Joycelyn Mate started experimenting with making hair products in her Birmingham university halls.
“The first hair oil I made had olive oil, glycerin and lavender oil in it,” she said. “It wasn’t a very good mix. I didn’t know how to make it, I just researched online and worked out how to blend the oils. I didn’t weigh or measure anything, but it worked really well.”
Homerton-born Joycelyn was suffering from traction alopecia at the time – gradual hair loss caused by pulling force applied to the hair.
“I wanted to grow back my hair and I started doing some research. I found that natural ingredients were the best for afro hair,” she said.
“I stopped chemically straightening my hair and used this oil. I had extra and gave it to my
friend Rachael who used it on her skin. She has eczema and is allergic to anything with fragrance in it – which is 99% of cosmetics.
“She was so excited because it didn’t irritate her skin. She said wow, we should make it for more people like us.”
Joycelyn and Rachael Corson began their Afrocenchix natural haircare company there and then, aged 18, and 10 years later they’ve just been awarded £275,000 worth of funding, by winning the Business Venture category at the WeWork Creator Awards (held at Printworks, a seven-minute Tube ride from Canary Wharf ) on October 25.
Aside from their personal haircare and skincare concerns, Rachael and Joycelyn were keen
to plug a wider gap in the market – that for women with afro hair and darker skin.
“In our university halls, Rachael and I were two of only a few black girls, which makes a difference because we have different hair,” she said. “Straight away we were
like, where do you get your hair done? Where do you get your hair products? We couldn’t just go to Boots or Superdrug. The UK climate is harsh on dark skin and Rachael
and I couldn’t find lip balms, face creams or face washes that were moisturising enough so we were like, we just have to create our own now. Because no one’s formulating
products for darker skin in the way that the large companies are.
“The L’Oréals of this world aren’t thinking about it. They’re focusing on the mass market so there’s no research being done.”
Enter the Afrocenchix business model.
“The goal of Afrocenchix is to be the one-stop shop for women who have darker skin and curly hair,” said Joycelyn. “Black women spend six times more than any other ethnicity on
hair products – and it’s not because they’re vain.
“Firstly, afro hair takes more care than other hair types. And secondly, there’s just a lot of
products that don’t work so they end up spending more looking for the right products. We want world domination. We want to be the L’Oréal for the black family.”
But for the sociology and law graduates, it took many hours of mixing essential oils in their
home kitchens to get to where they are today – set up in an office in Southwark with four full-time and three remote staff members.
“When we started making products, we used a pipette to mix essential oils to get the scent that we have now,” said Joycelyn. “That took a lot of tweaking, just sitting there and thinking about what smells nice, but then we met another person at university who introduced us to a group of investors.
“Part of their investment in our company was a scientist who at the time was formulating products for Boots No 7. He made our process more scientific, helped us get to
the quality we have today and showed us how to bring them to market. I printed the labels for our first bottles from the printer in my halls. It was called Sanctity Oils then, I don’t know why. That’s what happens when you’re 18.
“The second labels that we had were also bad and really blurry, but we got them designed by a friend and printed at a Turkish printer in Stoke Newington. It was really difficult to find a
printer because we were really young and I’m assuming we looked like kids then, plus we were women. No one would take us seriously.”
Post-university, the young women would work during the day, then go around each others’
houses in the evenings to make hair products – where they continued to manufacture as the
company grew, until last year.
“My house smelt amazing but it was a massive hassle to clean everything up,” said Joycelyn. “You can’t mix food and cosmetics so I had to sanitise the kitchen.”
It’s where their current range was born, which is at present available online via their website
or Amazon, at WholeFoods and in certain independent health shops in London.
“Right now we have five products,” said Joycelyn. “A shampoo, moisturising hair cream, moisturising water-based hairspray, hair oil and scalp oil – all priced between £8.50 and £13.
“The WeWork awards money is super important because it means we can grow our team. Being based in central London works really well now but once we start manufacturing really
large quantities, we’re going to need a space with warehousing opportunities and our lab.”
Afrocenchix products are made from natural ingredients sourced all over the world – olive oil from the Middle East, lavender from France, shea butter from a Ghanaian co-operative. Does Joycelyn forsee any problems in scaling up production?
“The reason big brands don’t use natural ingredients is because they’re concerned about their profit margin,” she said. “It’s not necessarily difficult to use them, just more expensive.
“When you’re selling direct to consumer, as we are, you can afford to spend more on your manufacturing because you don’t have the problem of the middle man – generally, Boots
or Superdrug take 50% of the profit margin from cosmetic companies. That means they have to make the end product as cheap as possible, so they don’t use natural ingredients.
“The issue with scaling up organic production is stability. It can cause problems at a large scale, but if you’ve got a really good formula and really good scientists, you can mitigate
those issues. We have to be careful in sourcing things that are as natural but as effective as possible and that takes more time.”
Bypassing the middle man – in this case large-scale pharmacy retailers or supermarkets – creates an opportunity to focus on the online market, in a way that’s not been done before in this haircare niche.
“When we go to trade shows people are shocked that you can buy it online,” said Joycelyn. “There just isn’t another company selling afro products like this on the
internet, which is silly because it’s 2018.
“One of our visions is to be accessible. I can’t walk anywhere within a mile of here and get products for my hair. This is central London. That shouldn’t be normal.
“The ethnic minority population in the UK is growing very rapidly, so we need to be able to provide products for that group without them having to go to Brixton, Peckham or Dalston for their products.
“Also, we have customers all over the country and their local shops most likely don’t have products for afro hair, say if you’re living in Devon. Having the option to buy things online
is super important.
“We have customers living in Shanghai who order our products because they can’t get products for them there.”
Get the haircare duo a warehouse space and world domination might not be so far off for Afrocenchix after all. Watch this (beautifully coiffured) space.