By Elize Engle
With a unique sense of fashion and a lively persona, Phumelela Khanyisile Sigula displays just the right kind of charm and authenticity that embodies her beauty brand – RiverRoots.
Phumelela is the proud owner of RiverRoots, organic beauty and skincare brand that sells a variety of handmade scented body butters, whipped sugar scrubs, organic toothpaste, soy scented candles, beard hair oil, and beard balm. She also provides sage, incense packs, and an incense holder. More commonly known to her friends as Khay, I got the opportunity to interview this vibrant, South African primary school teacher and proud business owner, and speak to her about her thriving business here in Shanghai, China.
The name RiverRoots was inspired by a friend: “The very concept of the product is spiritual and it is rooted in who I am,” says Khay. “Water is a very big part of spirituality in my home traditions and in my family. I believe our bodies are roots, and they cannot survive without water. I see everyone’s body needing my product as an essential source to survive.”
Teaching in China was the last resort for Khay, but she yearned to travel abroad and explore what the world had to offer. She finally decided to take a leap of faith, leave her job in South Africa, and apply for jobs in Asia.
After receiving an offer to teach in Shanghai in 2015, she decided to make China her home for a few years. However, after a few months, she soon realized that she was struggling to find skincare products that were suitable for her skin type.
“Coming from a subtropical climate, I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of moisturizes found in China. They either had skin whiteners in them or simply didn’t offer sufficient moisture and skin nutrition for a dark-skinned person,” Khay explains.
She also didn’t like the type of candles she found in China, which was mostly wax and made with chemicals, or paraffin. Thus, she started to explore the idea of creating something more suited to her personal taste.
An innovator at heart, Khay found herself looking for a solution. “I felt I needed to create a product that I was comfortable with, something that smelt good and looked good, but was still natural and organic. Since I was young, I enjoyed DIY projects, and simply loved and appreciated handmade products.”
In 2015, she experimented with homemade candles, using soy and essential oils. She made different colored candles with different scents and gave them to her co–workers as gifts. Her aim was to create products that were as natural and organic as possible, and people really embraced the concept.
With the success of her soy candles, she decided to expand her product line. In 2017, she created a sample of body buttercream, made with Shea butter (sourced from Ghana), essential oils, and coconut oil. People really loved it. After that, she decided to create body butter’s with a variety of different scents. Then decided to officially launch her brand, RiverRoots, at the Shanghai Black Expo in November 2018. “I felt this was the perfect platform to gain coverage and give exposure to my brand, as a black business owner in China,” Khay stated.
Shanghai is a metropolitan city, with over 200,000 expats, and accommodates one of the largest expat communities within China. “I knew if there was any place in the world where I could have started a business, it would be in China.” This large Asian country has one of the largest online markets, the products are readily affordable, and it is easy and convenient to source and supply goods – especially if your target audience is mainly based in China. Her market is only for the people currently living in China, whether expats or local Chinese, since she can’t outsource globally because of import-export costs. Her main source of marketing has been through WeChat groups, word of mouth, networking, and specific targeted events.
When asked about tips for small black business owners in China, Khays’ first response was how essential it is to know how to get to know the clientele, as well as other business owners in the same industry. “It is also key to attend as many business networking events within your industry to know your market and who you selling to.”
Another tip is to diversify your business to ensure you appeal to both foreigners and locals. Also, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help when you don’t know something. She insists that as a business owner you should always put yourself out there and push your passion, make the first move, take a leap of faith, and everything else will follow and fall into place.
What’s next for the brand? “RiverRoots will be a global brand, we will have an international presence in the next few years. We are going big!” says a very excited but determined Phumelela Khanyisile Sigula (a.k.a. Khay).
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