The personal care industry in Africa is changing to meet the needs of a young, vibrant population. Kaeme is a young start-up based in Accra, Ghana that is leading the way in producing high quality personal care products from Ghana for West Africa, Africa and the World market. We interviewed the proprietor of Kaeme, the jubilant entrepreneur Freda Obeng Ampofo on starting the business, its growth prospects and her future aspirations
The future of the personal care industry in Africa is young, authentic, hip and vibrant.
With a young, rapidly urbanizing population that is conscious of how they look, what they wear and what they consume, Africa is set to be the next big market for anything that makes us all look and feel good – and ready for that Instagram moment!
These attributes are shared by and are quite like Kaeme – a young premium brand from Ghana that specialises in personal care products such as Shea soufflé, liquid black soap, soy candles and African-print toiletry bags.
The Kaeme name comes from the Akan tribe in the West African country and means ‘forget me not’, and literally translates to ‘remember me’, says the company’s Founder and Chief Mixer (ever heard of that title before?), Freda Obeng Ampofo – who, just like the brand, is herself a vibrant, effervescent and lively young lady with a charming smile and a characteristic hairdo that is unpretentiously African, bold and loud – and which you never really get to forget once you interact with Freda.
Starting from scratch
Born in Ghana, Freda has a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations with a minor in Economics and a Master’s degree in Public Affairs.
She started the company after a career working with international organizations and advocacy groups in Ghana and in the US. Having grown up in Ghana, she always enjoyed travelling and had been fascinated by different cultures, during which time she had ideas of one day producing Shea butter beauty products – which have a rich history in Ghana and West Africa.
Freda is sentimental about her childhood days in Ghana as the youngest and only girl plus four brothers. She fondly and vividly remembers her mother using Shea butter on her – and ensuring that she had a good Shea butter product to help her skin moisturized every day. “When I started travelling, my mother would give me African black soap and Shea butter as treats and gifts for me and this would make me feel very special,” she says nostalgically.
Over time, Freda started mixing her own products and trying out different formulations to make them more exciting, as well as making for her friends when they had special days such as birthdays and anniversaries. It seems Freda was doing something right, as her friends and those who had an experience with her products, initially as souvenir for guests during Ghanaian weddings or anniversaries, would then call to ask for more. Her thriving small network grew, sales orders were coming and her business idea came into fruition in about 18 months. And that’s how the Kaeme business was born.
Importance of Shea butter
Shea butter is a fat extracted from the nuts of the African Shea tree. The tree, from which Shea butter is extracted is native to Africa and is common across the dry savanna regions of Africa – from Senegal, across Nigeria, Ghana and other West African countries to Sudan, into the foothills of Ethiopian highlands and Kenya in the east.
The Shea butter is ivory in color when raw, with processed versions being white. It is widely used in cosmetics as a moisturizer, salve or lotion. Shea butter is also edible and is used in food preparation in some countries in the region.
In Ghana and many African countries newborn kids skin care regimen is purely Shea butter, as it is smooth, natural, largely organic and has no allergic reactions. Freda’s upbringing was no different.
She confesses Shea butter was the only product her mother used on her for her whole childhood. He mother, just like millions of others, believe that Shea butter to be safe to use, abundant in vital nutrients and that they it is organic in its own right.
“The farms here are not certified organic by European or American standards but the land has no chemicals being used and the Shea butter is so good for the body and we fully trust it with kids, even new born, and it has been used since centuries ago for healing wounds, moisturizing hair, treating acne, eczema, dermatitis, etc. It is believed to be Shea butter – plus the black soap are magical products, cure-me-all that ensure that even 80-year old women have some of the most envied flawless skins, due to the many years of use of the two products.”
Freda notes that the black soap is made from potash delivered from burnt cocoa pods or burnt green plantation leaves then mixed with Shea butter and coconut oil and then baked in an oven. “The real authentic black soap is incredibly good for the skin, just like the Kaeme black soap,” she exudes.
The brand and products
Freda is fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel early in her life to a lot of countries. In her travels, she came across luxury cosmetic products that had little amount of Shea butter in their formulations but with incredibly high price tags. This realization drove her further in her zeal to start and grow the business to reach more customers worldwide as her products were authentic and had the purity of the Shea butter from Ghanaian villages that was not over-processed, as other international brands were.
