“Necessity is the mother of invention,” the saying goes. In this case, necessity birthed an urban farm in New York instead.
It was back in 2006 that licensed cosmetologist Antonisha Owens developed an impressive number of her own natural, organic beauty products, specifically formulated for women of color, under her business name, AficaPure Beauty Product Co.
“Afica” is an acronym for “All freedom is creativity. Accessorize.”
Owens certainly emulates her business name, because it was her creativity that eventually drew her to solve a challenging business problem: the rising cost and availability of natural, organic ingredients. Owens realized that growing her own plants, such as flowers and herbs, would provide cost-effective sourcing for her main cosmetic components from her. And so, she founded an urban farm on the grounds of 303 Gere Avenue in Syracuse, New York, and named it AFICA — Farm to Fabulous, along with starting her salon de ella there, Afica Pure Artisan and Hair Clinique.
But first, although she was somewhat familiar with growing plants, Owens felt she needed more agricultural knowledge. So she attended the six-month Groundswell Farmer Training Program in Ithaca, New York, finishing it in September 2021. Meeting three times a week for training workshops helped her learn how to grow all the herbs and flowers she needed in the city. Now, her rooftop farm from Ella includes lavender, peppermint, spearmint, water mint, roses, lotus flowers, aloe vera, hibiscus, lemongrass and bee balm. The plants provide the active ingredients for her products from her.
“I have a long history of my family farming,” Owens said. “My great-grandmother grew up on a farm, (and I grew up) with my grandmother and great-grandmother watching me. My grandmother said they couldn’t keep up with the farm (because of) the taxes. We would help her in the garden.”
Her formal training at Groundswell helped her learn more about effective growing practices in an urban environment. And, because she can grow only a certain amount of plants in her limited rooftop space, she has scaled back her product line to 48, which she admits is “still a lot,” but she decides what to make based upon what her customers want .
Owens also mastered how to dry her flowers and herbs so she can use her stored ingredients to make cosmetics at any time of the year.
The Road to Entrepreneurship
Prior to growing her own plants, Owens had learned about natural ingredients while working at a local whole foods and supplements store, as well as while working part-time as a hairdresser. She had also realized there was a lack of natural, organic products for Black hair. This had led her to start making her own natural products. Her customers liked the results they experienced and told their friends. Eventually, the word-of-mouth advertising helped her grow both her salon business and the hair care product business. She left the supplement store and went into hairdressing full-time in 2010 as Afica Pure.
“I started with two of my own products and carried only all-natural products to introduce cleaner products to customers,” Owens said.
Her products include soaps, bath bombs, shampoos, conditioners, hair oils, hair dresses, body butters, body polish and body scrubs, all hand-made in small batches. In addition to being organic and natural, all of her purchased ingredients from her are fair-trade and vegan.
She caters to the needs and desires of her clients, selling products she makes, such as gentle cleaners and curl relaxers that nourish and strengthen hair to minimize breakage.
Her path to urban farming was the result of many factors. Although she had to close her hair shop in 2014 for family reasons, Owens kept tinkering with her recipes and developing more products. By 2019, Owens was able to open her shop again, ironically having to shut it down soon thereafter because of the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine.
Ever the optimist, Owens used this COVID-19 lockdown period to develop even more hair care products and to tweak her current formulas. But it also was during this time that she had discovered the cost of her natural inputs would significantly eat into her profit margin. And, as many other people experienced during the pandemic, the pandemic breakdown in supply chains made it difficult to obtain certain ingredients. It was these pandemic effects that spurred her to investigate how she could operate more sustainably and better control her costs by growing some of her ingredients.
“I work with people all the time as a cosmetologist to figure out the best products to make,” Owens said. “I start researching ingredients and put together a sample and test it for six months and record the testing to see what it does and how effective it is. I call customers or friends and say, ‘I have this new product and (do you) want to try it.’ I explain what the ingredients are and they give me feedback. Sometimes, I’ve given it to newer people, and I’ve been doing their hair six months to a year. They’re people who are consistent with me and are honest. They may say, ‘I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the texture.’ Other times, they love it.”
A Small Business Administration loan helped her with personal protective equipment, paycheck protection and the purchase of new equipment for the hair care products part of her enterprise. The equipment helps her efficiently and accurately fill bottles with her products.
In the future, Owens hopes to grow more of her active ingredients and to continue to grow the business as well.