The Portia M Skin Solutions brand was presented as a lesson in entrepreneurship and “what is possible”.

The eighth FNB Franchising Leadership Summit was held on 3 March at The Ballroom, Montecasino in Johannesburg as one of the highlights of the franchising calendar.

Portia M has become synonymous with affordable skin care. Portia Mngomezulu always had entrepreneurial tendencies and self-belief. As a teen, she would take the scraps of material left over from her seamstress mother’s creations and make decorative cushions to sell, or she would plait people’s hair to earn hr own money, as she studied towards an information technology diploma at the Tshwane University of Technology.

Though an IT systems engineer, her entrepreneurial spirit was truly ignited when she stumbled upon the remarkable benefits of marula oil. This was a personal journey: she had developed stretch marks from her pregnancy in 2010 and her mother-in-law told her how they used marula oil for any skin ailments. She bought a bottle from the rural women and tried it out. It worked wonders and she continued buying, later repackaging it and giving it to friends to try following their own pregnancies.

Her experience and the tremendous feedback she received motivated her to establish her own company, and market it by a simple Facebook page on which she urged her friends to try out the oil. “When I started the company, I didn’t have a budget for marketing so I used my IT skills to advertise on social media, encouraging women who had tried our products to re-post photos on social media endorsing the product.”

She had help from one of the founders of Placecol in formulating the product. She registered Portia M in 2011 and in 2012 received assistance from Seda (Small Enterprise Development Agency) with the business plan, perfecting the formulation and with rigorous testing at the then Medunsa University and through the SABS (South African Bureau of Standards).

Initially, Mngomezulu manufactured the product in her garage using a two-plate stove, a cake mixer and ‘paraffin funnel’ to fill containers. As production increased, she finally summoned the courage to resign from her day job having met with Makro’s skincare buyer who was impressed with the product but said it needed re-packaging. Once this was accomplished – at great expense – Mngomezulu started stocking Portia M in five stores. With this huge breakthrough, the business was able to make connections with other store groups, most notably being listed with 20 Pick n Pay stores, after the personal intervention of Mrs Ackerman. “I visited each and every franchise, and while some of them said ‘no’ I never took no for an answer: I persisted and got my products on the shelves once they saw the stats in other stores. It’s been an amazing journey with Pick n Pay, for whom in 2018 we were named Supplier of the Year.”

She also received a national Presidential Award, the Gazelle. Her business has also been widely written about as an inspiration: “I didn’t know that my story was one which would give so many people hope, and especially an African story that we can find our own solutions in Africa. It would have been a tremendous disappointment if someone from Paris had discovered marula oil and then sold it back to us.”

By 2015, Portia M was available country-wide and elsewhere on the continent “through retailers such as Checkers, Clicks, Pick n Pay and Makro to whom we are currently moving 1.5 million units a year”.

Getting her brand well known wasn’t all smooth sailing, as she lacked finance and early on was still manufacturing out of her garage. A second breakthrough came when she won the DTI’s Emerging Supplier Award in Tshwane, which lead to an offer from The Innovation Hub which offered her factory space for a fraction of the market price. The move to the new premises happened in 2016 and the business rapidly evolved from a garage operation to a 1,400m2 building with state-of-the-art equipment.

Mngomezulu attributes much of her success to other women opening doors for her. Today the business has an annual turnover of almost R50-million. The body oil remains the bestselling product, but the range has been expanded to include a full skincare assortment including face wash and toner, moisturiser, day cream and a night cream; as well as a pomegranate range and baby products. Her next goal is to grow the footprint of the brand on the continent (Portia M is currently in six African countries) and to develop more products that will cater to more skin types.

Apart from the 24 young employees in her factory, the firm provides employment to women in a cooperative in Limpopo who source the marula nuts and press out the oil for cosmetic use, “as well as over 2,000 people we employ to do merchandising for us in the stores”. Mngomezulu also established a trust which is forming partnerships with schools to try make a difference in community lives.

“At the outset, I hadn’t wanted to create just another Loreal but a brand using authentic African products made for Africans living under the African sun. Our focus for now is to conquer Africa before conquering the whole world.”

Having an academic background as well, Mngomezulu has furthered her studies to manage the leap from a small to large business, studying supplier development with GIBS.

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