By Fiona Laker
Over the last decade, the natural hair movement in Uganda has taken major strides. More women now wear their natural hair proudly. One can’t speak of natural hair in Uganda without mentioning Kentaro Organics, a range of plant-based hair care that was founded in 2015 by Charlyn Kentaro to help African women grow healthy thriving natural hair. Kentaro Organics aims to have African women fall in love with their natural hair and has since changed the hair game for over 3,000 women and families.
How would you describe yourself?
Charlyn Kentaro is a Ugandan, wife, mother, follower of Christ, and the founder of Kentaro Organics
What inspired you to start Kentaro Organics, how easy or hard was it for you to start?
I was inspired by my own hair journey. I started it at a time when I had just cut my seven-year-old relaxed hair and I couldn’t find natural hair products to use on the market that would fit within my budget. I had just finished campus and couldn’t really afford the high-end natural hair products and the ones within my budget were filled with synthetic and toxic chemicals. So I was inspired to start Kentaro organics as an accessible and affordable brand.
Starting out was not too difficult because it started as a passion for natural hair to help myself and the people around me. I started small with what I had in my parent’s kitchen then grew it into a side hustle and later into a full-time business.
What has it been like for you as a female entrepreneur in Uganda & how have you navigated challenges along the way?
It has been an interesting journey. As a female entrepreneur, in some circles, you don’t get accorded as much respect as the men in terms of negotiating contracts, terms, and prices. I personally took it up as a challenge and used it as a stepping stone to give people an opportunity to be amazed by how competent I am as a business owner.
Are there any women that inspired you to start your journey?
I was inspired by a couple of women that still inspire me. First is my mum, a serial entrepreneur and is always ready to go after the next big thing. She seems to have no fear of the unknown, starting over and learning to navigate a new business field. Bella Nakato founder Enviri Za Nacho also inspires me. We started out around the same time and always checked in with each other and she always told me she believed that the natural hair space has so much potential and that I should go for it. The third is Mariam, the owner of Taibah schools. She imparts so much value on the rare occasions that we sit down. I am also inspired by all-black women starting businesses all over the world
When you started out your natural hair brand, what kind of impact were you hoping to have in Uganda?
I really wanted to create something that Ugandans can be proud to see on their supermarket shelves and would readily support. Something locally grown and yet world-class that gives value for money. It’s been a journey but we are getting there. Our products use 75% local inputs. The idea was to have something that supports farmers and also employs Ugandans. I really want people supporting Kentaro to do so knowing they are truly supporting Ugandans.
A lot of businesses in Uganda don’t live to see their first anniversary, what are some of the things that have kept you going?
I have to be honest that I started Kentaro Organics from a very privileged position. So I had the financial freedom to grow it and make some mistakes and recover from them. What has helped us live seven years is the passion for what we do. I am also really motivated to succeed, I come from a family of very hard workers. I am always motivated to be bigger and better. Having a support system is also important.
Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
I plan for Kentaro Organics to be the leading hair care brand in Uganda. We plan to have expanded into regional markets within the East African community and hopefully have cemented our presence as the go-to hair care brand for women with natural hair
Where do you see the ” hair” entrepreneurial sector ten years from now? Is the pie big enough for more players and Would you encourage younger women to target this sector?
The hair industry in Uganda and Africa as a whole is almost uncharted territory. For the longest time we have had our cosmetics imported, we have been told what to use by people who don’t look like us and don’t know our struggles. We are seeing people take back that power. I would love for it to continue, there is so much potential and I would encourage young women to join the industry and really innovate around what we have to offer. There are opportunities in innovating hair extensions, packaging, and machinery – the sky’s the limit really.
What do you think could be done by the government or community to make this sector friendlier to the younger generation?
The government could definitely do a lot more to encourage innovators and entrepreneurs. They are trying with incentives like taxing imports in order to support local industry. However, without access to cheap capital, the local industry will not be motivated to substitute the imports. Businesses can’t begin or scale without capital.
We also have to start engaging the younger generation early enough on opportunities out there. You can’t be inspired until you see someone trying something out and seeing success stories. Also, let them know there is no such thing as an overnight success; it takes hard work.
What is your personality really like, any parts you leave at home in order to navigate the Uganda business scene?
I am an introvert until someone really gets to know me. I crack the most random jokes. I love reading books. I have had to put a couple of passions on hold because owning a business is full-time work along with parenting. Also, when navigating the business scene you can’t be as reserved as I am so I have had to step out of my comfort zone and show a side I normally reserved for those who really know me
There is a popular quote that “hair is political”. Would you agree with this?
Yes, hair is political. When you think about the way we legislate hair or how people in professional circles are forced to wear their hair. Hair has been used as a tool to make one part of the population submissive to another and often we don’t have the luxury to think of it in very academic terms because we are mostly trying to survive. You see it in how Ugandan women struggle to care for natural hair because we have been conditioned to relax it.
What is one thing you’d want to say to Ugandan women out there that are inspired by your journey?
I would say that I’m honored that someone is inspired by my story by the grace of God. I would encourage that whatever idea or passion you have, do your research and make sure it makes business sense. Be prepared to work hard even when things are not seemingly working out. Business is about being tenacious. Be prepared to be creative with the resources you have, build your social capital and pray about every small step.