by Patricia Egessa SLA SLAyer in Chief
From Modeling to Skin Care Products
Hellen Dausen is restoring the glow to people’s skin through her natural bath and body care brand – Nuya’s Essence. The Tanzania-based startup creates handmade skin care products that are inspired by nature. It targets individuals that love to give their skin a treat without worrying about the chemical components of the products they use. The company, which sources its raw materials from different African countries, aims to provide its clients with authentic products that make them look and feel good. I caught up with the Tanzanian Motherland Mogul in the making to talk about her journey and her brand.
Finding herself and inspiration
In 2010, Hellen obtained a B.Sc. degree in International Business Administration with a concentration on entrepreneurship from the United States International University in Nairobi. At the time, she had no idea what type of business she wanted to get into. As a student, she also pursued modeling – a dream that she had had since childhood. Upon graduation, she participated in the 2010 Miss Universe Tanzania beauty pageant and won. As part of her prize package, she received a scholarship to study performing arts at New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. While there, she trained for film acting and on stage performance.
The entertainment industry is cutthroat and difficult to break into, especially in LA. Booking quality acting and modeling roles is particularly daunting for minorities. Hellen had a hard time getting jobs in the ultra competitive industry. As much as she wanted to pursue her dreams she found it increasingly hard to concentrate on them. She felt like she had reached a dead end. “I was stuck and discouraged by the fact that I couldn’t do modeling and acting anymore,” Hellen said. She took a 4-month hiatus to think about her future. “Those four months were really about finding myself,” she added. Although she didn’t come up with a clear action plan, she moved back to Tanzania. “I was OK leaving America knowing that I did my best,” said Hellen. Without a viable plan on the table, she decided to apply for regular 9 to 5 jobs. She went for interviews half-heartedly as she knew deep down that she didn’t want to work for anyone. “The people who interviewed me could tell I was just not interested,” she said.
Hellen’s predicament is one that is familiar to many of us. At different stages of our lives, we each find ourselves seeking our life’s passion and purpose. Hellen’s light-bulb moment came one night as she was applying baobab oil on herself. She thought that it was absurd to be using natural oil after showering with soap that contained chemical elements. It was then that she came up with the idea of making an all natural soap to go with the oil. “I went online and researched ‘how to make soaps,’” she said. “I saw amazing soaps that people were making out there that weren’t available in Tanzania.” From her preliminary research, she concluded that making soaps was something she would enjoy doing.
Building the brand
Coming up with an idea is one thing. Turning it into a business is another. It’s an overwhelming process that can be navigated by taking practical steps. For Hellen, this entailed the acquisition of soap making skills. While doing her research, she came across a Malaysian lady who not only had a company that specialized in natural handmade bath and body products, but also trained people in the art. Hellen contacted the fourteen-year skin care product-making veteran and arranged to fly to Malaysia to be taught by her. She learnt how to make soap, hair shampoo and conditioner. In addition, the lady gave her pointers on running a business.
Hellen, who is now a certified organic skin care formulator, constantly works to expand her skills through research and taking online classes. By so doing, she has been able to teach herself how to make other bath and body care products. She knows that she has to stay on top of her game to not only meet her clients demands but also be able to grow her brand. When the company initially launched in June 2014, it primarily made soaps. “Clients made me want to create another line,” said Hellen who fell in love with making soaps. Her brand has now branched out to include lotions, body butters, scrubs, shampoos and conditioners.
Upon her return from Malaysia, Hellen’s father gave her a small structure in the backyard of their house for her to use for production purposes. She invested her savings in transforming the space into a suitable soap making plant. After this was done, she was informed that she had to get approval for the structure from the authorities. Based on her research, small-batch natural product companies in other countries didn’t require approval. “I thought it was the same in Tanzania,” she said. Hellen immediately contacted the authorities who inspected the facility and refused to approve it. “They said it was not up to standard,” she said. The authorities didn’t understand that it was not an industrial manufacturing facility but instead a space for handmaking soap in small batches. In the end, she had to demolish it and in the process lost all the money that she had invested in it. “It broke my heart then,” she said. “It really broke me – I didn’t know if I could get up from that.”
