By Revamping Traditional Skincare Ingredients, All While Redefining What Made-in-Africa Means
THE AFRICA BAZAAR MAGAZINE August/September 2015
By Kemi Osukoya
When Andrea Schneebaum plans her usual trips to New York to visit her mother, relatives and friends, and does her normal shopping, there is one place on her list that is a definite must visit before she returns to her home in New England.
That place is Rain, a premium skincare company, whose flagship retail store is ensconced in the heart of one of New York City’s busiest commercial areas. Ms. Schneebaum discovered the store one summer day three years ago while she and her daughter were strolling around the city and over the course of that time, she has become so enamored with the company’s products that she has turned her mother and friends into loyal customers.
Ms. Schneebaum, a resident of Manchester, New Hampshire, used to buy her skincare products from luxury boutiques and high-end department stores. Now she only buys skincare products from Rain.
“Their products are very unique,” says Ms. Schneebaum. “It’s the presentations of the products and the smell that attracted me when I walked into the store that day and when I tried the product, I fell in love with it instantly because it works. It does what they say it would do.”
Behind Ms. Schneebaum’s agog is an African-based skincare company that has become a retail star among its customers and is shrewdly helping engineer a big shift in American’s buying behavior of African-made skincare products.
Experts say as more people put more of a premium on their appearance, including what they eat, there is a growing interest among consumers for natural ingredients in the everyday products they use.
There’s a revolution going on in Africa and it’s not the political Arab Spring revolution that you are thinking, though it certainly catalyzes it. No, we’re speaking of a business revolution, a redefinition of business acumen in Africa that encompasses a new way of thinking about Africa not just as a tourist or investment destination, but a new way of thinking about Africans and African-made products.
From East to West, and South to North, Africa’s economic turnaround is gaining enormous momentum in most countries. Last year’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit held in Washington, D.C. has further whetted and reinvigorated Americans’ interests in the continent’s business and cultural affairs.
For decades, it was established knowledge that Africa is a purveyor of abundance of natural resources and minerals, including many of the components that are found in the technologies and products that are used around the world. However, few people associate the continent with premium-made products, talk less as a producer of premium skincare products, despite the fact that most of the ingredients used in some of the world’s premium skincare lines are sourced from African countries.
Adding to this notion also is the fact that most emerging middle-class Africans living in urban areas often prefer imported products over domestic-made products. However, bans of some imported products in recent years have spurred creativity among African entrepreneurs living on the continent, like the founder of Rain, and in the Diaspora to not only embrace buying domestic-made products, but to create products that can be used by Africans and sold to the rest of the world.
“We wanted to create something intensely handmade and unique that is representative of Africa and the African experience in the best possible way,” says Mrs. Dewhurst, a South Africa native and a cofounder of Rain skincare company. “A lot of these international natural skincare companies claimed their core ingredients are sourced from Africa or say their products are 100 percent African-made whereas when you look at their product labels, it show they are not African-owned company or African made. We are proudly African-made and African-owned company.”
Becoming Rain and Staying Authentic to its African Root
So how does an African skincare company transform from a small handmade-soaps maker in a home garage to a multimillion dollar company that now competes on a global scale with international premium natural skincare companies, including L’Occitane en Provence and Sabon, yet remains true to its humble origin?
“It is very important for us that in whatever we do, we remain authentic to our core ethics and beliefs to provide hope for people through meaningful, fulfilling employments and to produce products that enhance people’s life experience,” says Mrs. Dewhurst. “People are precious and everyone deserves a chance at a meaningful, and fulfilling life.”
Hidden in that statement is the heart of the company’s success. And “authenticity” is the operative word here. It’s the seamless synergy between who the company is and what the company does that drives the brand’s success as a niche player in the $465 billion global beauty industry.
And with American consumers like Ms. Schneebaum gobbling up Rain’s products as soon as they hit the shelves, that’s not a bad place to be for a company that started out 16 years ago when the founder had an idea to create a company that employs disadvantaged people from her community- train them through on-the-job-training employment so they can earn incomes to support themselves and their families.
“We are both a Fair Trade accredited company and fair trade products, which mean our company has to adhere to a higher standard both for fair labor practice and fair products. We are very involved,” says Mrs. Dewhurst. “Businesses can say we treat or produce fair trade products or that their products are not tested on animals, you can talk the talk, but without the certificate, it doesn’t validate.”