In her own words, Shea butter was like gold and Ghanaians were basically just not doing much value addition, hence allowing international brands to dominate the personal care and luxury beauty products markets. Kaeme has grown her brands of products beyond the flagship brands Shea butter and black African soap to several variants of the same to suit every scent and customers characters and includes some interesting twists.
Freda says that the Kaeme brand is inspired by the joy of unforgettable memories and cherished experiences, with each product crafted to captivate the senses and make a lasting impression. The proprietor chose the name for the start up as she wanted a product that is good in quality, truly African in its origin and ingredients, with a short name that is visible and has a sentimental value. “We chose that name very specifically for a reason because we wanted our customers to remember us every time they use our products and they had an interaction with us,” she says and further explains that the brand is hinged on remembrance and feelings.
The young company values local resources immensely and uses raw, unrefined Shea butter and authentic black soap sourced from a women’s cooperative in Ghana to make Kaeme products by hand, one small batch at a time. “We also use a selection of pure carrier and essential oils to create distinct sensory experiences that are also free from additives or dyes.” She adds that they believe in excellent skincare and make each product with love to hydrate, nourish and protect the consumer’s skin. The Shea soufflé and liquid black soap are available in a captivating array of scents that offer variety and a luxurious experience. They also offer unscented products for sensitive skin or as a fragrance-free alternative.
To grow a brand with wide reach of customers has been a mammoth task for Freda and her team, especially for beauty and personal care products, where customers must have total trust in the products they use on their skins. Armed with the strength of a good product that was readily accepted by the small group of people who tried it, she embarked on a brand strategy that would see her make some improvements on both the production process and reaching out to a larger market beyond her family and friends.
In the early days of her journey, Freda continued producing from her house during the week and would use Friday, her full-time-job off day, to deliver the products to her customers. This became her piloting process that proved that her products were in high demand, as most of the time they would not even be able to supply all the orders.
The Kaeme brand has been in existence for about four years, including the early days when she was going through the process of formalizing the brand.
To access markets, the company works with distributors, retailers and established stores. “We also have an online website portal, which is where a lot of people know us from. We also utilize social media, which is a big thing especially in this Covid-19 era. It has been tremendously helpful, but I would say our website has been the main way of us reaching out to our customers, especially those ones outside of Ghana – that’s where our potentials customers first get to know about us and get to contact us.”
As the business grew, Freda moved the business to its first production facility. “I used to make the products in my apartment and am incredibly grateful to say that I no longer do so. We have a facility that is solely dedicated to making the products, store as well as for distribution to our retailers and distributors. We also have a place to sell to the general public, depending on customer’s orders. At this facility, we are able to produce a lot of stock, as much as the customer wants.”
However, with growth came challenges. “It hasn’t been easy, there have been a lot of challenges; the big one is logistics, especially in terms of trans-boundary transportation when shipping out of the country or importing things from outside the country, plus currency fluctuations etc. However, one thing I have realized is that there is always a solution. Sometimes it takes months, sometimes years, but we are always trying to find ways of making things work.
There are still a lot of things we are working on in terms of trans-boundary issues, but we have also made a lot of progress. Another challenge is getting certification. In our case, our products are sensitive products, as you are going to put it on your skin, so we must be careful what we put in there and how the market handles that, but we are delighted that the institution that handles these matters here has been very accessible and immensely helpful in assisting us to attain that certification.”
Despite these setbacks, Freda says that it is the joy of serving her customers that pushes her and the team to continue with their mission. “I think about the reviews we get from our customers and how it really changes their lives. These reviews keep me going and keep me wanting to make more life changing products. I love what I do; I love my customers and hearing their feedback. I also love working with the people I work with. All these come together to cross out the negative challenges that we face. I think these challenges are not unique to us only; other businesses in Africa also go through them. I think doing business in Africa generally is tough, because we do not have certain systems in place; you do not have the assistance you need as a small business, but it’s something that is also slowly changing. So we as entrepreneurs will have to just keep working through it until when we get to a time that we have a system that is good for us.”
The opportunity is huge
Having lived abroad for many years, Freda is convinced that African countries have opportunities to utilize local resources to meet the unique needs of its population, create local jobs, improve economies and serve the world market with their unique products.
She adds that her realization of the fact that most of Shea butter products being sold abroad has little Shea butter in them and yet was ridiculously expensive was her reckoning to think of starting Kaeme.
