Chika Ikenga, the Managing Director of Re Care – makers of Natures Gentle Touch hair products – is a man of foresight and depth. His company has a growing list of influential women who have represented its brands including former Miss Universe, Leila Lopes, former Miss World, Agbani Darego, and super model Oluchi Onweagba. In this interview with Funke Olaode, Ikenga talks about his desire to see African women glow and be the best they can ever be
What did you go into the business of beauty care?
Before venturing into any business, one has to be prepared. Being prepared entails the ability to identify a need that must be met. The challenges experienced by African women (mostly Nigerian women) in maintaining a healthy natural hair prepared me for this business. I discovered that it was difficult for Nigerian women to effectively manage their natural hair and I devoted my time to study research on these challenges and come up with solutions.
How did the journey into the hair care business begin?
It all began in 1997 when I discovered that many Nigerian women were complaining about hair damage, breakage, dryness, slow growth and scalp itch. Going to the salon for relaxer application was an unpleasant experience for them. The truth is that African women, living in Africa, require specific hair care products because of their unique hair condition, which is affected by African weather, diet and hair texture. And so, with my interest in natural products chemistry, I began to investigate how I could help women overcome these problems. I also recognized the fact that people sought for a more natural approach to their hair and scalp treatments, expressing a desire for healthier, natural and authentic ingredients in their hair and beauty treatments that would enhance their personal style.
Many people presume this type of business is for women. Do you sometimes feel like the odd man out?
I’ve always had problem-solving skills and I am always eager to proffer solution to every challenge I come across. Rather than feeling odd in this business, I feel honoured and blessed that I am able to provide solutions to different hair and scalp challenges experienced by African women. The journey to success is never easy. All that matters is your personal determination and drive. When you have a goal, you push forward towards achieving that goal and you do not rest until that goal is actualized.
How did you overcome any negativity you might have faced?
In life, not everybody would appreciate you and what you do. To overcome negativity, I listen to the good, the bad and the ugly. I distinguish the good from the bad and strive towards attaining the best.
Have you achieved your aim of going into this business?
The aim of starting this business was to solve a challenge – develop natural products that help maintain a healthy hair and scalp as well as solve hair and scalp related problems experienced by Nigerian women. So far so good, this aim has been achieved because our products have been tested and proven to maintain healthy hair, solve hair and scalp challenges and make our customers look and feel great.
Many people believe Natures Gentle Touch products are luxury products in terms of price. What’s your take on that?
Re Care is about more than beauty products, educating and empowering consumers is a cornerstone of our organization. We help you reveal your inner style, your way, on your terms. We focus on solving identifying challenges and providing solutions to those challenges. Our products are made with extracts from plants and natural ingredients and as we know, these natural ingredients don’t come cheap. We are focused on delivery and on ensuring we consistently deliver our brand promise to our consumers over and over again. And some of products attest to the fact that they are available and affordable.
What’s your assessment of the beauty industry in Nigeria, especially the hair care sector?
The Nigerian beauty industry is evolving and in particular the hair care industry. Women have started to embrace their natural afro-hair which is a campaign we started a number of years ago when the brand began. The industry is majorly dominated by foreign brands with products that were not scientifically configured for the African woman living in Africa. Our weather and diet is a major contributor to our hair texture, look and feel. Majority of our population have hair challenges and are in search for solution unfortunately, most of the hair care brands on the shelf are not able to provide these solutions that is why our Nigerian women run after foreign products in search for these solutions which do not put into consideration our diet, environment and weather. We have a lot of work to do, we will get there.
Natures Gentle Touch products are made-in-Nigeria. How and where do you source your materials?
The natural ingredient market in Nigeria is very large and this is one of the ways we as a brand give back to these communities. We buy from these rural communities at the standard market price with the hope that this would enable cover their expenses and then some. Our local raw material sourcing has allowed us to work with communities and improve the local economy.
What impact has the company made in terms of corporate social responsibility?
Empowerment and relationships are values we care about. We empower through knowledge sharing and education. Our belief in the personal style industry encourages us to empower the professionals, equipping them with knowledge and skills to improve themselves and serve their clients better. Today, we have become the largest trainers of hairstylists in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Our free skills development programme with women has provided them with a pathway to economic empowerment. Having skills fosters hope. Many people with skills feel confident and empowered. They gain more respect in their communities and feel more secure about their future.
Why does your company have a hair care institute and what has been achieved through it?
The motive behind our hair institute is to bridge the knowledge gap in professional services rendered in salons in Africa and to elevate the quality of hair care services rendered to salon customers by offering basic, intermediate, advanced and specialist courses. So far, it has been achieved but we believe we can do more. Our institutes educate Salon owners and re-train stylists. We have been opening training centres in Nigerian cities that offer basic and advanced beauty training. We are providing free training to young people who otherwise would not have had opportunities to have skills to improve their economic situations. Through our beauty institutes we are giving them professional training to become world-class hairstylists and beauty professionals.
What are the challenges of doing business in the Nigeria?
The Nigerian economy today is really demanding. There are a lot of challenges faced ranging from infrastructural to social amenities such as light, water, motorable roads and other factors that support production generally. So challenges generally are the usual economic, regulatory and physical challenges, whether it’s power supply, whether it’s purchasing power, whether it’s the way government agencies do harass manufacturers. We generally run on alternate source of power all day and the exchange rate, crude prices going up, and diesel coming in at a higher price. We also have many different agencies harassing us- some legal and some illegal, whether it’s in the factory, whether it’s in terms of product registration. These are some of the challenges that we’ve been having.
So far is the company is where you want it to be?
We are not where we want to be. But we thank God that we are not where we used to be. We are working on expanding, we are getting there.
In the next 10 years, where do you want the company to be?
Presently, we are among the top brands not only in Nigeria but also, in some parts of Africa. In the next 10 years, we would want this company to be known beyond the outskirts of Africa.
How will you describe your life growing up?
Growing up was interesting. I grew up in Enugu. I attended Government Secondary School, Owerri and University of Nigeria Nsukka, where I studied Industrial Chemistry. We played games and read novels since there was no Internet then.
What influenced your choice to study industrial chemistry?
My choice of course of study was influenced by my discovery that Chemistry was life and that many products where created from Chemistry.
You are a very busy man. When you’re not thinking about how to improve your products, what do you do?
If I am not working, I am spending time with my family. I socialize and do sports including lawn tennis. I exercise a lot too.
Where is your best holiday destination?
My best holiday destination is my village, Ohafia in Abia State.
Why your village?
The same reason I support local football. I like to grow and support our own. Besides, if you come to my village, you will understand why. It’s a fun spot for us all. We like to go to our village.
Which local football team do you support?
Eunisell, my company is the shirt sponsor of Rivers United Football Club of Port Harcourt.
What motivates you?
It is the urge to achieve things, to make a success of whatever I do and restore dignity to humanity. I like to impact people and solve problems that I may encounter.
What’s your advice to young ones who may want to go into hair-care business?
It is simple: be prepared to work hard.