Shades of Excellence: ICI CARE's Samantha Kidjo is hoping to change how we perceive textured hair

Many people of colour with textured hair have experienced negative feelings towards their hair, not only by themselves but from others too. Messy, hard to manage, and unprofessional, are just some of the words often associated with this type of hair along with the myth that afro hair does not grow or can not be catered for.

Originally from Benin, West Africa, 26-year-old Samantha Kidjo, the founder of personalised and sustainable haircare brand ICI CARE, is hoping to change the view we have of curly and coily hair.

Kidjo, who has a degree in Material Science, was inspired to start ICI (derived from French 'ici' - here) CARE by her own personal journey with her hair, which is also very common to people of colour and especially mixed-raced children.

"My mum is white and when I was little she struggled a lot with my hair," she says. "We, unfortunately, lost touch with how we used to take care of our hair due to colonisation and so on. So at a very young age, when I was four, my mum started relaxing my hair because it was what everyone was telling her to do and it was making it easier for her.

This unfortunately caused damage to her hair as she continued relaxing her hair once a year until her teens. "I stopped, thinking I don’t want to do that anymore because it would also often leave burns on my scalp."

Many people of colour with textured hair straighten their hair, whether chemically or with heat, to conform to the beauty standards often forced on us as well as believing it will make the hair more manageable. This often leads to a warped perception of one’s self, especially among young girls.

Kidjo started looking into natural products as a teenager, using materials that were growing around her such as shea butter, coconut oil and baobab oil.

"I could see my hair liking it and I also started liking my curls a little bit more," she says. "It was very little in Benin, but there were also online communities that were more and more interested in keeping our hair healthy and natural and that’s where my interest in making my own hair masks and oils really started."

Her journey fully started when she was 18 and moved to Paris to study where she was able to find a wider range of products for her hair type. Going through her studies, which involved chemistry, she became more aware of the ingredients in said products.

"Some ingredients made me less comfortable buying products," she says. "I was almost paranoid and scared of buying things, not sure if they're good for me because I had so many products that were bad - expensive and full of plastic too."

Feeling guilty about the products she was using, she started making her own and "buying less and less".

"What really changed my view of haircare was when I started reading about old ancestral ways, not only in West Africa but also in Asia and Eastern Europe because my mum is Ukrainian," she says. "And in Ukraine, they are very much in touch with the old ways and herbs, herbalism and plants. So I kind of had to access to knowledge from everywhere and I discovered that we all have what we need around us."

Kidjo’s change of routine made her hair "really happy", so she stopped buying products completely and advised people on their haircare problems.

"Someone told me that I am so good at mixing ingredients, so maybe I should write a book or something," she says. "So it all started with me wanting to write a book, but I’m not a writer and don’t like writing so that didn’t go well.

"But then I realised whatever I was trying to explain in the book is a business. And being an engineer, I’ve built an algorithm and that’s how ICI CARE works."

The algorithm Kidjo created is meant to set you on the right path in your hair journey, no matter the issue you are trying to tackle. By answering a few questions on their website, the algorithm works out the best ingredients for you.

"What is really unique about ICI CARE is that each product is different, and the ingredients are picked from scratch for everyone," she says. "That was my main finding and understanding when looking at cosmetics - your hair can have a very different texture and different needs from your sibling for example.

"That’s what I am trying to bring with ICI CARE, not only mindfulness and reconnection with Earth, but it’s also understanding that we are all unique and individual," she says. "It’s also because when I was watching all these YouTubers, trying to understand what they are doing and apply it to me, it didn’t always work. Because even if our hair looks the same, our lifestyle is different. Our needs are different."

As mentioned in Kindred.’s first interview in Shades of Excellence, Black British women only spend £168 million a year on hair products and the industry loses massively by ignoring their needs. Kidjo’s view on this is that the "people who have the power to decide, and the money, are not interested".

"It’s quite difficult to prove to them that it’s a worthy market, but things are of course changing," she says. "We now see huge companies investing in Africa, which I personally find crazy. But even when I speak to investors, they tell me the products are already out there. They don’t want to understand that it’s not like in black hair care you only have one product.

"There are hundreds of different needs and there is space for these products. So I am trying for my brand to be more vocal about the diversity within our hair types and the fact that we need more.

Kidjo is also concerned about the lack of research on the products marketed toward customers with textured hair. "For example in skincare, there was very little testing done on melanated skin, right? And it is the same with hair," she says.

"We need to lobby for ourselves because people who are in charge are not interested in us."

Kidjo mentions that "until enough studies are done, we don’t have proof of how harmful some ingredients are". She says that "many can be used for like 10 years before they are forbidden". She continues by saying that in Europe we are quite lucky, compared to the US where a lot of ingredients are allowed until it is too late.

"For example relaxers can have some studies that prove the usage of relaxers can be linked to some cancer types. The sad thing is there aren’t enough studies, and we don’t know how bad something can be."

ICI CARE uses what Kidjo calls "raw ingredients" which are only processed physically, compared to laboratories that use various chemical processes that are often very wasteful, "use a lot of water and harm the environment".

"If anyone has sensitive skin like me, it can be very tricky to use some products. We can for example have dandruff all the time and not know why. But that's because the ingredients are not right for us. So for me, it's really sad that there's not enough knowledge or studies for us."

Kidjo creates the products herself after the customer completed the quiz. "They’re all powders, so I mix them, package and send them to the customer," she explains. "Once they receive the product, they add water only before you actually use it so that way the products are preservative-free.

"It’s really important for me for the product to only have actives and you can actually use only what you need. Because the product is waterless, it’s very light to transport which is good in terms of carbon emissions."

The customer feedback to ICI CARE has been good, but Kidjo says it requires "a certain adjustment because you need to mix the powders, but once people embrace the new ritual they love it".

"It does require a change of habit which I kind of advocate in a sense of haircare being a part of your self-care routine," she says. "It’s not just 'put the shampoo, put the mask and go', but also learning to be more mindful. People do it a lot now with skincare, but it is actually the same with hair.

"Having a small business can sometimes be hard and I feel like stopping, but then I get an email from a mum telling me that her daughter’s hair is now so soft, thanking me… And that just gives me what I need to continue."

Kidjo says that the hardest part of starting ICI CARE was going through it as a black woman. Noticing that a large part of cosmetic brands made for women is owned by men, especially white men.

"When a black woman comes and makes haircare products, it sounds almost like a stereotype and it's almost like, 'Oh, it's a hobby, she’s mixing oils in her kitchen'," she says. "It has been challenging for me to know that they think like that and I have to present myself as a business person, a person that makes a profit and make them see above the stereotype, which I think is harmful to a lot of black women founders in certain, categories of business."

Speaking of her vision, she is certain that she will change a lot of lives, not only their customers but in terms of company culture and social impact. "I really want to have a work programme for women that come from a vulnerable background, so they can gain financial freedom," she says. "As I mentioned, my mum is Ukrainian and with the war and everything, I feel like my social impact can be around refugees and the support I can provide."

In the next five years, she is hoping to expand to the rest of Europe and potentially South America, which she says is often forgotten.

"The kind of big impact I hope to have is to really change the view we have of our hair as I see so many people saying they don't know what to do with their hair, it doesn't look this or that," she says. "And I'm also trying to tell them, your hair is beautiful. You don't need to change it, you don't need to make it look a certain way.

"I basically just want to give it love and health, healthy hair is the most important. And I feel like there are so many toxic images around here," she says. "I really hope that in five years, I'll have a big community of people that will embrace their own hair and feel comfortable with what they have.”