currency that I could not get here .

How are you coping with that now?
We try to absorb some of the cost because we were new, you can go to anybody and say buy my product for N1,000, it does not make sense.

How are the products doing in the market?
People are accepting it. We get a lot of feedback from our customers. The only feedback is from people telling their friends about it even on the social media. We have girls that will post it on their social media pages and repost it. The thing is that there is a movement of people telling their friends and families about it. When the financial crisis happened, the good thing is that a lot of brands competed with foreign brands and the prices of the foreign brands increased astronomically. Our product was N1,000 per bottle as compared with the N5,000 of the foreign brands. If you buy the set, it depends on who you are buying from, it’s about N3, 500 so I wanted to try and keep it affordable and a premium Nigerian product. It is not extraordinary expensive. Response has been very promising.

What is your view about Nigerian made products?
We have gotten to a time when Nigerians are looking inwards and since the naira dropped, everybody is looking for more places to visit in Africa. We need to buy things from ourselves and keep the money within if not we will be giving our economy outwards. The quality of Made-in-Nigeria products are improving and increasing, you have to be competitive to survive. You can’t just sell nonsense. Unlike before, people are trying to build a brand which is your reputation. I know that if I bring something under KUI, it is because they already liked my hair products. That is where you get people adding value and quality. You see people selling commodity or branded products that people could identify with.

Who are your key distributors?
I have organisations like Game, Modulus, Spar, Hubmart, Jumia, Yinka bodyline, and lots of shops in different places. So all our stuff are on our website. The way I started has been very much, the money that comes in, is what we use in running the company, so we don’t have massive investors or investments, from the money that comes in, we pay salaries and expenses that we carry on. I am quite frugal, I don’t want to spend what I don’t earn. When you get money from outside, sometimes, you forget that you need to pay that money back. Our factory is in Ikeja. I go to the factory from time to time to see how things are going and there are rules that must be adhered to and standards are met. We are a small company that can be large eventually.

Where do you see this product going in the next five years?
I expect to have different range of products, we started with hair, hopefully, we will go into body or skin. My ideal mentor company is DOVE where they started with soap, body lotion so I want KUI to be a household Nigerian brand just as people know Dark and Lovely products, not just for natural hair .

As an entrepreneur, what advice do you have for the youths who are thinking of going into the same field?
It really doesn’t matter the amount of cash that you have, it takes longer than you expect and it cost more money. I expect to be much bigger by now because I have been working on this since 2013/2014, it’s been four years of planning, trying and failing but when you are persistent, you can’t fail. The youths must try and start manageable. I started small with what I thought I could grow and see what your market says and be open to criticism from your customers. Initially, you might think you are selling something that people really need, but you might not be necessarily giving them the product that they are looking for. Listening to customers’ feedback and adjusting, I think is key because in the end, the only thing that really sells is having a product that can sell itself.

They can start small and access the market. Making the inputs at the market made me realise, they were complaining because I had tiny samples of the product which I was showing people, and I was trying to understand the market. The youths should not be afraid to call people that you may not necessarily need. They should try and sell first to people that are around them to see if it is a product that they can improve on because the quicker they try it, the more feedback they get.