Rosie Khandwala details her journey from learning about sugar waxing in Tanzania to building a beauty brand in the U.K.
Growing up in a small tropical seaside town was idyllic; I was completely unaware that a different way of life could exist. During my teenage years there was no television, national newspapers came a day late, and no magazines for lifestyle inspiration were available. It was a sheltered life without any outside influence; it was a simple upbringing. At this time Tanzania was going through an economic transformation with the government shifting to socialist policies. Imports of foreign goods were restricted with cosmetics and other beauty products considered luxury products.
My career started at age 15 when I worked as an apprentice in my cousin’s hair and beauty salon. As we had no access to any products for the treatments, we used to formulate our own using natural ingredients extracted from herbs and fruits, then combine these with our ethnic recipes. The most popular treatment was waxing, where we would mix sugar and lemon juice to make a paste. That has been the traditional method of hair removal for centuries in East African Asian culture.
I loved waxing, as the results were instant and it could transform the skin, making it look clean and fresh. This experience gave me the knowledge of treating different hair textures, skin tones and removing hairs from all areas of the body.
In 1987, we moved to the U.K. I had a six-year-old and was seven months pregnant. Emotionally, it was a difficult period, especially after the birth. But there was a sense of excitement as it was a new beginning for a better future.
My first year involved me just trying to adjust and settle into life with the family. However, at the back of my mind, there was this strong urge to be able to contribute and have financial independence.
I was not actively seeking to set up a business but something that would give me a home and work-life balance, hence why establishing myself as a mobile therapist suited me perfectly. While I was in the process of setting this business up I realised there was an absence of sugar wax for waxing treatments. I felt that this was an opportunity that had come my way that could not be ignored.
Developing the product
I had a gut instinct to explore the possibilities further. Along with my husband, we did some market research to ensure there was an opportunity to introduce the concept of strip sugar wax into the market. At the time, the awareness of natural beauty was brought into focus by Anita Roddick of The Body Shop and there was no doubt in my mind that it was the right time.
It was the start of our new business, and it was exciting and we were full of enthusiasm. Going through the process at each stage from identifying premises to suit the manufacturing process, equipment installation, branding design, sourcing of raw materials, and working with teams and in each field. This was an invaluable lesson on understanding building the business from the ground up.
Initially, we focused on targeting the professional beauty market, launching our Aqua Natural brand. This proved to be tougher than we thought. Our lack
of understanding of the beauty industry was a setback as the waxing sector was well established with known brands to the beauty professionals.
Soon after we were faced with the 1991-92 recession. This meant we had to look for other sectors of the market. To us, the most obvious option was to approach The Body Shop. Within a year we were granted a contract to launch the first ‘sugaring’ product under their label. We were so proud to not only see a sugar waxing product in the market but for it to be our product.
Problems along the way
The initial launch order was quite substantial and went into all stores except North America. But soon after we had a recall as the product stability failed. The reason for this was we were manufacturing using the traditional way of formulation, mixing crystal sugar and lemon juice. This caused the product to be inconsistent and lose its efficacy. Nothing prepares you for how to deal with such a huge problem! We were very fortunate that we were given time to rectify this issue.
A course in sugar chemistry was the inspiration which gave us confidence to experiment working with blends of syrups. This not only improved the efficacy but also gave a longer shelf life to the product; it turned out to be a winning formulation. We retained our contract with The Body Shop and the relationship continued without a hitch for 18 years.
However, the blow came when The Body Shop was taken over and we were informed that our contract would come to an end. There is no period in business when one can say it is plain sailing. Nothing prepares you for when you are informed that 85 per cent of your business will be coming to an end in three months’ time.
“Nothing prepares you for when you are informed that 85% of your business will be coming to an end in three months’ time”
This was the turning point. The business was 20 years old at this point and we had built it to a level where we felt we had a strong manufacturing base and it was time to move on from the dependency of contract manufacturing: we needed to create our own brand identity. That was the start of our current brand, Sugar Coated, which has proved to be a success story of a small family business.
Creating the brand
The awareness of sugar waxing soon grew after the launch of The Body Shop and other well-known beauty brands entered the market. The demand from consumers seeking out natural brands has been on the rise year by year.
Having traditionally been a manufacturer I have mostly been behind the scenes, but in recent years I have gained the confidence to inform people on the ethical and environmental aspects of their hair removal and beauty choices. These are values that I hold dear and that have driven me. In the early days I didn’t have the confidence or the know-how to get my message out there, but social media has been such a great tool to interact with our potential customers and to show them that waxing isn’t something to be afraid of - it doesn’t have to hurt nor does it need be a disaster if you spill it. It is easy enough for you to do yourself at home.
We have also been incredibly lucky as we’re now stocked in the new Next Beauty and Home stores, which for a small family-run business is a huge deal! I’m incredibly proud of all the work that we are doing and we will continue to reach out to as many people as we can about the benefits of sugar wax, not just for hair removal, but also for the planet and the skin.
Rosie Khandwala is the co-founder of Aqua Natural.