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We want to empower women to express unique sense of style – Chika Ikenga

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Chika Ikenga is the Group Managing Director of Recare, manufacturers of Natures Gentle Touch, the leading personal style brand in Nigeria; and Hairsavvy, competing successfully in South Africa’s natural haircare market.

Chika Ikenga

The chemist, who by infusing plant-based chemistry with natural elements from organically rich African environment, created a unique set of solutions for African women’s hair, skin, cosmetics and personal care. Ikenga in this interview with Blessing Udonya reflects on how the business began in 1997, the focus of the firm and what the company is doing to encourage African women wear their natural hair with pride.

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*What inspired you to become involved with women’s personal beauty and style?
It began at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I studied industrial chemistry and developed an interest in the chemistry of natural products. My fascination with the subject was influenced by my earlier discovery that chemistry is life. In 1997, I noticed that Nigerian women were plagued by hair challenges, ranging from hair breakage, dryness, slow-grow to scalp itchness. I knew instinctively that chemistry, using natural ingredients, could provide the solution. Further research confirmed that our women’s hair was directly affected by climate and diet. I observed that the unique texture of African hair made it drier, requiring a constant balance of moisturising and conditioning. This realisation inspired the creation of Natures Gentle Touch.

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How did you compete against imported brands?
We provided Nigerian women with a new set of values, different to what the imported brands were proposing. We used our brand as a social vehicle, empowering women to express themselves and their individuality.

First, we realised that Nigerian women required superior haircare solutions that the imported brands were unable to deliver. Second, Nigerian women’s hair care went beyond functionality and western aspirations, so we focused on higher order benefits, offering a way to self-discovery. We did not compete. While they expected our women to be like their home consumers, we empowered Nigerian women to express their sense of personal style. We also took ownership of being proud to be Nigerian and created a new generation of consumers, who used their hair to project who they were and to express their unique sense of style and origin. We had created a new space that we owned. To the Nigerian woman, Natures Gentle Touch became a statement of individuality, youth, and personal style.

With forty-five products in our portfolio, we have solved the broad spectrum of problems that Nigerian women face, with additional innovations on the way.

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So, Natures Gentle Touch effectively repositioned the market dynamic?
Yes, we questioned the way the market was structured, and what constituted the Nigerian beauty narrative. Stylists and product companies were not asking the consumer what she wanted. We acted on this and created the trend of Nigerian women understanding and embracing their unique sense of style. From the beginning, our most valuable asset was the knowledge we gained by listening to the consumer.

What was the thinking behind The Natures Gentle Touch Hair Institute and Hair Clinic?
The quality of haircare services then was poor, and we wanted to change the perception of hair styling in Nigeria. We set out to create a new generation of professionally trained and certified stylists. Also, to provide a high level of technical skills to young people, enabling them to find employment in the beauty, fashion and entertainment industry and to set up their own businesses.

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Where do you source the ingredients for Natures Gentle Touch?
We buy them locally. Nigeria has a bountiful supply of natural ingredients including shea butter, ginger, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, moringa and many others.

*What is your assessment of the Nigerian beauty industry?
We have noticed that more people are getting involved. Consumers are more aware and there are more choices.

Technology and the modern trade are providing increased access to products and beauty solutions. Consumers are demanding more information in order to make better informed decisions. The growing middle class is expanding the market. More women are opting to wear their natural hair and the demand for natural hair solutions is real.

Have you achieved your aim of starting the business?
Yes, Nigerians are using products made for them locally and helping them to express who they are. It is our unique understanding of the spirit of Nigeria that puts us at the forefront of our industry.

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We have been able to reveal the sophistication of Nigerian elegance to the world. We inspired the nation’s natural haircare movement and we have been able to make Nigerian women believe that ‘taking care of yourself and projecting your desired image in your own way, is what makes you truly unique. By sharing our knowledge and expertise in haircare, we have enabled Nigerian consumers to make their own choices intelligently.

Where do you see the company in the next 10 years?
We want to have empowered every woman in Africa through knowledge. Also, to reveal the beauty within, by embracing their unique sense of style.

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