For years, the global cosmetic industry cashed in on the beauty secrets of Africa, but few African-owned beauty companies capitalized on this trend.
Based in Australia and Kenya, Afya Organics Pty Ltd. is bridging the gap. Founded by Neva Mwiti-Read and her husband Blair Read, Afya sells beauty products made with ingredients from Africa. Mwiti-Read is CEO and strategy director.
Born in Kenya, Mwiti-Read is a member of the ancient Meru tribe, a Bantu ethnic group. She lives in Sydney and gained experience in the beauty business by working for Clinique and Elizabeth Arden. She also worked at Nestle and Alex Perry in marketing, strategy development, solution development and transformational change across Africa and Australia.
She decided to use her expertise to start Afya, a skincare and cosmetics line targeting women of color who often find it difficult to get beauty products that cater to their skin tone and hair texture.
The company says its products are ethically sourced, 100-percent organic and natural. Afya’s botanical formulations are inspired by Africa’s beauty traditions. Among the products are Maji Mapya Rejuvenating Body Wash, Arusha Flora Nourishing Day Lotion, Pemba Dawn Soothing Body Butter, and Mnemba Waters Revitalizing Body Mist.
Neva Mwiti-Read: The journey to Afya began when I was pregnant with my first child and my husband and I were deeply concerned at the lack of organic and natural products especially in and from Africa that offer access to the wealth of the continent’s natural and organic heritage, while providing holistic benefits.
I also had a dream along with my sister, renowned makeup artist Kangai Mwiti, to develop a skincare and beauty business, creating natural based and clean science proven skincare that delivers effective results. Add to this our nurtured love for Africa’s rich heritage and traditions and our passion for beauty and creativity, and it was a no-brainer. Afya was born in 2014, soon after the birth of our daughter, and we’ve never looked back.
Neva Mwiti-Read: Personally, I’m based in Sydney, Australia, but our other business partner, Kangai Mwiti, is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Our products, while inspired by Africa, are manufactured to the highest global ISO standards in Australia, but it’s our hope to eventually manufacture products in Africa. We also sell internationally — part of our strategy to export the best Africa has to offer to the world.
Neva Mwiti-Read: I think the main one is that Africa is a “simple” market and that consumer spending is limited to basics. What we found in a business research trip we took earlier in 2015, is that Africans are demanding more diverse products and in the skincare category, are desperate for high quality, natural and organic products. Just like myself, they’re concerned with issues such as holistic health, the environment, sustainability and social responsibility and companies doing business in Africa who ignore these factors do it at their own peril.
The other misconception is that business in Africa can be distilled into just facts and figures. The reality is that while some markets’ size and spending potential looks attractive on paper we’ve found that these different markets’ operating environment makes it very challenging to capitalize on these opportunities. African governments have significantly varied business entry requirements and navigating these is time- and-resource intensive.
As a result we’re taking a slower, long-term view of our entry into Africa, ensuring that we cross our Ts and dot our Is, while familiarizing ourselves with the unique operating environments of each market. We’re also delighted at having a strong, local presence in Kenya that ensures we gather on-the-ground market intelligence while closely managing our distributors, and building face-to-face relationships with the government.
Neva Mwiti-Read: I think Africa’s dynamism is its biggest positive. Africa’s consumers are increasingly sophisticated in their tastes, they’re highly wired and open to change, and they’re also very vocal about what they do and don’t like. This has created a bold and aggressive marketplace, which while a challenge to some, is a fantastic opportunity for us.
We’re very aware though, that as African economies continue to grow, competition will only intensify so we intend to solidify our stake, focus on high quality products and keep telling our brand story. It’s this consistency we believe that will help us win the race.
Neva Mwiti-Read: My husband and I financed the business and we continue to do so. We strongly believe in the power of family and longevity is something we take quite seriously and personally. Our long-term planning is one that accounts for the generations to come, with stability and continuity as our cornerstones, even when it comes to finance.
Neva Mwiti-Read: That’s a good question. I think like any business startup, we underestimated the set-up time and logistics requirements, however we seem to have overcome these, working well with our suppliers and distributors to ensure our products are produced with excellence. It’s been a swift learning curve and we’re still ironing out a few issues such as product compliance with a few markets we’re exporting to, however we believe these will get resolved shortly.
Neva Mwiti-Read: Firstly, the Afya brand is unique by virtue of a deep understanding of botanicals, herbs, and natural supplements indigenous to our home, Africa, via knowledge handed down through the ages. We’ve spared no expense in ensuring the products themselves are of the highest standards–from the African-sourced ingredients to the manufacturing process (sustainable, clean, environmentally friendly), to the ISO International organic and natural standards and certification, to the packaging design that was devised by our awesome design partners in Sydney.
Secondly, we believe our brand focus on celebrating Africa, and telling the little-known stories of the tribes and their knowledge, from which the products are inspired, brings to life an aspect of Africa that’s never been seen before. We’ve had a fantastic response so far globally and we intend to keep these African stories and heritage alive in the minds of our consumers as we roll out new products and ranges.
Thirdly, is our brand philosophy is our linchpin–“health and beauty from skin to soul.” Brands today cannot survive on their product alone, they need to have an authentic offering and for us, it’s encouraging our consumers and fans to embrace holistic beauty. We believe that the journey to beauty begins from within–with the healing of the mind and soul that overflows to radiant skin and overall health. We draw inspiration from Africa’s ancient belief that true beauty is from skin to soul and to that end we’ll be announcing a few exciting ventures in 2016 that bring this philosophy to life for our consumers in Africa, Australia and the U.S.
Neva Mwiti-Read: Afya’s focus on celebrating Africa has been very well received by our consumers so far, many of them who were unaware of what the continent has to offer, especially when it comes to skincare. In fact, we’ve had fantastic sales in Australia, which is a very crowded market in the skincare category, for the single reason that we’re telling an untold story whilst offering a high quality product that’s organic and natural.
Also, our marketing has been relentless, and while we don’t have the big pockets of our competitors, we’ve been consistent with our message and we believe our consumers appreciate that.
We’ve also partnered with a great distributor in Australia that has supported our range strongly and we’ll soon be announcing a partnership with a distributor in Africa whom we intend to have a similar relationship.
Neva Mwiti-Read: We’re looking to export Afya into Europe and the U.S., as well as expand our current product range. We also have a few exciting ventures in 2016 to bring our “beauty from skin to soul” philosophy to life for our consumers in Africa, Australia and the U.S.
Neva Mwiti-Read: Our long-term focus is on celebrating Africa by providing innovative, rejuvenating products based on organic, natural ingredients, which provide cosmetic yet holistic benefits. We’re also focused on the modern and future-forward consumer who’s looking for more than just superficial beauty. They’re ultimately seeking a fulfilled peaceful existence; one that celebrates their true inner essence and brings it to the fore via a wholistic, natural and healthy lifestyle. Our ongoing focus is on ensuring Afya’s sustainable business practices reflect our “beauty from skin to soul” mission.
Neva Mwiti-Read: I’m a proud African and creating a business that tells Africa’s stories and celebrates this amazing continent, is what energizes me. I’m deeply committed to this prodigious continent; to its fascinating people, its rich history and deep wisdom from which we draw our inspiration for our products. Afya’s ultimate purpose is to empower our consumers with the best, natural and organic products and knowledge to help them live the best life possible from skin to soul. Bringing that to life every day is what truly excites me.