The business building process unfortunately comes with such happenings. As Mark Cuban said, “Failure is part of the success equation.” Hellen was able to bounce back from that initial setback. Thanks to her parents support and generosity, she secured a godown that she then transformed into a desirable working space. This time the authorities approved it. Before leaving Malaysia, Hellen had ordered inventory for her company to be shipped to Tanzania through an agent. She had also bought raw materials to use in her initial soap production from Kariakoo – one of Tanzania’s biggest markets. She used these to start her business off and fill the customers’ orders she already had as she waited for her shipment to arrive. Then the agent messed up and she lost her entire inventory order. His failure to deliver on his business commitment set Nuya’s Essence back several months. “It took a toll on the business and our clients,” said Hellen.
Hellen’s can-do attitude and persistence, coupled with the constant positive feedback from her clients prevented her from giving up. “I am meant to do this,” she said. “I had to go on no matter what.” It is after the incident with the agent that she decided to relocate her product-making facility to Zanzibar. She has found it to be a more conducive business environment. This is especially in terms of its efficient port as well as ease of access to some of the herbs and oils that she uses in her products.
Inspired by Africa, Inspired by Nature
Nuya’s Essence is committed to ensuring that its clients enjoy the full benefits of its products which are a hundred percent natural. “No preservatives, no fillers,” said Hellen who takes time to educate clients on the health and environmental importance of using natural products.
Creating Nuya’s Essence skin care products is a multistep process. Hellen first decides what she wants to achieve with each product, and finds the oils and herbs that will her help do that. The raw materials that go into making a product for dry skin are not exactly the same as those that go into making a product for oily skin, for example. She then comes up with 4 different formulations to figure out which one will work the best. These are always tested by Hellen, and her family and friends, before being sold to clients. An attestation to her commitment to providing customers with quality products.
The production process at Nuya’s Essence is primarily carried out by Hellen and her production assistant whom she trained. The two make everything by hand on a daily basis. The company also has 8 part-time employees – two of whom are family – that work both on site and remotely. They include 3 assistants who help Hellen when she showcases products at farmers’ markets and other events; a graphic designer; an operations assistant; and a lawyer. Hellen’s sister is the startup’s accountant. Her mother, who encouraged the siblings to use natural oils from an early age, helps with the making of Nuya’s Essence coconut oil and manages the company’s Dar es Salaam distribution. Being a startup makes it difficult to hire full-time employees due to limited funds. “You want to save and reinvest all the money in the business,” said Hellen. “So you hire people when you need them.”
Although Hellen would love to get all her raw materials locally, she has to import some of them. This is because there are a few distillers in Tanzania and not all of them do a stellar job. “You can find lemongrass oil that smells like rose oil,” she said. “Which is ridiculous.”In addition, the herbs and oils she uses in the production process are also not all available in the country. As such, the raw materials that are used in the production of Nuya’s Essence products are sourced from all over Africa. This is aptly captured by the brand’s slogan “Inspired by Africa, Inspired by Nature.”
Transforming the skin care industry
The skin care industry is saturated with manufactured products that contain chemicals. Nuya’s Essence is breaking through this with its handmade products. “I am in the right moment,” said Hellen. “People are looking to move to natural products.” This desire for a healthy lifestyle not only fuels the demand for Nuya’s Essence but also motivates Hellen to keep growing and creating.
Hellen sells the brand’s products at Dar es Salaam’s Oysterbay Shopping Center Farmers’ Market and Garden Market, where she also gets the opportunity to network with potential vendors. Partnerships with vendors are important for companies like Nuya’s Essence particularly for expanding market reach and distribution purposes. This fact is not lost on Hellen who currently collaborates with several vendors who stock her products. These are Kijani Organics, Slipway,L’appetitie Gallery and jumia.co.tz. Not to be constrained by borders, Hellen has also partnered with Kung’ara Kenya a Nairobi-based boutique that sells her products. Additionally, she continues to seek new vendor partnerships.
She is constantly working on developing new product lines and jots down her ideas everyday. “When the money comes, I will be ready to go,” said Hellen. She understands that staying ready and planning are both very important for the success of her venture. As an entrepreneur in the early stages of business, it is crucial to know both how you are going to raise funds and how you will allocate them. Through raised funds, she also plans to strengthen Nuya’s Essence marketing.
The company, which get’s its name from Hellen’s childhood nickname – Nuya, is geared to change the skin care industry in Africa. In the long term, Hellen hopes to have a Nuya’s Essence product in every house in the continent. “I want it to be a household brand for skin care,” she said. “When you think skin care, think Nuya’s Essence.”