Whether it’s simply through the company’s engaging customer services or its uncanny insight into what customers crave, the company has managed to translate its unique artisan personality and technical skills into product demand that has made Rain one of the fastest growing premium skincare brands in the niche natural skincare market.
Experts say as more people put more of a premium on their appearance, including what they eat, there is a growing interest among consumers for natural ingredients in the everyday products they use. Also, the growing trend towards skincare restoration and scented skincare among middle and higher income consumers has led manufacturers to start developing and adding natural ingredients such as Shea butter, coconut oil, and olive oil to enhance their products.
Rain began life in 1999 as an artisan soap maker. Its founder, Bev Missing, was struck by how some of the local traditions of the South African region were being celebrated by local craftswomen who translated traditional crafts like basket-weaving into beautiful yet utilitarian objects that are desired by both local people and tourists.
Ms. Missing decided to translate that idea into consumer products that encapsulate the various unique fragrance of the region to provide an everyday experience as well as recreate the “vacation experience.”
While in the process of setting up her business, she discovered there was a niche market for handmade soaps, which fits perfectly into her plan, except she didn’t know how to make soap. Instead of letting that detour her, she reached out to people and various small business communities online, where she ultimately connected with Theresa Loft, an American and a North Carolina-based business woman, who, during several months of online corresponding, mentored her and taught her how to make handmade soap.
During this learning process, her home garage served as her laboratory where she learned how to make soap. She then hired, and trained workers to make beautiful, hand-crafted soaps made from Shea butter. She found a wholesale buyer in South Africa and within months, the business took off quickly and was soon selling wholesale to other high-end lifestyle stores in South Africa.
With positive feedback from consumers, she started thinking more like a premium brand and began experimenting with infusing essential African oils like Marula oil “miracle oil” into the soaps and expanded her product lines to include other skincare products.
Over the next years, the company developed a reputation for its unique moisturizing fragrance Shea butter handmade soaps and other skincare products that rejuvenate as well as soften the skin.
To grow the business, she partnered with one of her wholesales customers, Miranda Hillmann, a Dutch business woman, who encouraged her to open retail stores in South Africa, and look at expanding the business overseas. Rain opened its first retail store in 2005 in Cape Town, followed by a second store at VA Waterfront mall shortly after.
Through a South African government initiative, she received financial and business assistance to bring her skincare products to an industry trade show in New York City’s Jarvis Center, where she secured contracts with major industry buyers and lifestyle boutique stores. One of her biggest clients was Terrain, owned by the Anthropologie Group.
Ms. Missing also met her co-founders, husband and wife Hendrien and Simon Dewhurst, who both started out as the company’s American wholesalers, and later bought out Ms. Hillmann’s shares of the company when she sold it.
After opening a couple more stores across South Africa and in Europe, and having developed loyal following in America, the company opened its first store in the United States in 2010 in New York’s famed Rockefeller center.
In 2013, the company partnered with Surefoot, a custom Ski boots company, to expand the brand to major cities across the U.S. Rain also opened its second retail store in New York City on Columbus Avenue.
I usually make my own products at home but as soon as I walked into the store, I was enveloped by the fresh smell of the products and when I tried them, they make my hands very soft,” Ms. Miller, 35, says of her in-store experience. “I was surprised by the quality of the ingredients in the products, and that it’s made in Africa.
Know Thy Customer
The revamped traditional handmade soaps and skincare lines, presented in elegant biodegradable packages and containers, have become popular among consumers seeking natural skincare products.
High-end customers like Sylvia Bizar of Floral Park, N.Y., “loves that the products are packaged in environmental friendly, yet elegant packages that can be displayed on a bathroom counter or be given as a gift.”
The company’s signature product line, Savannah, which combines key moisturizing and anti- aging ingredients such as Shea butter, Aloe vera, Baobab oil, Rooibos, and Mafura butter-an anti-microbial that fights aging, has a memorable fragrance and is a hot hit among customers.
“I love shopping at the store because of their organic products. They [staff] are so knowledgeable about the ingredients and how they can work on your skin. The products are very holistic and are packaged beautifully, which is great, especially during the holiday season,” Ms. Bizar says.
Consumers like Ms. Bizar are just a sign of a growing trend in the industry toward more holistic natural skincare products and services.
According to a Euromonitor report, skincare remains the largest segment across most global beauty industry markets, One-third of global beauty revenues by 2019 will come from skincare, compared to 23 percent between 2009 and 2014, with consumers upgrading to more superior products across all product segments.
