When manufacturing gets under your skin

Posted on 8 Mar 2024 by Joe Bush

In less than five years, cosmetics company Uhuru Botanicals has gone from manufacturing in a garage to establishing its own factory and successful line of skin and haircare products. Ahead of International Women’s Day, The Manufacturer Editor Joe Bush caught up with Founder, Neo Chatyoka to find out more.

Founded in 2017, the inspiration for Uhuru (meaning freedom in Swahili) Botanicals originated from Neo’s young daughter, and the fact she suffered from eczema. Not only was there a lack of natural products on the market at the time, the medicine prescribed by the doctor was having little impact.

Having grown up in the rural villages of South Africa, Neo had childhood memories of watching her grandmother create oils, butters and creams using natural plants and herbs such as marula, baobab, shea, borage, jojoba, calendula and bees wax. With this in mind, she conducted her own research and formulated her own plantbased body balm, which she tried on her daughter’s skin.

It worked so well that Neo quickly recognised the potential to help other mothers whose children were struggling with eczema and other skin conditions, and has since gone on to create a whole range of naturally sourced products.

“The fact I’m using the skills I’ve learned from my heritage makes our products quite unique,” Neo commented. “Not only that, but the fact the company is run by a woman who’s not only formulating, but actually manufacturing the products, means people really trust what I’m doing and they know where the products are coming from.”

Product evolution

Following the creation of the body butter, Neo began to realise that across the board, there was simply a lack of skincare products which met the needs of people of colour.

She therefore started to build out the range and now has 11 products available. “People of colour tend to have drier skin and hair,” she said. “One of our best sellers is the Chebe Hair Butter. This is now available on Amazon and is an Amazon Choice product.”

It’s clear that plant-based, natural ingredients and the sustainable credentials of Uhuru’s product range has been key to the business since the very beginning. This is not only apparent in the way the company source raw materials but also in the way it manufactures, packages and distributes its products. Most of the ingredients used in the products are sourced from UK-based suppliers, as are the company’s bottles and labels.

Neo originally began making products from her kitchen table and used her shoe cupboard as a storeroom. As Uhuru began to grow, she considered contract manufacturing as a way to manage volume, as the business wasn’t in a position to move its operations into a factory.

However, Neo said it was so much fun creating these innovative products that she was reluctant to pass the process to someone else. “At the time, I didn’t even think it was manufacturing,” she admitted. Therefore, despite continued space restrictions, Neo took the decision to move production into her garage.

Following a chance meeting at a networking event, she was later offered the opportunity to move operations into a warehouse which Neo was invited to use part of as her own factory. “It was quite a big space and they were willing for me to use it rent free,” she added.

“It was when I made that move that I realised that I was actually a manufacturer. I was creating product from scratch, packaging, labelling, sourcing ingredients, quality checking, and then getting it out into the market.”

Sustainability is central to everything the company does, whether that means the method of sourcing ingredients, the energy used in the manufacturing process or how the products are packaged. For instance, Uhuru mainly use glass packaging, and where plastics are used (such as for the packaging of the hair products), it’s recyclable.

The company also has a customer recycling programme already established where rewards are on offer for glass packaging that is returned for reuse. “There’s still quite a lot we need to work on in terms of making the factory more sustainable and greener in how we do things. But we are slowly working towards that,” Neo added.


She explained that as the business has grown, getting the right software systems and technical tools in place to manage operations and crucially, train staff, has been difficult. However, she is currently looking at further funding and grants to help in this regard.

She added that due to the circumstances of the current economy and the price of raw materials, packaging etc, the sustainability of how the business is run is also a challenge. However, manufacturing products from organic, natural ingredients has been the company’s number one objective from day one, and will always be central to business operations.

Supply chain disruption has also seen lead times increase around packaging. Neo explained that there are a number of SMEs all competing for packaging from local suppliers which has led to availability issues in some cases. In turn this has seen Uhuru having to source alternatives; the impact of which has had to be relayed to customers.

“I’m trying to find a balance,” she continued. “I’m combatting and managing those challenges by working closely with my team on sourcing and finding good suppliers at a reasonable cost, all while maintaining quality and the same objectives that we set out as a business.”

