Founder takes baby products business from kitchen to global markets

by MMC
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Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo, founder of Amal Botanicals

Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo is the founder of Amal Botanicals, a company known for its baby care products made with Nigerian-sourced ingredients. Amal generates 80% of its turnover on digital channels and has expanded beyond the borders of Nigeria. Isah-Ikharo addresses Jeanette Clark on how she started the business, grew the business through a reseller program, and faced the challenges of forex.

In 2015, Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo was working as a legal tax expert in the Federal Revenue Service of Nigeria. That year, she discovered she was pregnant with triplets. Her pregnancy was classified as high risk and in 2016 the babies were born at just 33 weeks. They spent six weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. Meanwhile, Isah-Ikharo struggled to find local, natural skincare products for their delicate skin. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen premature babies (their skin can) really look dehydrated and need a lot of care and attention,” she explains.

Out of necessity, Isah-Ikharo developed a moisturizer in her kitchen, mixing shea butter and extra virgin olive oil. Noticing the improvement in the triplets’ skin, friends and family wanted to purchase the cream for their own children. This led to its first sales under the Amal Botanicals brand. She has expanded her range to include shea oil for hair and skin, a bath cleanser and African black soap. All ingredients, such as shea butter, coconut oil, neem powder, baobab oil, cocoa pod ash and cocoa butter, were sourced locally. Nigeria.

In 2017, Isah-Ikharo was back at work after maternity leave but continued to sell her products. Her customer base began to expand beyond just friends and family, thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations and her growing number of followers on Instagram.

“That year, 2017, was a very difficult time for me,” says Isah-Ikharo. While working full time, she also handled online inquiries for her side hustle during the day. At night, after the triplets had fallen asleep, she would begin her production.

Adding new sales channels

From the start, Amal Botanicals operated as an e-commerce business, notes Isah-Ikharo. Before creating an official online store, she managed orders through social media and coordinated deliveries.

In 2018, order volumes grew so much that the operation expanded beyond Isah-Ikharo’s kitchen, extending to her living room and balcony. She completed a Diploma in Organic Cosmetic Formulation from Formula Botanica in the UK and began applying for accreditation with the Nigerian National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).

By this point, the production process had evolved to be less manual, with mixing and dispensing machines as well as soap cutters and shapers. These additions were funded by Isah-Ikharo’s personal savings, her salary from her day job (from which she only resigned in 2022), and company profits. The company has never taken out a loan.

In June 2019, the company opened its first retail in Ikoyi, Lagos, featuring a dedicated production area at the rear of the store.

Interest in Isah-Ikharo’s baby products was on the rise, thanks in part to praise from local entrepreneurial platforms like Her Network and media exposure from outlets such as CNN.

A selection of Amal Botanicals products

A selection of Amal Botanicals products

Customers have started expressing interest in becoming resellers in other parts of Nigeria. Realizing that this is a promising avenue for expansion, Isah-Ikharo has implemented a structured reseller program. Depending on the purchase volume, resellers benefit from discounts ranging from 20% to 40%. Today, the company has 98 resellers worldwide, spread across Nigeria and West African countries like Ghana, GoAnd Ivory Coast, as well as international territories such as the UK, USA and Canada. Bulk orders from these resellers vary, ranging from 100,000 naira (US$128) to 5 million naira (US$6,400) per transaction.

Amal Botanicals has avoided selling through third-party retailers due to pressure on its cash flow from its extended payment terms. “We don’t seek them out, they contact us and we only work with those who are willing to pay us cash in advance,” says Isah-Ikharo. Today, 80% of Amal Botanical’s sales are online, with only 20% coming from conventional retail.

Sourcing locally whenever possible

Amal Botanicals currently offers over 20 products across three main categories: Skincare & Accessories (with balms, soaps and creams), Maternity Care (with items like natural deodorants and belly balms) and hair care and accessories.

The company works directly with farmers to source raw materials for its products. She collaborates with a cooperative in Nigeria that leverages its wider network to supply materials like shea butter, a variety of natural oils and moringa.

One of the challenges Amal Botanicals faces is sourcing packaging locally. At present, it imports most of the containers, bins, spray bottles, etc. from China.

Isah-Ikharo crunched the numbers and felt it would make financial sense for the company to invest in its own packaging molds. This approach would also overcome a significant obstacle for Nigerian manufacturers like her: the fluctuating exchange rate and access to foreign currencies. “We have no control over (the exchange rate), so all we can do is try to source as much locally as possible.”

Finding the right marketing mix

In the beginning, Amal Botanicals benefited from Isah-Ikharo’s personal journey as a mother and the fact that she openly shared her struggles on social media. Word of mouth then played a central role in establishing a reseller base.

Today, the company’s engagement online and on social media remains strong, with over 68,000 followers on Instagram, from where it also sells directly. However, Amal Botanicals also allocates funds for traditional marketing, strives to exhibit at fairs across Nigeria and runs pop-up stores in other African countries like Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast.

Urgent need for additional capacity

From its beginnings in a family kitchen, Amal Botanicals now has 15 permanent employees and sells approximately 30,000 units of each of its products each year. “We have grown exponentially every year (since our inception),” says Isah-Ikharo.

Amal Botanicals has outgrown its current factory and Isah-Ikharo is currently looking for a new facility to double its production capacity. Only once this is in place will the company seek new markets for its products.

Contact details for Amal Botanicals founder Zuwaira Isah-Ikharo

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