“Of all beauty segments, consumers continue to spend most on skin care items. Consumers want to experience more with their products and innovation can create a unique experience worth paying for as well as creating brand loyalty,” writes Euromonitor International’s Head of Beauty and Personal Care, Irina Barbalova in the report.
Beauty and skincare selections, found and sold in most stores, in general require extensive daily beauty routines that involve three or more products to be effective and sales-associates are trained to push customers to buy more products, even when a customer might not need all that products, leaving customers with few options but to succumb to the beauty industry’s standard.
However, as consumers, especially women, take on more responsibilities outside of their homes, the need for a simple yet effective daily beauty regime has become more important and essential to maintaining an equilibrium professional and personal life, and they are demanding for new products that meet this need for a more personalized and unique products.
Experts say product diversification and innovation are transforming the skincare market and are keys to meeting this demand. An everyday natural skincare has to moisturize and rejuvenate the skin enough to fulfill its principal daily duty of providing the protective barriers that the skin needs.
Even as manufacturers try to meet this new demand, those efforts may not be enough to satisfy some consumers like Becky Miller and Tassie Howell, both residents of Austin, Texas, who say they became tired of chemically enhanced natural products.
Ms Miller says she started making her own natural skincare by mixing natural ingredients, until she discovered Rain’s skincare products during a vacation trip to New York City.
“I usually make my own products at home but as soon as I walked into the store, I was enveloped by the fresh smell of the products and when I tried them, they make my hands very soft,” Ms. Miller, 35, says of her in-store experience. “I was surprised by the quality of the ingredients in the products, and that it’s made in Africa.”
On several of my visits to Rain’s Rockefeller store during the process of writing this story, customers told me again and again that Rain’s approach to customer service is something exceptional and unique to the company in an industry where companies want consumers to buy multiple products.
Because the company listens to its customers, its high-quality skincare products are intensively compact yet highly effective and last longer. Even though the products don’t need replacing, its loyal customers like Ms. Maralyn Gelefsky, a television producer, visits the store regularly to browse and buy new products to use or give as gift or to catch the store’s unique fresh aroma.
“It’s an oasis in the building. It is refreshing, light and a beauty in the busy Rockefeller,” Ms. Gelefsky says of the company’s flagship store in Rockefeller center. “I have been to South Africa a lot for business and for vacation, so I know what the country offers in terms of natural resources, design and quality. What Rain has done is bring that African high quality that most people are not aware, for example that organic Marula oil is used for skin healing, but when you are at the store, they tell you these things and how to use it to help your skin, which is exceptional in bringing awareness to natural skincare ingredients that most people don’t know.”
“My friend from Italy came for a visit and we went to the store. She spent hundreds of dollars on products in the store that she shipped to Italy to decorate all the bathrooms in her new home,” she adds. “The products not only work, they smell nice too.”
It takes someone unique to understand what we stand for,” explains Mrs. Dewhurst, who is shown in the above picture helping a customer. “Bob and Jaci are not the first offer we have received. All the negotiations before this deal fell apart because the human interests aspect of it was not appreciated or understood.”
In the company’s newest store on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan where we met in late April for this interview, traditional South African soul-music flows through the store from a surround sound system, creating an African/Safari Zen atmosphere that mentally transported me to a lively African retreat that’s complete with great food, great music, great people and great conversation-which is all part of the company’s store design concept from the beginning.
The founders believe that the company’s retail stores, all designed alike, should have an atmosphere of an oasis that gives customers a quick retreat or vacation experience from the everyday hustles and bustles.
“The store is designed to feel more like an oasis or spa retreat than a retail store. Bev wants people to have that experience they gets when they are on vacation,” Mrs. Dewhurst tells me.
From the store’s interior decor, where a blowup matronly African doll, dressed in complete traditional African attire, stands near the door with a tray filled with leave-shaped soaps as if welcoming the customers and offering them hand soaps to wash their hands – a traditional gesture that’s common in most African countries to welcome guests to a home, to a spawning tree that fits perfectly next to a shelf of Aloe & Avocado skincare line, the lighting and high-ceiling, the tantalizing fragrance that fills the store to the product arrangement on the shelves, caddies containing bath salts and artisan soaps of various shapes and sizes, including eggshell and avocado-shaped soaps, all inspired by South Africa, and other African countries, abound two large tables adorned purposefully to inspire customers to customize the products, it’s hard to walk out of the store not feeling rejuvenated and inspired to start using natural skincare products.
