Ancillar NombewuBy Ancillar Nombewu|November 1, 2020|9 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

An Extension Of An Idea That Led To Fortune

In her young short life, Gisèla Van Houcke has seen more pain and sorrow than many would in a long lifetime. She bore that pain in a life that has seen her train as a lawyer and end up as an African hair entrepreneur.

She was born in Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a politically unstable region. She war, in all its brutal ugliness, before she a teenager: The neighbouring 1994 Rwandan genocide, a war in 1996, which forced her and her family into hiding for months in a remote village added the pain and turmoil. The volcanic eruption in Goma, in 2002, destroyed half of her city.

“My family was for many years in politics and I witnessed first- hand how greed, corruption and lack of education were the main bottlenecks for the development of my country. My dad sent me and my two sisters to study in London when I was very young and I was privileged to be able to study and work there,” says Van Houcke.

She returned home in 2015 with a first-class honours British law degree from Cardiff University, a French law degree from Nantes University in France and working experience from a leading American law firm.

“I moved to Kigali to work as Head of Legal for a British solar company. [I wanted to] contribute to the economic development of the continent and my home country,” she says.
While adjusting to life back home, Van Houcke who has been wearing hair extensions since she was 14 years old says she struggled to find good quality hair and cosmetics locally or in the region.

“People around me were always asking me to bring back extensions and cosmetics when I travelled. As hair extensions had become such an important part of my identity and that of women around me; I decided to conduct market research on what seemed to me like an incredible business opportunity,” she says.

The main findings were that in order to get the type of hair they wanted, her soon-to-be clients had to go as far as India or China. No local vendor had the quality or the variety that they desired.

“Most imports that were done by mostly Chinese or Indian vendors were not suitable as they lacked knowledge of what went with our skin colour or what systems were good for our natural hair,” says Van Houcke.

It became clear to her that getting the perfect hair that was to suit African women would be best if it was done by an African woman. It was also big business.

She founded Zuri Luxury in 2015. At first, it was a hobby which quickly grew into a small business where her sisters would sell hair door to door to an ever-growing clientele. The business grew into a mobile business through Facebook advertising, organizing deliveries all over Kinshasa, with no guarantee that customers would pay. Very quickly, the demand for their products became more important than the supply. In 2016 she opened her first hair bar in Kinshasa, another one in Kampala in 2017 and this year she started using e-commerce to focus on Europe, USA and Canada.

“I made it my mission to come up with a hair bar concept through which we created a range of innovative looks for customers across Africa and the world. Customers would simply choose from various looks and find one that made them feel and look their best in whatever circumstance that they were in,” she says.

Bringing this vision to life hasn’t been easy. Like many African entrepreneurs, Van Houcke faced funding obstacles as she tried to get the business off the ground.

“I also didn’t have some of the required business skills needed to properly manage this business such as accounting, IT or even hairstyling skills. When I started Zuri I had just had my first child and juggling between family life and the roller coaster of launching a new concept from scratch was a steep learning curve that pushed me to plan a lot better, delegate more and generally be more organized in every part of my life.”

She risked family funds to start and grow the business and its strong performance earned them funding from a local bank.

“I also watched many inspirational videos about women entrepreneurs and took a range of online training courses to quickly fill in my learning gaps in different areas of the business. Now we have 22 employees and around 15 resellers” she says.

Zuri Luxury now uses IT Systems to manage all their operations to keep ahead of the market, to stay in touch with their customers and keep up to date with new trends.

I made it my mission to come up with a hair bar concept through which we created a range of innovative looks for customers across Africa and the world. Customers would simply choose from various looks and find one that made them feel and look their best in whatever circumstance that they were in."

- Gisèla Van Houcke

“This can only be easy when you are in constant contact with the client. Not many companies have this kind of set up. In addition, our quality control team in China ensures that all our products are of great standard before they are dispatched to any of our entities,” says Van Houcke.

Then came COVID-19.

“This meant a great loss of revenue. The industry was and still is in turmoil. We launched our e-commerce platform right at the beginning of the confinement which allowed us to keep selling during the crisis and delivering our products globally,” she says.

It also meant that it was time to quickly adapt or die.

“We joined all kinds of platforms such as TikTok and intensified our social media presence
during the lockdown to make sure we reached and sold to as many people as possible. Our
clients were and remain very supportive.”

Van Houcke has shown how good hair can boost the bottom line.

Eight Startup lessons from Gisèla Van Houcke

  1. Always review your goals to ensure that they are in sync with your business initiative
  2. Analyse your failures in detail
  3. Write down your mistakes and determine the lessons to be learned so that the same mistakes are not repeated
  4. Be passionate about what you do because running a business takes a lot of time.
  5. Your environment can be the cause of your success as well as your failure
  6. Surround yourself with qualified people who inspire you with their success and to improve your skills
  7. Quantify what needs to be quantified. Highlight the differences between what you expect and what actually happens
  8. Spend more time putting proper processes in place and spend a lot of time with the staff to make sure that they are properly implemented

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