In person, Akunna Nwala-Akano, the driving force behind one of today’s fastest-growing beauty brands in West Africa, Kukus Group, radiates steely self-assurance. Not that this reporter has expected anything different from a woman who is one of the main players of the booming beauty industry in Africa. On a visual interaction at the brand’s headquarters in Lagos, Nigeria, she looks as striking as seen on the front cover of this issue. The abundant curls of black hair frame her flawless face, complete with immaculate makeup, and she is dressed for not just any but exactly the type of success she wants in a sequined power suit. During the interview session, she wants to broach the topic I least expect on human empowerment when she said: “When you hit a certain level of success, you realize that success is not just about you alone, but also about the people you can impact on your journey.”
Up until now, Akunna has used her beauty business as an empowerment tool to guide women on how to paint their own stories of betterment on their own image. Over a decade, her brainchild Kukus Group has grown from the trunk of her car to launch series of other businesses including Kukus Salon a Luxury Hair Salon and Spa, Kuku’s Hair, Nigeria’s number one luxury human hair retailer, the Nigeria distributor of Schwarzkopf, one of the top salon brands in the world and she is also the Co-Founder of Daryl Teatox, a detox slim tea. However, what makes the story of Kukus Group extraordinary is that Akunna’s business model allows everyone to win. For instance, stylists get their business started without having to break the bank, and clients have more choices of high-end extensions to choose from. Somewhere along the way, the natural hair care industry is reinvented. Beauty is an area that Nigerian consumers are not prepared to compromise. Just recently, Euromonitor International reported that Nigerian consumers spent US$247 per capital on cosmetics and personal care, which is more than any other African country and ninth worldwide- this figure is expected to grow to $294 in 2022.
At the same time, the general attitude among Nigerian women shows a preference for frequent socializing and networking, for both professional and personal reasons. Therefore, a typical Nigerian woman has numerous events and functions to attend on a daily basis and is voracious in her consumption of the newest and the best to be able to present her personality to the public. Akunna is here to serve such women in style. Kukus Salon a Luxury Hair Salon has weathered several storms in the hair industry in Nigeria through a thirteen-year period to become the most celebrated name in the hair industry today. Akunna like many other young female entrepreneurs in Nigeria set out with a determination to conquer every challenge, to become successful in the industry in Nigeria. She has “enjoyed the ups, and persevered through the downs” and now comfortably sits over a hair empire that employs over 40 people and operates a franchise that ensures the tentacles of Kukus hair brand is spread globally. Akunna Nwala-Akano was not built in a day, from studying law at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, attending law school in Enugu Nigeria, and then moving to Lagos for her National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), she has worked tirelessly to become the woman that she is today. She garnered experience working in the banking industry for four years, and then moved to the Lagos State Internal Revenue Service, before finally moving to the Civic Center Lagos, where she worked for eight years, in-between she got certified as a tax professional. Kukus Hair was founded while still working at her 9 am – 5 pm job, and she sold out of the trunk of her car, and years after, having gained some traction as an entrepreneur, she left the 9 am – 5 pm job to focus on building her business.
Today Akunna not only owns three salons at choice locations in Lagos Nigeria, but she also co-owns a detox tea business, and the sole distributor of Schwarzkopf in Nigeria, she is a salon setup consultant and a partner at Sebeccly Cancer Care and Support Centre, all this she does while balancing life as a wife and mother. Her drive comes from her desire for independence and her love for all things beauty and hair. Her friends would reckon that she is indeed one to go into the beauty industry as she was the one friend who always ensured that everyone looked their best.
As a brand executive, she manages to balance her personality between a cool friendly, playful nature and a firmness that ensures she can manage her employees and businesses. She has broken glass ceilings and trumped all stereotypes that suggest that women who venture into the beauty industry are merely just faces, Akunna has shown over the years that she is so much more brains, and can build and manage several businesses. Accepting all pitfalls, like receiving low-quality hair from her suppliers and counting her losses to ensure her clients always get the best quality, sets her apart from the average hair retailers in Africa.
Akunna Nwala-Akano has been unapologetically herself and has put integrity and exceptional customer service at the center of her business to ensure sustainability. For the Kukus Hair Brand, her major marketing strategy has been excellent products and services that have earned her continuous referrals from her clients. She also uses brand ambassadors who help project the image of the brand both locally and internationally. The typical Kukus Hair is a lustrous flowing mane that speaks luxury and stands every woman out when she has it on, it’s no wonder at all that the brand is favored by many women of substance in Nigeria and Africa at large. The uncertainties that hit the nations of the world due to the coronavirus pandemic has not stopped this beauty giant from working and making plans for a foreseeable future. In her words “we are going to be more aggressive now, working to put Kukus Hair in every country of the world through the franchise structure”.
As a mother who has the support of an understanding husband, she has committed to putting family first because she recognizes the importance of nurturing family bonds that stay true when all else fails. This she is doing by putting in place structures that give her more family time and space, while still keeping business activities afloat. Akunna affirms the importance of mentors on the entrepreneurial journey, following those who have given a blueprint for running successful businesses globally while rising to be one herself. She has stepped up to the plate in several ways the industry has been lacking and continues to seize opportunities for herself while creating opportunities for others. “The hair industry in Nigeria is lucrative if you can put in the work,” was her advice to young aspiring hair entrepreneurs who are seeking to break into the industry.
The growth of the Kukus Hair brand for a period over a decade can only leave one to wonder where it may be headed in the near future. The woman who drives this train has a doggedness and commitment to success that is second to none, and she promises to take her team on a ride through fulfilment of goals to recognizable success. While we are rooting for the Kukus Hair brand and the many businesses that will arise from the mind of this forward-thinking woman, we can’t help but doff our hat for how far she has come and is still willing to go through challenges. We hope to see more stereotypes shattered, a redefining of status quo, resounding impact through innovative ideas and an Akunna Nwala-Akano that the world recognizes and celebrates.
Akunna’s particular work ethic has been instilled in the Kukus brand as well, with her saying, “We really want to revolutionize the beauty industry itself, by giving the highest quality products to the consumer, which will disrupt the industry and will give more to the consumer.”
Akunna has always been firm about giving back, and in our previous interview, she said: “I had two main visions in mind, to make money and to create employment because the rate of unemployment in the country now is just so high and pathetic, so these factors motivated me to start this very company.” The CEO of Kuku’s Hair continued by stressing the need to help her community, she said: “Because of that, our purpose to empower people to live more beautiful lives – sits at the center of everything we do as a company, it compels us to keep the people at our core. This spirit of purpose and empowering those around us led to our purpose-driven business model, which equips the locals with access to the opportunities and resources that enable them to create lasting value for themselves and others. It results in an ability to build stronger, self-sustaining communities and enterprises.” In return, the company has experienced an astonishing level of growth only over the last three years, the Kukus Hair in-store distribution has grown by roughly 18 times. The team has grown exponentially too, according to the company, in December 2017, it had 20 employees, and that figure has doubled now. However, Akunna said that she is only getting started.
“Originally, my goal was to make Kukus Group become the number one beauty brand in Africa, but before you even reach a goal, you don’t even realize that you have a new goal,” she said, adding that “You don’t even take a minute to think that you’ve reached it, because you’ve already moved on to the next goal. And so now, I still feel that we are at the beginning of doing things. There are some very influential companies in the world, like Apple, Google, Amazon, and to me, that is where I want us to be. So, I think that we still have so much work to do, and I don’t think that we are anywhere close to it.”