South Africa’s embrace of natural hair care illustrates the movement’s power

Protective style.
Protective style.
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As a black child, my thick natural hair often felt like a burden. Like millions of women around the world with hair like mine—disparagingly termed a “nappy” in the United States, “cabelo crespo” in Brazil, and “kroes” in South Africa—the only relief offered by the retail world was to apply harsh chemical treatments that stripped away the hair’s diversity, making it sleek, but often damaged and lifeless in the process.

The lack of options offered by hair care producers reflected a culture that shunned natural black hair for decades. There were few, if any, products that nurtured natural black hair, but countless options that offered to permanently alter it.

But a lot has changed since I was a child in 1990s South Africa. That was clear last week, when I took my five-year-old niece to one of South Africa’s first commercial natural hair expos, and watched her glow with affirmation each time someone complimented her thick ponytails. Increasingly, women of color all over the world are choosing to wear their hair naturally, a cultural transition that has as much psychological value for them as commercial value for the manufacturers and stores finally catering to them.

Natural Hair: South Africa’s largest drugstore chain embraces the natural hair movement
Listening and learning.
Image: ClicksCurls/Neo Ntsoma

The hair expo I attended with my niece took place in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and featured about thirty stands advertising all the local and international products stocked by South Africa’s largest drugstore chain, Clicks, as well as talks on how to care for natural hair. From budding local product lines to American brands that South Africans have long coveted via social media and natural hair blogs, the event was clearly a move by Clicks to advertise its new stock. For the women attending, it was an affirmation.

Studies by Mintel, a market research firm, reaffirm this point, says Tonya Roberts, a multicultural analyst at the company. “Our research indicates that wearing their natural hair makes black women feel liberated, confident, and different from others, giving them a tremendous sense of pride in being black while displaying their natural beauty,” Roberts says.

Natural Hair: South Africa’s largest drugstore chain embraces the natural hair movement
The moment Stacey Ciceron taught me how to care for my hair.
Image: ClicksCurls/Neo Ntsoma

At the expo, natural hair experts addressed crowds on stage and took one-on-one questions at stalls. SheaMoisture’s stall featured celebrity hairstylist Stacey Ciceron, who changed my life when she told me that as a woman of mixed racial heritage, I had at least two different hair textures growing from my scalp, and advised me on what I would need to do keep each healthy.

The expo was a smart way to drive customers to their local Clicks branch (visitors couldn’t purchase products at the event) and create loyalty among a growing market segment. Clicks first started stocking a natural hair line in 2014 but has rapidly increased stock in the last year, driven by “a huge demand for natural hair products in South Africa,” said Ester Appels, manager of ethnic hair for the Clicks Group.

We recognized the gap and have over the past few years made huge efforts to source the best of local and international natural hair brands for our customers,” said Appels.

Natural Hair: South Africa’s largest drugstore chain embraces the natural hair movement
A teaching moment.
Image: ClicksCurls/Neo Ntsoma

The women filling the expo hall understood the underlying marketing, of course. But there was an earnestness in the energy permeating the room. The weekend-long expo didn’t just acknowledge their haircare needs, after years of walking up and down drugstore aisles frustrated by the limited number of products available for natural black hair. It affirmed that the country’s 25 million women of color, a segment of the market that has long been ignored, were finally worth investing in.

“The fact that we spent years in a majority black country with a only one small shelf dedicated to so-called ‘ethnic’ hair is farcical,” says Janine Jellars, a journalist, editor, podcast host and author of the The Natural Newbie Guide, who also attended the event. “We’re seeing progress now, but I think this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many niches and concerns that still aren’t being catered for.”

When women of color move from chemically straightened to natural hair, it’s called transitioning. It’s a very personal process that involves patience to grow out straightened hair or cut it off in what some call “the big chop.” There’s a psychological shift akin to reclaiming one’s power that comes with wearing natural hair in spaces like offices or classrooms which have traditionally branded such hairstyles as unruly, unprofessional, or in some cases, downright unacceptable.

That’s accompanied by “a steep learning curve for women who’ve spent most of their lives relaxing their hair,” says Jellars, whose book is a step-by-step guide on how to go from chemically straightened hair to natural language. It’s a learning curve that the haircare industry and retailers like Clicks increasingly want in on, as more women join an international movement demanding products that nourish the diverse coils, springs, and waves of afros in all their forms instead of destroying them.

black haircare market report from 2014 found that black women in the US were abandoning relaxers for styling products, many of which fall under natural haircare lines. By 2015, styling products made up 35% of black haircare sales, nearly doubling from 2013 to reach sales of $946 million. That growth came at the expense of hair relaxers and straighteners, which saw sales drop by 18.6% during the same time. Clicks did not give official data, but say they have identified the same trends in their stores around southern Africa.

Natural Hair: South Africa’s largest drugstore chain embraces the natural hair movement
From Brooklyn to Johannesburg.
Image: ClicksCurls/Neo Ntsoma

In the US and Africa, well-known brands are starting to see success with lines targeted specifically at women of color who want to wear their hair naturally. L’Oreal, for example, acquired one of the most prestigious brands Carol’s Daughter in 2014, taking it far beyond the Brooklyn kitchen where the haircare line was first cooked up.

But this booming cultural and commercial revolution is one that both consumers and the industry are just beginning to experiment with and understand. In the US, one in five black consumers still report having trouble finding the right products, while 19% bought and tried different haircare products to find a regimen that fits, according to the 2017 Mintel report on black haircare market. It’s a boon for the industry, as women with natural hair often devise personal hair regimens that consist of several, often pricier organic, products.

Relaxers and weaves still dominate the South African market. A 2010 report by Diagonal Reports market research (the most recent comprehensive study, unfortunately) found that chemical relaxers made up 80% of the local salon business, while braids, hair extensions, weaves and dreadlocks were the second most common procedure in hair salons. Haircare is one of South Africa’s largest informal sectors—it’s not unusual to see women getting their hair braided on busy street corners—so the data don’t fully capture how lucrative this market is.

The industry is not without its challenges. Natural haircare products are more expensive than straighteners, an issue raised by customers at the expo. The downside of these price differences, and the willingness by many so-called “naturalistas” to fork out for them, even for experimental regimes, has inadvertently created a hierarchy, where making the decision to go natural is often limited to those with the money for it.

And the movement also struggles with colorism—the insidious prejudice within communities of color that favor European features. For example, looser curls are still viewed as more desirable, perpetuating a racial hierarchy even as the culture promotes to embrace a natural black aesthetic.

Despite the cost and the inherited cultural issues, and the fact that it has taken this long for the hair industry to cater to black hair in its natural form, consumers are embracing the market—a reward for a market that is finally embracing them. At the expo, my niece fully expected the stands we visited to have a children’s line, and was unafraid to ask for it. As a little black girl with thick beautiful hair growing up during this transition, she feels entitled to brands catering to her unique needs just as they would any other hair texture. Taking care of her hair will never have to be a burden.