“Sometimes, people need a mental or a visual vacation or retreat from their everyday lives,” says Jaci Eubanks, the company’s director of marketing. “You can’t be creative when you’re stuck.” And indeed, the concept works. In fact, it was how she became involved with Rain and encouraged her boss Bob Shay, the cofounder of Surefoot to invest in the company.
“I was in New York after Hurricane Sandy hit. We were in town for the marathon, which was canceled. I was frustrated because I had traveled from Utah to New York, so I decided to walk around the area and walked into the store,” recalls Ms. Eubanks. “I was in the store for more than two hours just browsing the products and didn’t want to leave because it was such a relaxing experience being in the store.”
But she did leave and bought products and went to tell her boss about her experience at the store. She persuaded him to look at the store as a great investment opportunity. He did and they got the ball rolling and the rest is history.
“I was in the skincare industry for years, but I was not happy. I was at a place in my life looking for something meaningful and fulfilling,” she says. “I have always have passion for natural products, company that incorporate values, people and business, I think that’s what most people are looking for.”
Humanism over Profit
In a room on the lower floor of the store on Columbus Avenue, which also doubles as a storage room and office, Mrs. Dewhurst and I sit at a small table while Ms. Eubanks sits close-by as we talk. Mrs. Dewhurst looks completely in her element and loving it. Dressed in a blue blazer, a white teeshirt, and jeans, her face, bare of makeup and wrinkles, glows and shows a hearty smile as she talks. She doesn’t look anything remotely like the typical boss or a cofounder of skincare company who is giving some of the world’s premium brands a run for their money. In fact, looking at her sitting next to Ms. Eubanks, they look more like colleagues than a boss and employer.
It is all part of the company’s open culture that encourages open dialogue relationship between the founders and employees. The company has found a way to integrate the work and life balance in a way that’s entirely seamless with no boundaries or compartmentalization. The first rule: family/humanist takes absolute priority.
From the company’s daily morning prayer and singing ritual, often led by a staff, before work starts at the factory in South Africa, to the fact that there’s no hierarchy or superiority titles used within the company, the employees enjoy a casual and warm atmosphere that has furthered encouraged a close knit environment that makes the company feel more like a family than the heart of a multimillion dollar skincare company. It’s not unusual to see employees sitting next to or eating lunch with one of the founders or coming to them for assistance.
Of course, the blend of personalities and brand can become a challenge within an organization, which is why the founders usually take time out to of their schedule to check-in on their staff.
For example, when an employee doesn’t arrive for work at the factory or answer their phone, Bev and another staff will get in the car and drive to that staff’s home to check on them or when an employee needs assistance, they all rally around to help, which is a rarity in today’s competitive business world, especially for a company that’s focused on growth.
“I have to give all the credits to Bev, she created a company whose core values are based on humanism, irrespective of who writes the checks, we all work together,” says Mrs. Dewhurst.
Understanding of that core values was central to sealing the deal with Surefoot.
“It takes someone unique to understand what we stand for,” Mrs. Dewhurst explains. “Bob and Jaci are not the first offer we have received. All the negotiations before this deal fell apart because the human interests aspect of it was not appreciated or understood. It was all about money and no human interests. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important that we make money because without it we can’t grow, but there has to be empathy for the way we want to grow, and the people, going forward.”
When Ms. Eubanks and her boss at Surefoot came calling, the company wasn’t interested, but Ms. Eubanks’ repeated calls and persistence paid off when Mrs. Dewhurst finally agreed to a meeting. After that meeting, Ms. Eubanks, Mr. Shay, and Simon,-Mrs. Dewhurst’s husband, traveled to the company’s factory and headquartered in South Africa. It was a chance to gauge if the potential partnership will work. Shortly after that trip, a deal was signed in 2013, which terms remains undisclosed, to expand the brand across major cities in the U.S. Months later, they opened their second store in Manhattan.
In September, the company opens its first store on the West Coast in Topanga, in the Woodlands Hills area of California and plans to open additional stores in major cities across the U.S., at least two stores in major cities.
“We will focus on building the New York and California stores within the next two years to build the brand,” says Ms. Eubanks. “We wants to keep the stores within radius to build the brand.”
While establishing the stores in major locations have helped develop growth, the company is also upping it focus online through social media outreach, using it to share news and launch new products.
“One of our strategies is to build the brand online through social media, using social media to expand the brand,” says Ms. Eubanks. “We find that once people visit the store and have experienced using the products, they then go online to order products.”