Uhuru Botanicals
Having grown up in the rural villages of South Africa, Neo had childhood memories of watching her grandmother create oils, butters and creams using natural plants and herbs such as marula, baobab, shea, borage, jojoba, calendula and bees wax

Lloyds partnership

Not only has Uhuru Botanicals received financial and capital support from Lloyds Bank to help establish and run the business, Neo herself has also benefited from mentoring support from Lloyds Bank’s Head of Manufacturing, Dave Atkinson, plus other individuals within the group who have supported the growth of the business.

“The advice that I’ve had from Dave has been really valuable,” she continued. “It’s helped me to think about how to grow the business and how I become a successful founder and CEO, and not just a worker within the business.

“It’s knowledge which doesn’t come easily (I don’t have anyone within my family who has their own business), and I’ve had to teach myself to be a founder. So having mentors from a bank to support me has been priceless.”

Neo also attended the ‘Start Up, Scale Up’ programme run by Lloyds Bank Academy: “This has also been really helpful in terms of training and I’ve learned valuable lessons about running a business, getting it going and keeping it growing. It’s given me a lot of focus.”

The Formulation Academy

In December 2023 Neo launched The Formulation Academy, a gap between education and industry within the beauty sector, with the aim of creating a more diverse and representative beauty industry.

It began when Neo was asked to be a visiting lecturer at Salford University in 2021, educating students on organic beauty formulation and the product development and manufacturing processes used at Uhuru Botanicals. Neo has since been invited to several other UK universities to share her story.

The academy will kick-off with a 12 week programme where students will be able to experience the entire product formulation, development and manufacturing process within a dedicated manufacturing lab.

A digital platform has also been created for onboarding students, creating online training courses from formulation to good manufacturing standards and processes, plus branding and marketing strategies.

There are also plans to create an AI tool for providing product formulation information. Following the programme the academy will assist students with career development or guide them in launching their own brands.

“Professionally I graduated as a social worker, so I’ve always worked with people and it’s important for me to serve others,” said Neo. “Even though I’m growing my own business, I’ve always got people at heart and this led to me starting the Formulation Academy. I’m supporting other people who want to learn how to produce their own products.”

Vision for manufacturing

As a female founder herself, Neo is passionate about promoting the virtutes of the SME manufacturing sector to young women, and in turn enabling the sector to take advantage of the skills they can bring to the table.

“In the UK, 26% of the manufacturing and engineering workforce is female so it would be good for SMEs to encourage or make it easier for women to work within the industry,” Neo added. “We’ve got so much to give, but often those skills remain untapped. This is a real shame as they could really help SMEs to grow.”

Another trend Neo highlighted is the current shortage of 74,000 factory workers in the UK, underlining the need for the government to do more to entice more people to enter manufacturing and learn how to manufacture products themselves.

She continued: “That’s something I try and really encourage when promoting manufacturing to women. With that in mind, part of our future strategy will focus on education around natural, plant-based ingredients, and learning how to formulate product development in manufacturing.

“Not long ago, I embarked on a project to teach women how to produce their own products, as well as how they can then manufacture them. That is something that we’ll be doing in the near future, with a focus on raising the level of understanding around product development and manufacturing.”

Comment: Dave Atkinson, Head of Manufacturing, Lloyds Bank

Dave AtkinsonLloyds Bank is proud to support inspirational women in manufacturing such as Neo, a customer since 2006. We’ve been by her side since then, providing the capital she’s needed to help her establish and grow Uhuru Botanicals through the acquisition of essential manufacturing equipment, as well as managing cashflow.

“We’ve also supported Neo to learn valuable business skills and build essential connections in the industry. I’ve personally mentored her on her journey, and she has participated in the ‘Start up, Scale up’ programme run by Lloyds Bank Academy. Running over eight weeks, it helps small businesses to identify its target audience and the steps needed to grow, as well as connecting with other local businesses.

“Through our network of partners, Lloyds Bank also introduced Neo to inclusive entrepreneurship organisation, Foundervine, which runs events and helps business owners build connections. These types of relationships are so valuable to entrepreneurs – Neo’s industry connections have enabled her to get her own factory and apply for grants which will allow her to invest further in supporting other women in the industry.

“With women representing just one in four of the manufacturing sector’s workforce and an ongoing skills shortage in the industry, it’s crucial we’re supporting more female talent into manufacturing and more women-led businesses to scale.

“Neo is a truly inspiring woman in manufacturing who has built her own business from her kitchen table, worked hard to learn the skills she needed to grow it, and is now teaching other women how to do the same. Lloyds Bank is significantly strengthening its support for girls and women in manufacturing to help more incredible people like Neo succeed.”

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