Doing Business in South Africa: Taking Ethnic Haircare Back

J.M. Products is accomplishing what's been lost in the U.S.�ownership in the black hair industry

Harris manufactures and distributes ethnic hair care products in South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Ghana and other African nations. (Photo by Lonnie C. Major)

Mary L. Harris is flipping the script on the black hair care industry.

It’s a pretty well known fact that the vast majority of black hair care products sold in the U.S. is not manufactured by black-owned businesses. Why does this matter? For starters, it means our spending dollars are being quickly funneled out of the black community rather than circulating within the community first and financially empowering those within it.

However, about 9,000 miles from American shores, Harris is doing her own thing and accomplishing in South Africa what was once accomplished (and lost) in the U.S.—ownership and control of the black hair care products. The CEO of J.M. Products SA (Pty) Ltd., with 21 full-time employees, 100 sales and merchandising agents, is heading up a firm that manufactures and distributes ethnic hair care products in South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Ghana, and other African nations.

This is an industry that’s crowded in the United States with large companies jockeying for market share. But in Africa with its estimated 1 billion residents, not only is the demand there, the competitive field is wide open. As a result, J.M. Products sales for 2009 reached R60.3 million (roughly $8.1 million U.S.) and the Georgia native projects 2010 revenues at the Industria, South Africa-based company to reach R72 million (about $9.7 million).

Harris’ road to South Africa was somewhat circuitous. While working for the Augusta Georgia county government, she landed a part-time job with M&M Products Co. (a former BE 100s company) as an in-store promoter for its Sta-Sof-Fro product. This brand, along with others, was sold by M&M to publicly traded Johnson Products Co. in 1990. She loved the business and as time passed thought about starting a company of her own. The problem was the competitive landscape in the U.S. already had its dominant players. She had to look elsewhere.

She first thought about Jamaica, but learned that the population there was only around 2 million—not the type of critical mass she’d need for a thriving business. As luck would have it, she was called to South Africa on a working assignment in 1994 to help turn around the company she would eventually buy. The assignment was temporary, but a decade later Harris would not only turn the business around, but come to own 100% of it. “The first 10 years of doing business was slow and it was a hard sell, but I was committed to staying and building this business, bottle by bottle,” she recalls.

For Harris, it wasn’t just about making money, but about black financial empowerment. “Coming from the US side I’ve seen it happen all too many times where the money doesn’t get re-circulated into the black communities. My staff is 100% black South African so I’m guaranteed that the money is going to get re-circulated into the black community.”

It may be a matter of time before some of the big publicly traded hair care corporations take a look the African continent. But it’s a good thought that there’s a black woman already established there who is passionate and committed to keeping an industry driven by black demand in black hands.

Alan Hughes is an editorial director of Black Enterprise.

ACROSS THE WEB
  • http://diasporique.typepad.com Diasporique

    Smart strategy by JM Products and it’s good to know that the staff is Black South African, empowering Black people. Great work!

  • Dellam

    Thank you Mary L. Harris for having the vision and passion to hone in on an industry that we were quickly loosing out on. I have attended many product shows with my sister, who is one of a few Black Owned Beauty Supply Business in the US, and was amazed to find that there were only a hand full of Black Owned product companies. Much success!

  • Lori Dunn

    What you are doing is wonderful…..I hope that more awareness to this issue becomes wide spread and the the community will not only talk about it but be about it. Koreans have taken over manufactoring black hair care products in addidition to open stores to sell a product that is in high demand and will continue to be. However the money that is being made on black hair care products is not going back into our communities. Change is needed.

  • moe

    What don’t Black Enterprise run this article and others like it to the Black community.Asians taking over an industry that us blacks only use.That’s why I don’t support the magazine no more.They never deal with economic issues facing the average black person.I’t's all about corporate America.Why not take Elijah Muhammad,Marcus Garvey,Dr.Claud Anderson,James Kunjufu and get serious about economic empowerment and stop acting like UNCLE TOMS.

  • Cheri Coleman

    At a time when so many of us find ourselves having to reinvent..or dash treasured dreams…you opened a door for yourself based on your beliefs and faith…my prayers and best wishes go with you…

  • M.O.I.

