Nadege Katumba: Developing a Business from the Contents of Her Fridge

If you ask her what she is most proud of, Nadege Katumba, the founder of a Congolese hair and skincare line answers simply: “Just having gotten started.” For someone who was at such a low point in her life that death even seemed like a good option, it’s not surprising to hear her say this. She has a lot to be proud of – two handsome sons, a growing business despite the economic difficulties of operating in the DRC, and the jobs she’s creating for other women – but her perseverance and faith in herself rightly top the list.

“I really like this quote by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: ‘If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them.’ Those words have always spoken to me. I believed so strongly in my dream that I worked hard to live it. The beginning is always the most difficult, but if you trust in God and yourself, you’ll succeed.” 

The second born in a family of ten children, Nadege had a knack for business early on. As a child in Lumbumbashi, the enterprising 5-year-old would trade her worn clothes to fish and vegetable street vendors in exchange for kitchen utensils. Later, when the family moved to Kinshasa, the trading had escalated to a point where her parents admonished her for being overly ambitious and too much of a risk taker, to which Nadege would reply, “It’s better than being unmotivated, otherwise we’d accomplish nothing” before heading out the door with a dramatic twirl to tackle her next project.

In 2002, at the age of 24, Nadege headed to Montreal to study hotel management and catering. After hospitality, she obtained a degree in financial accounting, two certificates at a centre for early childhood to work in a day nursery, and did several business startup courses. She married but, while heavily pregnant in 2010, the alliance crumbled and she found herself without residence.

“It was a terrible period of stress and humiliation for me. Nothing scares me anymore because I have experienced the worst of the human condition to the point of asking God for death. I was essentially homeless with a 10-month-old baby for over two years. But God was my ally, and I will always be grateful for his blessings in my life,” the 38-year-old says adamantly.

The traumatic experience triggered alopecia, which causes spot baldness, and Nadege was forced to cut her long locks to 2 cm when no conventional hair products seemed effective.

“It was the first time that, consciously, I was facing my natural, frizzy hair. I didn’t know how to treat it. After several tests of products not adapted to my type of hair, I turned to YouTube. In my despair, I discovered American women who used fruits, vegetable oils, fine herbs, and so on. I wasn’t convinced by these homemade remedies but they were more effective than what I bought in the store so I learned to do as they did using natural ingredients like rosemary, avocado, olive oil and lemon. Many people began to ask what I was putting in my hair to restore it and I gave away my recipes until I realised that demand was rising due to word of mouth so I began to sell my solutions.” 

Nadege was inspired when she saw one of the women she was following on the internet had created her own haircare line so she applied for a Self-Employment Support Measure subsidy from the state of Quebec. The grant was conditional on attending business workshops and getting sales advice from SAJE, a platform for the development of small business in Canada. Nadege happily complied.

“The training and funds together with ‘love money’ from family and friends enabled me to launch Mes Cheveux Dans Ma Cuisine which translates to ‘My Hair in My Kitchen’ as the solution to my hair problem was in my fridge.” Nadege says with a smile. 

She prepared and packaged everything herself in a home-based business and shipped across Canada, the US, and to Europe until 2015 when she took the extraordinary decision to buy two, one-way tickets to Kinshasa for herself and her son.

“I was called crazy and irresponsible, but if I had to do it again, I would. I left everything behind in Canada because I felt I could develop more diverse products from the rich Congolese terroir.” 

With a staff of ten employees, today Mes Cheveux Dans Ma Cuisine produces and markets hair and skincare products that contain natural and organic ingredients such as a 3-in-1 capillary hair mask made from gumbo gel and neem oil or a nourishing balm comprised of mango butter, avocado, aloe vera, and hemp oil. Nadege has received glowing customer feedback on her formulations containing a wealth of exotic ingredients like safou, dongo dongo, mutozo, or ngayi ngayi. Every month, she hosts a workshop with women to talk hair and skincare but also self-esteem, women’s empowerment, and the opportunities of getting into business.

But while returning to the DRC may have opened some doors in terms of expanding her product offering, it has not been without challenges: “We are constantly doing research and development and that requires a lot of money. We’re always on the search for funds, but it does not prevent us from moving forward. We have raw materials but no conversion facility or production unit, let alone a reliable laboratory for studies on stabilisation although we are in talks with factories in Nigeria and Ghana for our new products. To add to that, there is a lack of support for entrepreneurs, especially women, so we make do with what we have. The need is enormous and resources are insufficient, but I will never give up. I remain positive for this is my passion.” 

The optimistic 38-year-old entrepreneur has plans to increases sales to provinces outside of Kinshasa and is working on obtaining a diploma in trichology and African haircare. She’s also working on her autobiography, but kindly offered us this exclusive! On the horizon is a plan to establish a foundation for young mothers in gratitude to her own mother who gave her the opportunity to further her studies by raising her grandson when Nadege fell pregnant at the age of 17.

“The training and funds together with ‘love money’ from family and friends enabled me to launch Mes Cheveux Dans Ma Cuisine which translates to ‘My Hair in My Kitchen’ as the solution to my hair problem was in my fridge.”

“I have so much to be thankful for! First of all to God, then to my sons who are my greatest supporters without whom I don’t think that I would be where I am today. I also want to thank my family, friends and all the people who supported me in the beginning of this great adventure by trying my products and providing feedback so I could improve. Their support has encouraged me to always try harder, do better, and achieve more.”

Nadege Katumba’s startup tips
  • JUMP IN! Start where you are with what you have, it’s enough for the beginning. It’s important to believe in yourself, never ever give up, and keep pushing yourself until your dreams come true.
  • Surround yourself with good people and those who will support you on your journey.
  • Listen to the needs of the customer every day, think in terms of “we” rather than “them” versus “us”.
  • Be patient. It’s not necessary to be the first one, just the best one!
  • Never lose sight of the fact that you are unique and never do like the others … that’s your added value.