22/05/2017 04:03 BST | Updated 22/05/2017 19:32 BST

Black Hair Care Is Big Business

Both big and small brands are cashing in on curls and coils.

Between 2010 and 2015, hair care was amongst the fastest growing categories of products sold in South Africa, with sales climbing 38 percent during that period, states a Euromonitor report.

The same document also found that the African hair care market accounted for about $450 million in sales in our country -- that's R6,3 billion.

The Professional Hair Care Market SA 2010 report found that the "ethnic African segment is the single largest consumer group and this market has the most potential".

Black consumers spend up to six times more than their white counterparts when it comes to hair care.

It's a fact: black hair care is big business.

And, while relaxers still make up the majority of the sector in South Africa, global trends show a swing towards natural hair. In the U.S., the natural hair movement accounted for a 19 percent drop in relaxer sales between 2013 to 2015, according to Mintel. A growing consumer-led effort to move towards afro-textured hair has shifted the economics of the hair care industry.

In South Africa, both early adopters and big brands are seeing gains in the sector, and are moving quickly to fill the services and product gaps that currently exist.

"The natural hair movement is part of a rising global wellness consciousness," says Taryn Gill, founder of local hair care product line The Perfect Hair. "We're eating organically [and] are more conscious about the ingredients in our skin and hair care products."

Various factors have contributed to the growth of the natural hair movement -– the global trend of chemical free consumers as well as an increase in black consciousness ideas amongst millenials.

Gill was an early adopter. A woman with natural hair, she noticed the dearth in products catered to her on shelves and made a plan: she imported product from the U.S., created a website and sold them locally.

"There was a glaring gap in the market. The products I brought in sold out so fast, showing a huge demand that gave me the confidence to look for other opportunities in the hair space," she said.

Gill used that momentum to collaborate with a local biochemist and formulated a hair care product range, tailored to African hair and climate.

Carice Anderson, an African-American living in Johannesburg, has seen the growth of the industry first-hand. A popular columnist and commentator on all things natural hair, she's created a one-stop natural hair ecommerce platform called Adore Hair and Beauty, launching this winter.

"When I moved here from the U.S. five years ago, seven out of 30 black women in a room would have natural hair. Now, that number would probably be closer to 15," she said. "I used to have to bring in my products from the U.S. in bulk, but now you see so many product ranges available."

Another pioneer in the industry is Candice Thurston, founder of Candi&Co, a salon franchise targeted at black women. Candi&Co, which launched in 2014, partnered with the Sorbet Group.

"Globally, women of colour aren't getting the services they deserve. My challenge was: 'How do we create services for black women where they walk in and get the same service as white women get when they walk into a salon?' As a woman of mixed race, this was personal to me," Thurston explained.

While hair is big business, it's also personal, emotional and psychological. One of the biggest issues in growing the sector has been education. Many women who've relaxed their hair since childhood struggle with a steep learning curve when switching from straightened hair to their natural texture.

"We still deal with the scalp burns from relaxers, damaged hair caused by tightly installed braids. So many women I meet don't believe their own hair can be beautiful," said Thurston.

Thurston has also been focused on educating hair stylists and professionalising the industry through an academy.

"There are stylists who don't believe you can blowdry afro-textured hair without relaxing it first," she said.

Along with this education gap, there was also a product and services gap. In the last year, L'Oreal, which dominates the hair care sector in South Africa, has launched a specifically formulated Dark and Lovely Au Naturale range. Retailers such as Clicks and Massmart have invested heavily in the natural hair care category and expanded shelf space for homegrown and international hair care brands. P&G's Head and Shoulders has been reformulated to meet the concerns of women with afro-textured hair. And, in May, Joburgers flocked to the independently organised Johannesburg Natural Hair Expo.

One of the other challenges faced by the natural hair care industry is the pricing model.

"There's a myth that African hair care brands need to be low quality and price," said Gill.

Anderson agreed. "South African women are tough to move. For years, cheap product has been the benchmark and people have a hard time going from paying R40 for a shampoo to paying R120."

Natural hair products generally are made with higher quality ingredients, unlike cheaper petro-chemical based products. This price inconsistency extended to the services sector as well.

"We're competing with everyone. It's difficult to change that mindset when women have become used to paying R200 for braids done downtown. But it's also about professionalising our industry and making sure we can pay stylists well for their time," says Thurston.

On the side of the industry and investors, there's been a gap in understanding the market, especially as relaxer sales have held.

"We get confronted with this every day," said Gill. "We deal with conversations in boardrooms where people wonder whether our target audience exists, or whether this is a passing trend. We've had to convince funders that the market is active, willing to spend and discerning about the product they use."

The natural hair care industry has billions of rands of potential. The Perfect Hair is now in 20 Edgars stores in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Candi&Co has expanded to seven franchises. Adore Hair and Beauty raised R70,000 in funding on Go Fund Me in one month. While consumer confidence has dropped and apparel figures have declined, the Lipstick Index has accounted for a stable demand in the cosmetics, fragrances, hair and beauty sectors.

"The consumer crunch and economic downturn don't really concern me," said Gill. "Women would rather buy off-brand sugar and milk than substitute our beloved beauty products."

Thurston shares her enthusiasm. "Candi&Co is only about 40 percent of where I want us to be with our academy and salons. I believe the natural hair market will become bigger than the relaxer and weave category. There's so much to do in this space."