    IF YOU WANT TO STOP DISCRIMINATION, POLICE BRUTALITY, UNFAIR TREATMENT IN THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM, BEING USED AS A POLITICAL FOOTBALL. IF YOU’RE BLACK AND A BUSINESS, START DOING BUSINESS IN AFRIKA. THEN WE CAN CHANGE THE CONDITION OF BLACK PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD LITERRALLY OVER NIGHT. THE ONLY SITUATION THIS SOCIETY UNDERSTANDS IS LOOSING CAPITAL, BEING IN THE RED. THAT’S WHAY THEY RESPECT OTHER GROUPS MORE THAN US. MONEY IS GOD IN THIS SOCIETY. BY NO MEANS I’M I SAYING SELL YOUR SOUL FOR MONEY. BUT CREATE AN INFRASTRUCTURE SO ALL OUR PEOPLE WILL HAVE A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE NEW WORLD ORDER. CHECK OUT THE BLACK ENTERPRISE DEC. ’09 .PAGE 90 ABOUT BRIGGETTE HARRINGTON AND HOW SHE STARTED A PRO GOLF SHOP IN TEMA,GHANA(AFRICA) FINALLY THE REALIZATION(NOT HOPE) OF RELEAVING OURSELFS FOR THE ECOMNOMIC SLAVERY THAT WE ARE STILL IN. THIS IS WHAT THE SO-CALLED BLACK ARISTOCRATS SHOULD HAVE BEEN DOING @ LEAST 50 YEAR’S AGO. THIS WILL SOLVE THE DISPARITY OF BLACK PEOPLE(BLACK MEN INPARTICULAR) FROM JOBLESSNESS, WHEN WE BEGAN TO TAKE BACK THE LARGE PERCENTAGE OF MONEY SPENT IN THIS COUNTRY, THEN AND ONLY THEN WILL OTHER GROUPS BEGAN TO RESPECT US. GLOBAL ECOMICS WITH OUR ON COUNTRY MEANS MORE CONTRACT’S, LESS HOMELESS NESS, LESS DRUG ADDICTION, MORE FAMILIES BEING SUSTAINED. CHECK OUT KASE LAWAL, TEXAS SOUTHERN, & PRARIE VIEW GRAD. OTHER GROUPS HAVE BEEN DOING IT SONCE THEY GOT HERE.

    IMPORTING THERE CULTURES AND PROFITING FROM IT…ITALIANS,JEWISH, LATINOS, GERMANS…NOT SAYING WE DON’T DO IT. BUT NOT @ THE LEVEL WE ARE CAPABLE OF. FOOD FOR THOUGHT. IF WE POOLED THE MONEY WE SPENT, AND DECIDED TO BE AN INDEPENDENT COUNTRY. ECONOMICALLY, WE WOULD BE THE 9TH LARGEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO SEE IS COMPANIES LIKE THIS GO TO THA SO-CALLED “HOOD” AND RECUIT, GO TO THE SO-CALLED “MIDDLE-CLASS” AND RECUIT, GO TO THE SO CALLED UPPER MIDDLE CLASS AND RECUIT. WE DON’T ALWAYS HAVE TO HAVE OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM WHEN WE DO OUR THING…WE NEED TO LEARN TO HAVE MEETINGS ABOUT OUR COMMUNITIES AND NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT THEM EXCEPT US…

    IN THE WORDS OF BIG RUBE: RIGHT ON 2 THA REAL ! LATER 4 FOR THA FAKERS !!

    • dee morr

      M.O.I.
      I understand what your saying,i was kinda thinking some thing like that.And i came up with an answer,black people have been fighting to have equal rights and wealth in America and other parts of the world, but there’s people that does not want them to bring progress in fear that it may tip the scale.think about this black people have 360 billion dollars in spending power,now imagine that money being shifted to Africa doing a lot of good deeds.there probably thinking if the smartest and brightest blacks goes to Africa and build multi-billion dollar company what will it do to the American economy.out of 6 billion people on this earth white people only make up 25%.also think about this why does china gets most of African’s oil and if Haiti was the first black free country and second free nation first being America but there the poorest but yet they have oil in there country.. if knowledge is power and who ever possess that knowledge holds all the cards..

  • yusuffabdullahi@yahoo.com

    IF YOU CAN READ MY COMMENT. I’M INTERESTED IN MARKETING OF YOUR PRODUCT AND BE ONE OF YOUR REPRESENTATIVE IN NIGERIA. AS YOU KNOW THE POPULATION OF NIGERIA IN AFRICA MARKET. I PROMISE YOU ABOUT ALL THE NECESSARY ADVISE INFORMATION CONCERNING YOUR IMPORTATION TO MY COUNTRY. I HAVE MY OWN PERSONAL REGISTERED CLEARING LICECNSE CERTIFICATE COMPANY IN NIGERIA. TO FACILITATE THE IMPORTATION. SEND TO MY MAIL FOR URGENT REQUEST AND PROCEDURES. MY Mail: yusuffabdullahi@yahoo.com Phone: +2347069371599 Mr.Abdullahi

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  • http://www.ectsolutions.info Eric T

    This is wonderful. I have a younger sister living in South Africa and I can’t wait to share this news with her. Thanks for posting.

  • Colette

    Dear Mr Hughes
    I’m not quite sure if I agree with your concluding statement that ” It may be a matter of time before some of the big publicly traded hair care corporations take a look the African continent.” It seems like you’re saying that Africa is NOT on the radar of big hair care corps. If that is the case, then I suggest you have a look at the March 22 issue of Fortune Magazine. There is a dedicated section to business progress in Africa. There are huge business entities doing business throughout Africa right now. Although a specific hair care company is not mentioned, one can infer that with they will be shortly on the way if not there already. It seems to me that African women are very much caught up in the hair care industry considering all of the weaves and perms that I see whenever I watch any video on Africa. I said all that to say don’t think for a moment that the hair care world is asleep. It is wide awake and undoubtedly has its eye on Africa.

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  • Fannie H Livings

    Mary, we are so proud of you. You have always been successful, even before you actually were. Once you put your mind to something….it’s a wrap.

  • http://JMProducts Betty Allen

    Is it possible to invest in this company?