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Natural hair niche

Small black-owned hair care brands tap a $1.8-billion market.

Associated Press
Published March 7, 2008


BALTIMORE - Hunched over folding tables in their Baltimore basement, Pierre and Jamyla Bennu put the "hand" in Oyin Handmade, meticulously squeezing droplets of oil into amber-colored bottles of "Juices and Berries" hair tonic.

They spend up to 18 hours a day concocting products aimed largely at black women who have abandoned hair straighteners for their natural locks - fragile coils easily dried by many store products.

Blacks have long bristled at figures showing the billion-dollar black hair care products market led by white firms.

But as black women frustrated with chemical damage reconsider straightening, black-owned minicompanies like Oyin have emerged as go-to sources of organic products, capitalizing on firsthand knowledge of ethnic hair to return the market to its roots.

"There's an empowerment aspect," explained Jamyla Bennu, who started out making products for her "natural," or chemically untreated, hair.

Oyin's products average $10 and rely on shea butter, honey and other cupboard ingredients. The Bennus ship more than 100 orders weekly, each averaging $40.

"I used to go to the post office once or twice a week on my bicycle," she said. "(Now) three or four times a week, the post office picks up five or eight bins of packages from us."

Qhemet Biologics in Tampa has tapped the trend. The business markets Egyptian-themed mixtures of Indian gooseberry and other exotic ingredients under the slogan "ancestral hair care for modern naturals."

"I see the renewed interest in natural hair and use of natural products as part of a larger process of rediscovery," said owner F. Butler. "It's a movement toward coming full circle."

Krika Bradsher began her business, My Honey Child, after years styling natural hair in her Raleigh, N.C., salon.

"I found out using a lot of commercial products, that they weren't really designed for our hair," said Bradsher, who earns $3,000 a month selling products like soy moisturizers.

The brands are relatively small, marketed largely through black-aimed Web sites, salons and festivals like Atlanta's annual World Natural Hair, Health & Beauty Show.

Vendors ballooned from 25 at the outset of the 11-year-old show to 110 on average, said founder Taliah Waajid. About 10,000 consumers are expected in April.

In June, Chicago market research firm Mintel valued the black hair care products market at $1.8-billion. That report named L'Oreal USA, Alberto-Culver Co. and Procter & Gamble Co. the largest suppliers of hair products made for blacks in the U.S. food, drug and mass merchandising sector; brands include Just for Me, a line for children.

Blacks, meanwhile, have dominated the entrepreneurial side of the industry back to Madame C.J. Walker's early 20th century hair treatments, explained Lafayette Jones, founder of the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, a Chicago association of minority-owned hair care companies.

They've historically spotted street trends like the Jheri curl of the '80s, he said, marketing them and selling out when business reached critical mass. But Jones said modern black entrepreneurs have more formalized business training than previous generations, a key to holding on to the reins.

Black buying power, meanwhile is projected to top $1.1-trillion by 2012, according to a July report by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. It placed black buying power at roughly $845-billion last year.

On the Web

Oyin Handmade,

My Honey Child,

Qhemet Biologics,

World Natural Hair, Health & Beauty Show,

[Last modified March 6, 2008, 23:40:33]

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