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Going back to their roots

GOING NATURAL: Joycelyn Mate (left) and Rachael Corson of Afrochenchix with their range of healthy hair products

A LONDON-based entrepreneur has turned her childhood experiences of suffering from a chronic skin ailment into a successful ethical hair care business.

Rachael Corson was diagnosed with severe eczema from the age of four, which was exacerbated by using perming creams. She spent years using a variety of products to combat the condition but struggled to reconcile the damage she was doing to her scalp and hair with the need to live up to popular perceptions of beauty.

It was only after meeting Joycelyn Mate while studying law in Birmingham that she decided to explore natural alternatives. The women decided to embrace their curls and launched award-winning hypoallergenic black hair care range Afrocenchix in 2009. Nine years on and three awards later the pair are about to add a deep conditioner and styling butter to their range. They have also staged a hair styling and nutrition workshop.

Afrocenchix’s ingredients list includes organic fair-trade Shea butter and coconut oil and their customer base outside the UK extends as far afield as India, Canada and Ghana, ceo and co-founding director Corson told The Voice.

ARTIFICIAL

“We don’t believe in using parabens, mineral oils, sulphates or artificial fragrances as these are all linked to health problems. The fact that we actually use the products we make ourselves makes us extra careful to ensure they are only full of goodness.”

Corson knows only too well the impact that some of these chemicals can have on the scalp. “I cried when a comb came anywhere near my sensitive scalp and my mum thought relaxer would make this easier,” she said.

But that only made her sensitive scalp worse. Corson endured scabs, burns, bald patches and an itchy scalp for much of her childhood. On two occasions, her neck was rendered pink for months after relaxers stripped away her skin.

As Corson continued into her teens, her hair became thin and sparse which affected her confidence.

“Having it drilled into my head that my hair had to be burnt into submission before I was acceptable to society made me so insecure,” she said.

TURNING POINT

The turning point came when Mate, who had been relaxing Corson’s hair at university, refused to do it anymore.

“After a brief panic I began to embrace my natural hair, wearing it in kinky twists to get used to the Afro texture after I initially cut it all off,” said Corson.

Both women soon discovered other women were suffering in a similar way. More worrying was the link between some black hair care brands and respiratory problems, allergies, early puberty and fibroids. The lack of chemical-free hair products for women wanting to go natural was a gap in the market that the duo seized upon.

A year after establishing Afrocenchix, the founding co-directors won the Ethical and Sustainable Business Innovation award from the University of Birmingham, which encouraged them to take their idea more seriously. Their range expanded to include a conditioning oil and moisturisers, and they began selling into shops. By 2015, they won their third accolade - the Bright Ideas Award - from University College London.

With other women experiencing similar issues, the duo has been keen to keep the dialogue open with consumers through focus groups, workshops and blog posts.

“We even had emails from two different African American women who work with cadavers and found that black women would frequently have chemical damage to the skull, and in some cases scarring on the brain which were believed to be linked to relaxer use,” said Corson.

“I’m now very glad that I suffered from burns, rashes and other problems as the need to make our own natural and organic products in collaboration with scientists, has likely helped me to avoid a whole host of other health problems.”

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