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Beauty business thrives in Africa

Mercy Ndhlovu and Nomsa Mncube run a beauty "salon" under the open sky on the edge of a street near a Johannesburg shopping centre.

fashion and trends Updated: Sep 18, 2009 15:25 IST

Mercy Ndhlovu and Nomsa Mncube run a beauty "salon" under the open sky on the edge of a street near a Johannesburg shopping centre.

They are there on work days from early until late and, not far away, eight other stylists wait for customers. Mercy Ndhlovu gets her first customer at noon. She wants a style called twists, which consists of a hair piece that is attached to the hair close to the head and turned inward, said Ndhlovu.

"Looking good is important for all women, no matter how or where they live," said the Zimbabwean.

Beauty is big business in Africa where more and more companies are seeking to attract customers with special product series for people with dark skin and curly hair.

The skin-care, hair-care and makeup products are called ethnic series and they have been on the market in South Africa since the end of apartheid.

Most of the companies are targeting black middle class consumers, but there also are cosmetic products for people who have less money to spend on such items.

There was a time when both black and white consumers had to rely on hair- and skin-care products made just for whites.

Many African women at that time simply used water, soap and Vaseline on their skin. European cosmetic giant L'Oreal took a leap into the African market for ethnic cosmetics 10 years ago with the acquisition of Carson's. Its products include hair relaxers and specially formulated creams for men that are aimed at moisturising dry skin.

L'Oreal operates from South Africa with affiliates in Ghana, Morocco and Egypt.

Philippe Raffray, L'Oreal's manager in Africa, said the continent is a barely developed market with about 1 billion consumers, who long for quality products that meet their needs. The market there has been ignored too long.

Market research shows that South Africa's cosmetics industry alone experienced double-digit growth every year through 2007. It may be a few more years until the entire palette of modern cosmetics are deployed in the African market.

But as before, particularly in South Africa, there is mistrust among many people. During apartheid some companies put bleach into products for black consumers. Today these skin whiteners are not allowed because they lead to serious health problems.