African Dermal Science is a South African, black female owned business that focuses on the research, development and manufacturing of advanced skin and healthcare solutions targeted at addressing the specific needs of Africans. USO by African Dermal Science is a skincare range developed specifically for darker skin tones by scientists and medical doctors; get to know the founder Dr Theo Mothoa-Frendo, in the interview below.
Q. What inspired the start of African Dermal Science and how did it come about?
A. I’ve always been obsessed with skincare. I’ve used most of the brands in the market, which are mostly foreign brands, since I was young [out of fear of getting acne] and have pretty much been using different products throughout my life; using different products and brands in the pursuit of radiant healthy skin.
My professional background in medicine inspired the start of this business. I’ve worked quite a lot in East and West Africa and I’ve seen how there are so many unique challenges that we as Africans face that foreign brands might never be able to meet, because they don’t understand us and our culture and I felt one day I want to create something that I would research, develop and introduce into the healthcare market.
How I decided to start with skincare came to me one morning, while looking at the tons of products stacked up on bathroom shelf, from many different beauty brands and I asked myself how I [one with melanin rich skin] landed up with all these brands formulated and made in Europe and America, for people who live there, with different complexions and climates in mind; and wondered how those brands could possibly understand my needs.
I am not one with extreme skin concerns, just the normal concerns I believe most women have as we get older, like uneven skin tone, hyper pigmentation, oiliness, seasonal dryness, and such. And I started by bouncing the idea off a couple of friends, asking them what brands they use and found they too used different foreign brands, to care for the different needs of their skin. I did quite a lot of research, not just in the product, but also detailed research into the consumption behaviour of skincare amongst South African women, to really understand all that drives them to choose one brand over another and working out whether the market is ready for a product of that nature.
Q. What did you study?
A. I studied medicine and spent most of my career in pharmaceutical research, product development, medical management and a number of other areas and all that fueled my interest in science, pharmacology, and developing new products. And I always wanted to develop new products that would cater to the specific needs of us [Africans] on the continent.
All that work experience helps in the building and development of my business, and I have gone on to learn so much about clothing, I never imagined I would be in the world of manufacturing, but here I am and it’s been great.
Q. How did you come about the name USO and African Dermal Science?
A. African Dermal Science is a healthcare, research and development (R&D) driven business. Its not often you see the word Science and African together, and that coupled with my wanting the name of the company to embody what the company is intended to be; I didn’t want people to be confused about what this company does – we are a dermal company, focused on African skincare concerns and using science as a basis for finding solutions.
USO came from my founding partner Kagiso Musi, we were looking for something easier to say than ‘African Dermal Science’ which can be quite a mouthful, we also needed the name to be easily pronounced, from a global perspective, but still rooted in the continent. “Uso” is the direct translation of face in Swahili and it also came from the word “ubuso” which means face in zulu and it really is just a representation of a celebration of our faces; our expressions and emotions, all of which we see through our faces.
Q. What do you believe sets your brand apart and makes it different?
A. First and foremost, we have made it our business to understand the needs of women, to really understand their skincare concerns, what they want from a product in terms of how they use the product, the simplicity of use, etc. Everything we do with our products from the formulation, right through to our packaging, is totally informed by our consumers and what they need. And that’s an important aspect because most brands are foreign and they don’t necessarily take time to our needs as locals.
Secondly, we have formulated the product to address the specific skincare needs that we have as people of darker skin tones, which are different to those of Caucasian backgrounds. The melanin pigments in our skin protect us, to a certain extent, from early wrinkling of the skin [hence the term black don’t crack] and also protects from sun damage, to some extent, but it predisposes us to uneven skin tone, hyper-pigmentation, the climate in South Africa also causes a lot of people to suffer from seasonal dryness, etc. So we formulations care for that, and not “dry skin”, “combination skin” or “oily skin”, because we believe that regardless of the skin you have, if you work towards nourishing, hydrating your skin deeply, your skin will be balanced. Our product offering simplifies your skincare process and helps get ones skin to a place where it’s healthy and balanced, as physiology intended.
And thirdly, I think people are hungry in general for local brands, quality local brands that offer the sophistication of a global brand, so the timing is right and we believe that is a celebration of our beauty in all its different shades and forms.
Q. What would you say has been your greatest achievement since launching the brand?
A. Every new client is an achievement, and of late, I would say every return customer! Most of our customers, if not all have switched from well-known global brands that have been around for decades and seeing them come back to us is amazing. The measure of success for this brand is really how happy the customers are.
Q. What was most challenging in starting up the brand? And how did you overcome that?
A. The sourcing of suppliers has been one, particularly packaging. As a start up, your working with less quantities than your global brands, so you don’t have economies of scale on your side, that’s really been a challenge. Sourcing the packaging has been quite an issue, cause a lot of the parts aren’t produced locally [in South Africa], like the pumps in our bottles, they have to be imported; and we just had to be creative with how we worked with what was available to us. And funding is another challenge, that most new businesses face, which can be helped with self-funding just to get things started, and looking at getting further funding for growth.
Q. Which African brand(s) would you want to collaborate with in future?
A. We’ve collaborated with Miss Salon London not so long ago and hosted pop ups at two of their stores; it’s also a brand that I love, that caters for our needs. And I love local brands like The Perfect Hair products, Yswara’s teas and Maxhosa by Laduma and hope to collaborate with any of those and many more I hope to discover over time.
Q. Where would you like to see your brand in 5 or 10years?
A. USO is the first range and we have a pipeline of products, going into men’s and teen ranges and all of this is based on consumer needs. And I hope to see African Dermal Science products on different platforms [like on shelves across the country] and in conversations, alongside global brands. Making the brand more accessible and nationally available is a key focus right now, so the day I see the brand on shelves will be great, as well as expanding into global markets.
Q. How do you balance your work and personal life?
A. Anyone who has started a business from scratch will know how its very difficult to separate the two, cause you’re pretty much always working; cause your new business is your baby and you’re always thinking about it. In all that you see and do, you think back to and reference your brand, so you live your brand the whole time. Its important to be able to switch off, that’s very important for me and I make sure that I switch off and quality spend time with my family.
Q. Any words of wisdom for anyone looking to start up their own brand?
A. Sometimes your dream, you might see it as something differentiated and unique, but you can’t launch a product without doing market research, it’s an absolute must. Getting feedback from people may be difficult, especially cause it might not all be positive feedback; so you have to make sure you create a feedback platform [through questionnaires or focus groups of people that you know you can trust will give you give you honest feedback]. Remember, not to argue with feedback given to you on your brand, because the person who is going to buy your brand, is the person who knows better than you.
Also note, you can spend as much time trying to perfect your brand, but all of that isn’t going to mean anything until the day you just put it out there. So you must make sure you balance the amount of time you spend getting to the perfect product and just launching it, market testing and getting feedback, so you can better your offering.