Mrs. Dewhurst credits the company’s engaging customer service approach to its success. “We listen to our customer and try to deliver. Give us something natural for our body care regime; the main message is natural skincare and environmental friendly.”
Unlike department stores or other natural skincare stores, the company’s approach isn’t to force products on customers to make more money. It’s focus is on holistic and well-being. It isn’t about why something isn’t working for you. It is how you can maximize the natural ingredients in their product to work to enhance what you already have.
“Not everything in the store is natural, for example our clothing, but we are absolutely focus on bringing as natural as possible skincare line,” she explains. “As a Fair Trade member, this is very important because we have to be aware of everything our company does, from who we buy our ingredients from, to making sure the products (oil) are harvested wild, and knowing what our partners do, to making sure the people that harvest the products are paid fair wages. Most of these natural skincare companies like Sabon all claimed to be handmade, but they are mass produced,” says Mrs. Dewhurst.
Looking at Mrs. Dewhurst talk confidently about the company, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time in the company’s timeline when things were stagnated and plans went awry. But like most successful growing companies, there was a dark time in the company’s storyline.
The company’s expansion to Amsterdam failed because the brand was relatively unknown at the time in the city.
“People didn’t gravitate to the brand the way we expected and then other challenges arose in terms of regulatory in Europe so we ended up closing the stores,” says Mrs. Dewhurst.
The lessons learned from that experience came in handy later when the company opened their first U.S. store and things weren’t going so well as planned. While it was a slow process getting to where the company is today, she says a combination of repeat customers and social media, and a strong believe that hard work usually pays off kept her eyes on the prize.
“The first two years in New York were tough because it was an unknown brand, but now we are starting to do well,” she tells me as her eyes swell up with tears as she recalls those dark days.
Her advice to African entrepreneurs and companies looking to enter the U.S. or other international market is to partner with people that knows the market.
“Partner with the people that are in the knowhow that can give you insight on how to package your products for the American market. It’s a huge cultural difference” she says. “The U.S. market is complex and has a system in place and if you don’t understand how to navigate it, you will end up paying dearly.”
She adds that it is essential to have a plan and budget behind it and “believe in your brand because it is what will gets you through until you find the right partner.”
“It takes at least two to three years for any new brand to take a foothold in a new place. If it wasn’t for the brand and the store in Rockefeller Center, I would have closed the [Rockefeller] store years ago,” she tells me.
“You always want to do things faster, but there’s a process. I’m not a patient person,” she explains. “When I get to the point of frustration, and some days when I wake up and don’t feel like doing it, I just remind myself it’s not about me. It’s about the people that work for the company and what it means to the people working there.”
Her eyes light up as she talks about the people that works for the company. She excused herself, got up and went in search of something. She came back with a couple of soap bowls made from recycled boxes, and like a proud parent showing off her children’s achievements, she tells me who made the soap bowls.
“Bydon, who is blind, makes these boxes and other gift boxes,” she says. “I have to give all the credits to Bev, she is the creative mind behind our packagings. She takes people with no skill or limited skill and teach them how to recycle boxes and make gift boxes out of it. Sam, [another employee who has disabilities] who does our packaging, takes all the empty packaging boxes, and recycle them and give them to Brydon to make soap bowls. The handmade part of it is creating work and the environmental part of it is the recycling part.”
“These are people who otherwise would have been disenfranchised by their communities and the society, but instead they are creating beautiful products and contributing to the society,” she adds.
The company’s founders are very sensitive and aware to people’s limitations and respectful of their employees’ backgrounds, especially women. They empower, as needed on an individual basis.
“Women in Africa are very hardworking. Women are always the one who want to make a difference in somebody’s life and usually start from the most basic idea, but they don’t get the credit they deserve,” says Mrs. Dewhurst. “ It’s an African problem. We are extremely aware of people’s background and try to ensure they have a healthy home environment. We try to encourage education.”
As part of that effort to encourage women and give back to the community, the company has partnered with UNICEF.
“We all feel in our own ways we can make a difference in the lives of the people that works for the company and we do that by making sure they give back to their community,” Mrs. Dewhurst says.
The company, which takes its name from South Africa’s climate and African waterfalls, hopes to inspire more people to not only go green, but to think of African-made products in a positive way.
As the company opens its first store in the West Coast in September, the founders are also looking at expanding their wholesales products supply to other industries such as the hospitality and tourism industry like hotels.
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