When he boarded a bus from Kampala to Nairobi in 2019, Julius Zimbe, better known as julioskydreadlocks on social media, hoped for one thing - that the hair business in Kenya was as lucrative as his friends had promised.
He had spent more than five years styling women’s hair in Uganda, but despite his skills and efforts, he found himself trapped in a cycle of overworking and meagre earnings, which made it difficult to make ends meet. It was Nairobi that held a new promise for him.
“Some of my acquaintances who were hairdressers in Uganda had moved here, and they told me that there was a big demand for services such as mine, so I made the risky jump,” explains the 30-year-old.
How it all started
As he waited to join a technical college to study electrical installation, one of his friends encouraged him to try hairdressing, specifically installing dreadlocks.
“Then, many women in Uganda were installing permanent and temporary dreadlocks. Under my friend’s tutelage, I was able to pay part of my tuition fees and cater for my living expenses from what I was earning as a hairdresser,” says Julius.
At first, his mother was concerned about his career choice, but with time, realised that he was passionate about hairdressing and supported him. At the time, dreadlocks were the go-to hairstyle for black women who were shifting from relaxers and hot combs.
In Kenya, the black hair movement was also going through a transformation and a natural hair movement was growing; women were forming Facebook groups to educate one another, manufacturers were launching product lines to meet the new demand and salons that targeted women with natural hair were mushrooming all over the country.
And the revolution was not just in Africa. In 2017, US consumer research group, Mintel, reported that 79 per cent of hair products consumers had worn a natural hairstyle in the year leading up to May 2017, with 40 per cent of those interviewed saying that going natural was motivated by growing healthy hair.
Unlike in Julius’ hometown where he had a client base, Nairobi was an unfamiliar territory for him, so he worked under a Kenyan hairdresser for a year.
“I had goals to stand on my own, but I needed to build a name for myself first and learn about consumer preferences and the market here. Once I achieved this, my employer and I amicably parted ways and I started my own hairdressing business, which is a partnership with a Kenyan. My initial clients really helped because they were the ones who encouraged me to create social media pages for my business. All along, I was depending on word-of-mouth referrals,” explains the hairstylist.
Julius, whose salon, Tulia Beauty Salon, is located in Highway Mall in Nairobi, has specialised in different types of locs hairstyles.
“We offer permanent and temporary dreadlocks, sisterlocs and microlocs. Many of our clients come to us looking for protective hairstyles that will last at least three months. One can stay with some of these hairstyles for up to nine months,” he explains.
With the organic beauty boom and many hairdressers jumping into the opportunity, Julius notes that he must keep innovating and researching to stay at the top of the game.
“What keeps me awake at night is how I can tweak or re-invent a new hairstyle from what’s already in the market. For instance, there are clients who want to experience microlocs but don’t want their hair permanently matted, so I came up with a temporary style that they can undo after nine months. Further, I research on the best products for natural hair and the best way to maintain it to avoid hair loss. Since I have been in the industry for more than a decade now, I have amassed a lot of knowledge that I share with my clients when they visit the salon or through my social media platforms, julioskydreadlocks.”
The business operates largely on referrals and social media.
“We get an average of 15 clients daily. My take home on a good day is about Sh20, 000. Since we offer varied services, our costs depend on the nature of hairstyle and hair length. We have about 17 staff; three on salary while the rest are paid on a commission basis,” he explains.
Julius has trained more than half of his staff on how to install dreadlocks, and while he is keen on expanding his business here in Kenya, he is committed to helping other young people get jobs or get into entrepreneurship.
“I am a product of mentorship, so I decided to train those interested in venturing into this business. For instance, one of my staff worked as a cleaner in this building but is now a skilled hairdresser. Some of my former workers left to start their own businesses. I do this in honour of my deceased friend (the one that introduced him to hairdressing) with whom I had plans to mentor and train other young people.”
While running the business has seen him meet clients from all walks of life and transform his life, including buying a property back home and building a house for his mother, the journey has not been without challenges.
“One of the main challenges is tied to the fact that I am the face of the business. It takes some convincing for first-time clients to agree to have someone else work on their hair. Further, because this is a business anchored on trust, even though I have an amazing team, I must be around almost every day to take clients’ feedback on the services offered.”
As a small business owner, Julius says that one of the lessons he learned earlier on is to have a fixed price chart in place.
“This ensures that all customers receive the different services at the same cost. When we run discounts, we extend them to all customers as well,” he explains.