Chika Ikenga:Industrial Chemist Putting Natures Gentle Touch to Global Spotlight
25 years ago, Chika Ikenga, an industrial chemist, took the bold step to launch a made-in-Nigeria lifestyle product, Natures Gentle Touch, at a time when foreign products dominated the market. Vanessa Obioha reports on how the product has
become a global brand through Ikenga’s sheer passion and vision
there was a time when foreign hair relaxing products were the go-to for Nigerian women. These products signalled class although they came with some consequences such as hair damage or loss. The reason for this is not far-fetched as the average Nigerian hair comes with its own uniqueness which many of the manufacturers of these products do not take into consideration. Their one size fits all strategy worked at the time due to the mindset that foreign products are superior to locally made products.
Enter Charles Ikenga, an industrial chemist whose natural flair to solve problems related to women led to the launch of one of Nigeria’s leading hair care brands, Natures Gentle Touch.
Ikenga’s foray into the hair care industry was spurred by the poor perception of made-in-Nigeria brands.
“We went into business to bring a fundamental change to an attitude and perception that we felt was hurting our dignity as a nation. We wanted to change the poor quality perception of made-in-Nigeria brands,” he said at the virtual 25th anniversary of Natures Gentle Touch.
This perception, Ikenga recalled, relegated made-in-Nigeria brands as poor quality products and consequently affected pricing as people expected such brands to be cheaper in comparison to imported brands.
“We were intentional about creating a product that will identify a problem and solve that problem far better than products that were imported.”
To turn around this perception, Ikenga set about identifying the problems that Nigerian women had with their hair. Already, a female friend had suffered hair damage and he was interested in creating an organic product that addressed these needs. This was in 1993. By 1995, he left his paid employment and concentrated fully on developing a product that caters to Nigerian women’s hair needs.
This included hair breakage and hair loss to mention a few.
“We discovered that up to 80 per cent of Nigerian and African women required tailor-made hair care solutions, because of the weather, the diet and other things, so the passion to solve these gave birth to Natures Gentle Touch,” he said.
By 1997, Natures Gentle Touch was established. The company gave out its relaxer to 1000 people to sample and received positive feedback from 980. It also gave out its relaxer to the lady whose hair problem inspired the product and she lauded the product.
While this signalled acceptance, it was greeted with doubts from the market including hairdressing salons, a situation distributors compounded. Ikenga pointed out that when distributors appeared set to constitute a stumbling block for the brand’s market entry, as well as budget constraints, they avoided them and took on the market directly. The company achieved this by raising a platoon of influencers from an army of youths at universities across Nigeria. The University of Lagos served as a launch pad from where other universities were added.
“Our story cannot be complete without mentioning Nigerian tertiary institutions, particularly the University of Lagos,” Ikenga noted.
Convincing the teeming population of youth at tertiary institutions was always going to be tough. They were already used to foreign products and “our branding made them think that Natures Gentle Touch brands were imported,” Ikenga said.
However, once they were convinced about the quality, they embraced the solutions Natures Gentle Touch brands were offering with both hands.
The ride between the brand and the young elite has developed into something which can be described as jolly and charming over the years, with the trust built seeing the solutions provided by Natures Gentle Touch earning global appeal and acceptance.
Today, Natures Gentle Touch offers an array of personal care solutions to enable each woman to unleash her unique style and individuality. The company is even regarded as a trendsetter as it helped usher in the use of the term ‘hair stylist’ to elevate the status of those with a passion for hairdressing. Although it started with hair care products, the company now owns a hair institute.
“Our core offering is in personal styling solutions. In our business model, this is best delivered through our hair institute. We had just one at Isolo. We have added two others at Victoria Island and Ikeja GRA,” explained Ikenga.
“Often we speak about the hair institute more than the products because we want people to experience it and discern for themselves. I cannot remember any hair or skin issue that was tabled that we Natures Gentle Touch has not solved.”
The success story of the Natures Gentle Touch is that the personal style solutions it is offering have charmed several high-profile celebrities, beauty queens, and discerning ladies. The brand serves those who can afford it but delivers on all promises consistently.
The United States of America-based Nigerian supermodel, Oluchi Onweagba was among those to have been associated with Natures Gentle Touch. She showcased the customised style solutions delivered by the brand with pride. Another notable beauty queen who endorsed Nature’s Gentle Touch is former Miss World, Agbani Darego. Those who know Onweagba and Darego proclaim that for these icons to put their names and personal brands on anything, personal style, it must be worth it.
On the global stage, beauty queen and supermodel, Leila Lopes is also known to have proudly embraced the marketing of Natures Gentle Touch’s personal lifestyle solutions some time ago.
With its growing patronage, the pioneer of the business, Ikenga is focused on helping more and more women with personal style solutions across the world. This has seen the company acquire a cosmetic company in the Republic of South Africa with sights firmly set on other African countries and other parts of the world.
According to Ikenga, Natures Gentle Touch is focused on replicating its unique service offerings in other markets across the world, having discovered that many, particularly Africans use their hair to express their style and identity.
“We are at a point where we want more and more people to be able to access the solutions we offer across the world. The acquisition in South Africa is a signal of intent. We want to set our footprints in other African countries and other continents.
“We might also consider availing members of the public the chance to be part of ownership by issuing and listing our shares,” Ikenga added.
With more opportunities in the market today, Ikenga is keen on beauty tech. According to him, he is excited about how to use technology to improve customer experience.