INOTILA Mwafongwe (IM) is arguably one of the biggest names in the local beauty industry, having founded the natural hair and skincare product brand, oombeke. Manufactured in the North, the essential oils are extracted from the oombeke fruit. The products – oombeke hair growth fluid and oombeke skin firming serum – can be used to moisturise, nourish and revitalise both skin and hair. The products are found at several outlets, including in Windhoek.
In an interview with Confidente journalist, Marianne Nghidengwa (MN)recently, Mwafongwe spoke about her products, competing with international brands and spending quality time with her loved ones.
MN: Give us a snapshot of who you are.
IM: I am Inotila Mwafongwe, the owner of oombeke. As a Namibian, I was born in Lusaka, Zambia, started school in Pretoria, South Africa and completed my schooling in Windhoek. I am the holder of an honours degree from Unam. I am a mother to one gorgeous little boy, and I have been happily married since 2012.
MN: Briefly tell us about oombeke and the products you offer?
IM: As you know, oombeke is a registered trademark. There are not many 100 percent natural hair and skincare products that the whole family can share and be happy with. The Ovambo people in the North of Namibia have always been extremely exposed to ultraviolet rays, which is the invisible rays that are part of the energy that comes from the sun. These rays are the real culprit causing skin to age prematurely.
The Ovambo women and girls have looked after their long, healthy hair and beautiful skin, using the extract of oombeke fruit, for generations. The oombeke, scientifically called Ximenia americana, has been used as a natural cosmetic for hundreds of years in Ovamboland, because it really does work. We offer oombeke hair growth fluid, which is a rich source of vitamins, minerals and a hetero geneaus collection of bioactive compounds, which stimulate the roots of your hair. It stimulates hair growth and prevents hair from breaking. It is for dry, itchy scalps, and gets rid of dandruff and relieves infection. All in all, it is your very best treatment for smooth, long and strong hair. It works very effectively, with no side-effects. Our second product, oombeke skin firming serum, has an anti-inflammatory effect, due to its high proportion of unsaturated fatty acids. It hydrates your skin intensively and improves dry, cracked skin tremendously. It smoothes wrinkles very effectively, and is also good for sunburn. The serum is your very best treatment for younger, healthier-looking skin. Both products are made, with pride, in Namibia.
MN: What challenges and opportunities has the business faced?
IM: The biggest challenge for my business was the funding. My business plan was very detailed and took quite a while to compile, because I could only do that in the evenings and over weekends. My business plan was one of the success factors, though. My aim was to create a Namibian end-consumer brand, rather than just providing raw material to the South African, United States and European cosmetic industries, to refine their products with our oombeke. I wanted to establish two pure, world-class products to supply our home market and to export world-class, 100 percent natural cosmetics products from Namibia.
The amount of work and the investment, before I held the first bottle of oombeke in my hands, was significant. I was able to hand over the very first bottle of oombeke on 20 September 2015. It felt amazing. In fact, it was the major highlight since starting my operations. The USP (unique selling proposition) of oombeke is the constant, pure, world-class quality of the two Namibian, 100 percent natural cosmetic products,and our clients’ love, once they have tried them. Another challenge is our listing with South African companies, like Edgars and Foschini, which are just two examples. At the end of 2015, we talked to Hannes van Tonder, the Manager Divisional Operations Edgars Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Ghana, here in Windhoek. It took about six weeks, before we met him. This was not because there was an appointment, which seemed impossible to arrange; it was because my sales and marketing manager just surprised him, after one member of staff told him that Mr Van Tonder would be in his office. After presenting oombeke and the concept, Mr Van Tonder leaned back and said: ‘You know, we don’t deal with local products.’ We asked who in South Africa would be the decision-maker, but Mr Van Tonder was ‘not allowed’ to give us the name of that person. Instead, he advised us to send him a soft copy of a presentation, which he would forward to the decision-maker in South Africa. We decided not to waste our time after that conversation. Foschini was a similar case. Helen Steyn, the Area Manageress for Foschini Namibia, was not available for months and months. She never replied to messages or phone calls.
The opportunities are, however, fantastic. The oombeke hair growth fluid and oombeke skin firming serum products are both unique. No foreign company has 100 percent natural products, which compare. There are French cosmetic companies which offer products that promise the same anti-ageing results as our serum. But they are not 100 percent natural products. And end-consumers worldwide have become very critical about using chemicals on their bodies. So therefore, my pure, 100 percent natural cosmetic products have a great advantage, in comparison to the cosmetics, designed in labs in Europe, the USA and Asia. Looking at the size of the foreign world brands, oombeke will not disturb companies like Beiersdorf, Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal or Estée Lauder for a very long time.
MN: How has society welcomed the products?
IM: The success of oombeke was overwhelming right from the start. Namibians seemed to have waited for oombeke. The thing is, oombeke is a traditional cosmetic and is well-known and well-appreciated right across Namibian society. Our clients are from all tribes, black, white, mixed, male and female. You really could say oombeke unites our colourful Namibian society.
MN: How and where are the products produced?
IM: The magic oombeke fruit is the only raw material we use. It is sustainably wild-harvested in the North of Namibia, and is free of pesticides and fertilisers. Furthermore, no chemicals are used at any point in the production process.
MN: How do you empower other women?
IM: As a professional social worker, I can see the necessity of women in Namibia being economically active, in order to become financially independent. The group of harvesters in the North appreciate the income from oombeke. There is no industry; they are unemployed and are not yet old enough to receive a pension, but they still have to support their children and grandchildren. So the income from oombeke helps them substantially.
MN: Where do you see oombeke in 10 years’ time?
IM: I like that question; oombeke is not a matter of ‘hit and run’. The awareness of my brand in my home market is already excellent. Its development, in terms of turnover, is very promising; and due to cost management, profit is rising. I am in the process of establishing an international brand, made with pride in Namibia. My aim is to make oombeke an ambassador for the country, to the cosmetic world. The brand will create more jobs for the oombeke team in Ovamboland.
MN: What advice do you have for women who wish to start businesses like yours?
IM: My advice is to do research, to see if the idea is viable. The idea must be unique. Do not try to set something up, which can be copied in a flash. Create your own business plan. Do not share your business plan, especially with banks that will not finance good ideas anyway. I saved up before I started. It took me over two years to develop oombeke; I invested my own money to avoid talking to local banks. I also made sure that no banker has a good look at my business plan, so they could explain to me that my idea is not viable, which can be very discouraging. I have found it most important to avoid any financial pressure from a bank. In my opinion, the South African banks here in Namibia choke SMEs. One only gets money, if you can prove that you already have it, in the form of assets. They do not take any risks. There are other things that are very important, including working hard, staying modest, being rational and not spending your money quickly on unnecessary consumer goods, like a car, if you do not really need it. You should reinvest as much as possible.
MN: What do you do for fun?
IM: I am a very family-orientated woman. I love spending quality time with my son, who already understands at the age of two what oombeke is, and that we can buy sweeties only after we have sold oombeke. He is the light of my life. I find long road trips or reading a great novel very relaxing.
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