After having her scalp burnt one too many times while having her hair relaxed — with comments such as “jy’s mos ’n kroeskop” adding insult to injury — Liesl Katzen decide to go the natural route.

“I started relaxing my hair when I was 12,” says the 25-year-old. “My aunt is a hairdresser, so I never missed a session.
I remember having my scalp burnt, then having to sit under those hot hair dryers, before the rollers were put in and then having to have my hair blow-dried. The process would take up to four hours.”

More than a year into her transition to natural, Katzen says: “I’m happier now. The process is so much easier. There is all this pressure on women of colour that our hair must be ge-swirl and ge-GHD. But now I just go to bed, put on my satin bonnet, fluff my hair out in the morning and there I go. Instead of flat-ironing and all that jazz.”

In the hopes of saving other women from having to go through “all that jazz” — and “looking the way society tells us we should look” — Katzen started producing her range of all-natural products aimed at black women, Curl Chemistry.

“I basically needed something that would work for my hair,” she says.

Sophia Aloo-Kidha is the founder of the natural hair and beauty brand, Naiobi’s Olive. Like Katzen, she too has salon war stories.

“I went to a salon for a relaxer and the person who did my hair went to town with the chemicals. I complained to her, but her words to me were, I kid you not, ‘it hasn’t been cooked enough’. Three weeks of using baby oil to get the scab off and for it to heal, I decided that I just couldn’t handle being burnt anymore. I’d had enough.”

According to Aloo-Kidha, even those who visit a salon for something other than relaxer treatment are sometimes talked into it.

“Hairdressers would often say something like, ‘I’m just going to add a little bit of chemicals to relax your hair a bit’, so that it’s easier for them to work with your hair. They call it ‘texturising’, but it is essentially relaxing your hair. It’s crazy.”

Itumeleng Mogatusi is the founder of the Johannesburg Natural Hair Expo, which took place recently.

“I decided to do the expo because I realised that there is a conversation around this that women are seeking. A lot of women want to embark on transitioning to natural hair but feel disempowered,” she says.

Hair It Is: Examining the Experiences of Black Women with Natural Hair is a 2014 report written by Tabora Johnson and Teiahsha Bankhead.

“Historically, hair has held significant roles in traditional African societies, including being part of the language and communication system. For instance, during the 15th century, the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo and Yoruba used hairstyles as a means to carry messages … Europeans who had long traded and communicated with Africans knew the complexity and significance of black hair … In an effort to dehumanise and break the African spirit, Europeans shaved the heads of enslaved Africans upon arrival in the Americas.”

The report adds that “the often-taken decision to straighten natural black hair has clear historic and psychological underpinnings”.

The report adds: “During the Sixties and Seventies, the Afro hairstyle (also called the Natural) became symbolic of political change, black self-love, intellectual historical knowledge, and black power. It was essentially illustrative of the freeing of the black mind, and those without an Afro were frowned upon for remaining in a captive state of mind.”

The current resurgence in going natural echoes this pattern, agrees Thlologelo Mabelane, owner of the natural hair-care brand Mabu Tribe.

But she points out “hating games” among those in the natural hair movement: “There is the perception that those who do not wear their hair natural are not woke enough. But hair, in all its forms, is design and should be celebrated as such.” The report adds that “black women spend more money, as high as three times as much, on hair care than any other racial or ethnic group of women”.

A 2016 article published by CNN, headlined “Heads up! Africa’s billion-dollar hair care industry” noted: “The biggest growth in 2014 was in Nigeria where people spent more than $440-million, the sales of conditioners and relaxers rose 11% since 2013. Similarly, in South Africa the amount of money spent on hair care increased 7% from 2013 to 2014, and in Kenya consumers spent more than $100-million on hair care, and salon sales were up 8%.”

Despite black women’s high spend, product offerings geared specifically towards them are thin on the ground compared with what is available for white people.

Says Mabelane: “If you go into any store and look at the number of products aimed at black women, you’ll see that they are there. But if you look at the number aimed at Caucasian women, you’ll see a huge difference.”

Few of these products, for black or white women, are made of natural ingredients — something Mabelane takes issue with.

“African women have always been given the short end of the stick. We deserve better. We deserve to have more options.”

There has been an increase in products for natural black hair.

Taryn Gill is the owner of The Perfect Hair. “When I started out in 2014, if I had a handful of competitors, it was a lot. The market has exploded since then. The global wave of transitioning to natural is real. The industry is booming, but we think it’s healthy. We like to think of it not so much as competition, but co-operation. There’s room for all of us to grow.”

With a partnership deal with Sorbet and Candi & Co outlets across Gauteng and soon to be stocked in 12 Edgars stores nationally and in Namibia, Gill’s brand is one of the more successful natural hair care brands. Others are not as fortunate.

“We are competing with big American brands. When I look at natural-beauty blogs, everyone is always talking about these big brands. It is really hard getting to a place where you’re not competing with these brands,” says Aloo-Kidha.

Joan Hillman, who runs the natural-beauty blog Jems of a Natural, concurs: “Some retailers have started embracing natural hair and beauty products, but I still find it hard to believe that a local product has to struggle so much to get on to local shelves.

“But,” she adds, “if you haven’t had your product verified and tested, you can’t really expect retail stores to embrace you with both arms.”

Lack of buy-in by bigger retail outlets is not putting a dent in the commitment of these young women business owners — with men jumping on the bandwagon, too.

Takura Chimbuya is the founder of Brother’s Beard, a brand that produces beard oil for black men.

“I tried buying beard oils through Amazon, but they were really costly. I found beard oil recipes and started making my own.”

Six months later, Chimbuya produced his “all-natural, organic and 100% South African” beard oil.

But, he concedes: “Some people just don’t see the value in it. The uptake from black men is not as high as with white men.”

He adds that products made from natural ingredients come at a higher price “but it’s better value for money, because you know exactly what’s in it. Also, the ingredients come at a price.” 

Gill says: “They do tend to be more expensive, because we are not volume manufacturing. Also, we use higher-quality ingredients. I don’t skimp on quality ingredients. And you must remember that this consumer is very discerning and ahead of the curve, so would be more willing to pay a bit more to have something natural and pure.” 

Aloo-Kidha says: “In the long run, it is actually cheaper. But, more than that, going natural helped me take back my power by being more in touch with me. It feels so good to nurture hair that, for so long, you were told is unmanageable. It did a lot for my self-acceptance.”

Katzen concurs: “I no longer have to pretend to be someone I’m not.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellowat the Mail & Guardian