“When I returned to Ghana, I wanted to put Ghana and Africa on the map for something that is ours – something that we could call our own. Something that we really are part of because what I realized in my travels was that every time you see a lot of Africans, we try not to be Africans. We always want to be the other thing – never who we are as Africans. That is something that really bothered me.
“I wanted to come back home and basically create a brand that was globally competitive using locally sourced raw materials in a way that tells the world that: ‘Hey am Ghanaian, am African and am really proud of it. Am using locally sourced raw materials that I am really proud of and making products that are so great for your skin and am so proud that it’s made in Ghana and it is from Ghana, Africa to the rest of the World.’
It was really to show the rest of the World that good things can come out of Africa and am proud of what we have here in my country Ghana and on the African continent and I want to share this with you. For me there is that bit of patriotism – I felt that in Africa we have a lot, we really need to own it, we need to be proud of it and really focus on that instead of always looking for what is good from outside, because we have a whole lot to be proud of here in Africa.”
She adds that there is definitely a strong opportunity in the beauty industry in Ghana and Africa – evidenced by the amount of beauty companies that are springing up every other day and that there is a lot of room for everyone to grow and every one to take a piece of the pie.
Sustainable future worries
Freda says that she is focused on building a globally competitive business, as her business grows further. “Globally competitive is very important to me because I want to see Kaeme on the same shelves as high end brands all over the world, whether it is L’Oreal, Gucci, or Louis Vuitton. I want Kaeme to be able to be on the same shelves with these brands and still feel confident as a product of Africa; this is something we continue to work on. Currently, we look to strengthen our existence in the continent of Africa because I believe charity begins at home, so as much as it is important to be in big cities across the World, we feel we need to serve people at home first, our continent first, for a lot of reasons.”
While the company’s range of products is available in many countries in Africa, Freda is dedicating this year and next to solidify the relationships and partnerships they have across the continent.
“That means that if we have one stockist in Kenya, we want to make sure that we are interacting and engaging with this stockist, pushing customers to them as much as possible and trying to figure out what their issues are and trying to fix them; and making sure we make them feel part of the big Kaeme family. The second reason for focusing on the continent is to get a chance to fill gaps before we become too big and lose the handle on the problems that we have. This will give us the opportunity to really tackle each challenge systematically in a way that is healthy for us and for our customers.”
However, they will continue serving their global customers, but not just in the major way that would be serving those within the continent.
She reveals that what keeps her awake at night is the fear of growing the business but still not being able to meet every consumer’s needs, either due to logistical or production challenges – one of which is due to her main raw material: Shea butter.
“The Shea butter tree takes about 20 years to grow and be harvested for their fruits. I am thinking of the sustainability of these trees, which for now we do have a lot of and it’s great. But as the World moves towards using Shea butter more extensively, what does this mean for our industry? I know that 10-15 years ago, Europe started using Shea butter in their chocolates and their food products – that is now a whole continent using Shea butter that wasn’t using it before! In addition, they are now using the butter in cosmetics as well. If you do the math, then the sustainability of Shea butter tree that takes 20 years to grow is a real concern. I sometimes wonder when Kaeme becomes a hugely successful brand in the World, and then suddenly, there is no sufficient Shea butter raw material, what happens from there? This troubles me, but it’s a good challenge, because I can start thinking about this now and look for solutions now, so that in the future we are better prepared.”
Changing African woman
Freda says that she is confident of further growth of her business, considering the changing face of the African woman. “Using Ghana as an example, when I came back here a few years ago, people were still not used to wearing their African dress and African hair and it was really looked down upon. Thereafter, more and more Ghanaians started coming back home from abroad from big countries and from big jobs and they started appreciating Ghana, what we do and all things Ghanaian and it sort of started this invincible movement of made in Ghana proud.”
“I love made in Ghana, I love being who I am. This went from wearing African print to being really proud of it or leaving your hair naturally. It was just about being proud and feeling about what you own. I remember companies in Ghana having their employees wear local African print outfits on Friday’s local outfits, which is very positive. It’s a trend that started a few years ago and that continues to get better. It’s really stirring up conversations on who we really are and what we put clarity on and all of that. It’s an exciting time for me; am really proud to be in Ghana right now and to call myself a Ghanaian. It’s important that when Africans go and seek education knowledge and skills abroad, that they come back and make their country and continent better,” she concluded.