‘Native Child’, SA philanthropist’s dream child

‘MAKERESEMESE LETUKA

MASERU – Sonto Pooe is a South African entrepreneur and philanthropist born in KwaZulu-Natal – a woman with gusto enough to without hesitation turn her back on the lucrative engineering profession to pursue her groundbreaking dream.

Sonto is the founder of ‘Native child’, a nature based hair and body care brand that specifically caters for the needs of people of colour. Her dream has been for every native child to have access to her products.

Sonto’s company constantly receives requests from across the African continent and the world over, and although they ship internationally there is a high local demand and distribution. Native child was launched towards the end of 2015, following numerous tests and review processes; the product was tested for stability and efficacy.

She says stability testing ensures that the product stays stable under varying conditions including temperature and microbial attacks, and adds that her products performed well during testing. She points out, though, that this product took longer to satisfy the efficacy part of the test “because ethnic hair is so tricky and varies so much in texture and needs.” But, she guarantees, her product range has everything for everyone.

“I came up with the name Native Child because I am African and coming up with a name that the children of Africa would be proud of was very important to me. Being of African descent is not always easy as the world often sees us as second best. I wanted to create something that we can be proud of and call our own.

I have always been one who has a sensitive digestion, allergic skin reactions and the like, so ensuring that the range is safe was of utmost importance,” explains the entrepreneur. Sonto has always loved being herself, and fairly comfortable in her own skin literally, she says.

And the older I got, I realized that to some colour is an issue and often the darker the more it’s associated with all sorts of negative traits which we all know could not be further from the truth, she adds. This reality is what inspires Native Child.

Native Child is planned to provide good quality products to millions of people who need it, but also to evoke a feeling of pride in oneself. A feeling that, “you are enough.” Sonto says their products are plant based; they are created ethically and with safe ingredients.

“And people will not find this kind of goodness at the kind of affordable prices they are sold at, we guarantee it. Our goal is for the masses to have access to these products,” says Sonto.

“I think like most young people I experimented with a lot of things trying to find my way. I’ve always had a love hate relationship with my hair since I was a young child.

I come from a line of construction related jobs so when that suggestion to study Quantity Surveying it was just very natural for me because knew the profession, it was an industry I was familiar with and the decision made sense at the time,” she continues. But she points out that “once I was there I realized that this is not my life’s work.”

“I think since we are dynamic beings we can all do many things but there is that one thing that you can do really, really well and that sets your heart on fire. I had to make the decision to start afresh and abandon what I felt like would not be a fulfilling like long-term. That’s when I started my journey to creating Native child,” she says.

Sonto says she has been an entrepreneur for as long as she can remember. As a child she was making clothes for her dolls first, and then herself (as a self-taught dressmaker) and soon her friends in the neighborhood were asking her to sew stuff for them.

She sew very basic skirts, shorts and tops, some dresses and she was selling them. Some of her mother’s colleagues were also buying for their children, and she remembers “I would like to thank my little sisters for being my guinea pigs.”

But by the time she was between 14 and 15 years, she continues, she was burnt out; she was also by then plaiting her own family members for free and neighbours for some charge to make money.

“I knew I wouldn’t do that the rest of my life but it taught me the principle of earning your income, helping at home, and of course venturing into the unknown and learning that you’ll be ok.

As a hairstylist if someone wants a certain style done, whether you’ve done it or not before, you have to do it and translate your customer’s vision. People are paying you money to create and make them feel a certain way, the same with being a fashion designer and creating products.” So her journey has been one of progress and building brick upon brick.

And she used to often wonder why she had initially gone into the engineering field; she asks “why was I so confused at what careers to go for.” Some kids know from the time they are three-years-old what they want to do, for the rest of those like Sonto, they could do more than one thing and be okay – she was that child.

“I was good at academics but I also love my creative side. So it was a 50/50 split. I went one way but returned to what I knew deep in my heart I ought to be doing.”

Business really started in her heart since she was a little girl. However, the first steps of gaining the necessary skills and knowledge of having a formal hair care and body care business started after she left the engineering profession. She says love inspired it.

I have always been obsessed with my hair since I was little girl. It’s something I later found out I inherited from my grandmother and great mother. And then of course my own personal journey and struggles propelled me and gave me the motivation to start my own range, she explains.

 

“I could not live with myself knowing I didn’t at least try to make the dream happen. So going into that field taught me a corporate culture. A culture of problem solving and not sleeping until you gets the job done. It taught the importance of numbers.

 

If the numbers don’t make sense, you’re wasting your time. It taught me to work well under pressure when a million people want your attention at the same but still being able to somehow function. So I believe everything you do is a lesson, a building block to the ultimate vision. No knowledge is wasted,” she says.

She says she had three main priorities when she was aerating out: the name, product efficacy and affordability.

 

“The name, because the name needed to speak to me. This was created out of love and I wanted a name that evokes a feeling of pride and love for my heritage. It took a while but I’m glad it worked out.

 

In terms of efficacy, of course you can’t please everyone and people’s needs are so diverse that I wanted to make sure that the products do what they are intended to do.

And then lastly, products created for the masses are generally not the best in terms of quality. So my dream was to create a good quality affordable range. That means smaller margins for us but over time we would still make it because I believe you always get what you give.”

 

She is optimistic and has also been humbled at how the brand has grown in many countries like Lesotho, Namibia, eSwatini, Botswana and in Ghana among the many states she does business.

 

She marvels at how quickly all this came together.

 

Her initial dream was for her products to be in every family in South Africa, to have at least one Native Child product in a homestead; but she soon realized how connected the world is and that people move around and before one knows it, they have requests from all over the world.

 

This has that helped expand her vision to the world. The company’s distribution outside South African includes a combination of retail distribution which has a footprint in other countries and teaming up with courier companies helped us grow.

“The company has faced a few challenges however, such as using technology to buy products and buying online is new age and ever evolving…so educating our potential customers on online buying has been a massive task, not everyone is comfortable venturing out into the unknown.

 

Then assuring customers that it’s safe and they won’t run away with their money is also a massive responsibility,” she says.

 

However, she adds that it has become easier as they have created a step by step guideline, and how dedicated the staff that assists customers to create their orders is, finding the right staff that not only understands the vision – but also are aligned to it.

 

This industry is male and white male dominated, but Sonto contends that the difficulty has not been in race but in being taken seriously and her orders taking the same importance and priority as other customers.

 

“And lastly, focus was on convincing retail that they are good as they say they are and often just getting in the door. In all retailers buyers are the gate keepers. And sometimes you don’t even get to the buyer because you get sent from pillar to post.

 

But thankfully they are given a foot in the door by 3 major retailers and they can only grow from strength to strength,” she points out.

 

“Although there are worldwide bigger brands than us, I have always thought I can hold my ground because I am a believer and I work hard, so it never even crossed my mind that I could not do it.

 

Secondly, I am my target customer. I know the needs of our target market from experience, I live it every day.

 

Big giants are so big and generally decisions are made by people who don’t share the experience of those they are trying to sell to. No amount of money or schooling can substitute for experience.”

 

Sonto concludes that: “Being an entrepreneur, you’re the visionary, the engine of the company. You need to know everything or as much as you can there is to know about running your business.

 

You can’t rely on others to move the vehicle for you. Learn how to all there is to know.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.