Let us introduce the newest haircare line that hit the market in February 2023, UZIMA, which means ‘Full of Life’ in Swahili. ‘Hair is Life’ draws the connection between the nonlinear nature of life and the nonlinear nature (aka not straight) of coily, kinky, and curly hair, both in their look and the journey we go through in learning to care for our hair. UZIMA is THE FIRST luxury hair care brand to bring clean, modern, multidimensional scalp and strand care to textured hair. Designed to empower those with coily, kinky, and curly hair, UZIMA offers elevated haircare and educates them on how to care for these specific hair types.
We spoke with Leona Dondi, the brand’s Founder, and CEO, who spent years blending extensive research background with cosmetic biotech to create a brand focused on multi-dimensional scalp and strand care. UZIMA products are safe, sustainable, and formulated with effective botanicals to help coily, kinky, and curly hair thrive.
The UZIMA hair care system is composed of four products: USAWA – a hair essence), UNYEVU – a leave-in conditioner, UKUAJI – a scalp serum; and NISHATI – a nourishing hair oil. UZIMA will teach you to properly nourish, clean, and care for your textured hair and scalp by providing detailed step-by-step instructions for each product.
What was the relationship with your hair growing up?
So I had natural hair from birth until I was about 8. I remember my dad doing my hair in the morning before school, and I hated it. I dreaded my mom hot combing my hair every Sunday before church. I’m super tender-headed, especially when I was younger, so I never really enjoyed getting my hair done at any point. My Mom had relaxed hair, and we would go with her sometimes to the salon, and my sister and I would get our hair braided, which required blow drying and braiding. I still also hated that experience. But it wasn’t really about my hair; it was about how painful it was to get it done.
Fast forward to college, my junior college, and in 2006, I started transitioning to natural hair. The only two forums we’re talking about natural hair were NaturallyCurly.com and another I can’t remember, which gave me more confidence to start over. I just started taking care of my hair without being relaxed and noticed it would grow slowly. I began looking to find out what other women were talking about as the natural movement was gaining ground, and, you know, getting product recommendations were instrumental in feeling like I could take care of my hair because no one taught me how to take care.
How did you break into the haircare industry?
If you asked me 15 years ago, it wasn’t even an idea in my mind to make a brand. I started making hair care products because I was allergic to castor oil. I was getting painful irritation, and I couldn’t understand why, so I tried all sorts of other products, and if they had castor oil, I would have irritation. I tried making my products without castor oil from different regions, organic, etc., but it would not work. I started making my products, beginning with body care products, because I had already ventured into this DIY formulation.
I started reading cosmetic chemistry books, patent information, and researching different hair care products and manufacturers. I needed to learn how product ingredients work and what works together, and that’s how I started my foray into formulating. There were two blogs in Europe, one in France and one in Germany, that were also instrumental in my journey, especially with regards to homemade cosmetics that are more natural because even at the time in the US, where we were buying ingredients, our suppliers weren’t providing many natural materials. I generally love formulating and thinking about how to design a product and the problem I must solve. It’s just part of my creative process.
Who inspired or influenced your approach to haircare?
I always loved even though I was allergic to Mielle Organics. I always loved their marketing, rollout, colors, and the way they mix their products. There are several brands. Many of them that are not even in hair care that I admire that I’ve recently begun to follow. What inspired the hair care brand as it is today was my trip to Korea in 2018 which solidified this idea of feeling. This white space that I observed so in Korean skincare is like; it’s like breathing in Korea. It’s so intense and intentional, and everyone is part of it. Everyone ascribes to it, and there’s so much about the kind of attention and care brought to skin care. And I just kind of wondered why?
We don’t do that for hair at all, so I came home and was super inspired. Could I build a product that brought something different to the marketplace that focused on how we care for our scalps? And when I did market research in 2020, I was kind of locked in the idea because one of the findings from that research was that Black women are not thinking about themselves in any meaningful way.
How does your branding reflect your culture?
It’s an enormous credit to my design and marketing team, who helped to bring this to life. Our brand colors are pan-African colors, and so you’ll see those reflected in the pattern that we chose, which is an African-based pattern. This also reflects Kenya, and I thought these colors were fitting because I wanted to address all of us, everywhere, who have textured hair and have struggled to take care of it and love ourselves. I wanted the branding to reflect blackness’s power, uniqueness, and multidimensional aspect.
I wanted to reflect that back to my target audience, so when my designer mentioned black and gold in our redesign because we did have this as the 2nd version of our product packaging, it felt perfect. Black and gold signify an ultimate luxurious experience and are sprinkled with colors reflecting our culture, struggle, and determination. I thought that those two things would elevate the hair care experience and raise expectations of Black women about what’s possible in hair care. We deserve luxurious hair products that do more for hair, and the intention behind this brand is to bring exactly that.
Can you describe the plant-based biotechnology that went into creating your products?
Biotech is such an exciting space, especially right now when it comes to cosmetics. Biotechnology gives us kombucha solid ale, bread, wine, and beer in food. In cosmetics, it can help move us toward a more sustainable future. We get these ingredients from biotech that are generally less demanding of our planet. Biotech involves amplifying an ingredient, so we are strengthening specific parts of that plant to produce byproducts that are helpful to the skin and the hair. They have smaller molecules because you’re breaking down the enzymes within the plant, and then they are more efficacious, bringing more nutrition. The ingredients that we’re using are fermented rice, passion fruit seeds, plant stem cells, peptides, and growth factors.
Which product would be the best to try for first-time users?
I would recommend that first-time users want a product that’s easy to fit into their current routine. Most people use some kind of leave-in conditioner and our UNYEVU LIGHTWEIGHT SILK LEAVE-IN. It’s rich, but it’s lightweight, so it’s not going to be greasy, and it’s not going to leave a heavy residue on your hair, but it’s going to moisturize, soften, and help fight dehydration. It contains snow mushroom, which is the first time this ingredient is being used in a product for textured hair, and our innovative blend of both low and high molecular weight. It will deeply hydrate, so it will penetrate the hair with the smaller molecules, the lower molecular, and then the higher molecular weight, forming a film over your hair.
How did your approach to sustainability influence the packaging?
In thinking about sustainability, I’m considering how something comes into existence and how it ends its life after the customer has used it. Are the people picking it for the manufacturer working in safe conditions with fair incomes? Is the manufacturer contributing positively to the improvement of life and protecting biodiversity? These are the questions I think of when I’m thinking about OK; how do I pick which ingredients I want to use for packaging?
Globally, we have a huge plastic problem, but at the same time, some things only come in plastic at the moment, and not all plastic is recyclable. My goal with UZIMA was to try and move away from plastics to single-use plastics, which led us to pick aluminum. The leave-in conditioner and the essence because it’s lighter, has a larger volume, and are infinitely recyclable. It’s a good way to lower our footprint and pass that on to our customers. And then we also chose lightweight glass, so it’s easier or lighter to transport and is gentler on the environment.