Beauty Roots

Ruka Founder Tendai Moyo On How She's Making Haircare Joyful Again

“We’re on a mission to treat outsiders as insiders.”

Ruka Founder Tendai Moyo On Making Haircare Joyful For Black Women

Ruka

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In Beauty Roots, Bustle chats with diverse creators in the beauty industry about how their heritage has influenced their businesses and routines. Here, Ruka Hair founder Tendai Moyo explains how her African ancestry influenced her hair journey and the direction of the game-changing brand.

Like any beauty lover, Ruka Hair founder Tendai Moyo clearly remembers early hairdressing appointments in Zimbabwe, where the aim was to make hair as silky and straight as possible. It was there that Moyo’s long, voluminous, textured strands submitted to regular straightening treatments, but they didn’t so without a fight. This meant extra “baking time” to allow the heavy-duty chemicals commonly found within relaxers to break down the bonds of her natural curls. Braids were also an obstacle. Stylists would regularly sigh at her hair’s length, command a small fortune, or simply turn her and her mother away.

“I was so young that instead of feelings of sadness the challenge of having my done professionally became normalised,” explains Moyo, recalling how salon appointments became dreaded and often avoided. Instead, her mother would tend to her tight coils from the living room of their Swindon home her family later moved to. As she grew older, however, Moyo had to figure out a routine of her own – and it wasn’t easy. “I loved the closeness and comfort of my mother’s touch as she performed the ritual of gently brushing and braiding my hair,” Moyo tells me. “But as I got older and started using home relaxer kits to make my hair more manageable, there were naturally disasters, including burns.”

After years of chemical treatments, Moyo simply couldn’t be bothered anymore. “I can’t really pretend I had a great epiphany about it,” she tells me about deciding to transition back to her hair’s natural state.“I started to fall in love with my curls and learnt new ways to look after my hair that made me realise it wasn’t ‘too difficult to manage’. My hair became another way to explore my personality, and I remember feeling quite sad that I hadn’t started that journey sooner.”

Soon Moyo faced another problem: buying extensions that matched the texture of her natural strands, meaning there were limitations when it came to replicating the length and volume of the styles she wanted to create. After years of disappointment and frustration, she decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2021, she shifted from a career as a strategy consultant and launched her game-changing ethical extension brand Ruka Hair.

“With Ruka, I wanted to bring the joy back to Black women as they explore their hair, from the very start,” Moyo says. Below, she explains more about her aspirations for the brand, including her hope that it will inspire future generations to cherish their curls and coils.

How did your own haircare journey inspire you to launch Ruka Hair?

When I was younger life in post-colonial Zambia meant Western beauty ideals sadly influenced everything from the texture of women’s hair to how they felt about the colour of their skin. As a child people would compliment me about my lovely and thick straightened hair but the process to take it away from its natural state was lengthy and damaging. Years of then straightening my hair myself exposed my hair and scalp to further problems and looking back it’s sad that, during that those years, there just wasn’t access to the expertise and support that my friends from different cultures had when it came to haircare. And it was the same situation throughout university and whilst working in the corporate world. My colleague’s experience of going to salons and getting hair extensions was so simple and seamless, whilst finding high-quality extensions to match my textured hair was a challenging experience, which wasted a lot of time and money on products that didn’t deliver. It was those frustrations which lead me to take matters into my own hands and take Ruka from an idea to a business.

How did you come up with the name Ruka?

‘Ruka’ comes from Shona, one of the main languages spoken in Zimbabwe. It means “to do hair” or “to braid, thread and weave.” Much of African identity has its roots in expressing yourself through hair styling and it’s definitely something that I experienced throughout my childhood as my mother plaited my hair into single plaits, cornrows, and twists. These traditional looks and techniques continue to be passed down through generations and, alongside the intimacy of braiding, influence everything from our brand name, through to our mission to keep the spirit and joy of Black hair alive, and down to the formula of Ruka Hair Perfume, which refreshes and moisturises extensions.

What impact did discovering the natural hair movement have on your confidence and how did it influence the concept behind your brand?

YouTube has always been a great source of knowledge and inspiration, particularly whilst embracing my natural hair texture. However, even then, there was still pressure when it came to my 4C hair, which wasn’t as celebrated, and the debate about whether you could explore texturising treatments and hair extensions whilst being ‘natural’ felt conflicting and distracting. Black women should be allowed to express themselves through their hair anyway they want and Ruka was designed to give them the resources to do that. There’s nothing new about hair extensions, which have always been a part of African culture, with yarn and wool traditionally used within styling. However, because the hair extension industry has reflected Western beauty ideals for so long, it created this idea that, if you wear extensions, you don’t love yourself, which isn’t the case for our customers, who love switching styles while also protecting their hair through our products.

Ruka was launched thanks to investment from high-profile angel investors. How did the idea of your latest round of crowdfunding come about?

Despite their spending power, our customers have been locked out of conversations about what they want and need from haircare products but, at Ruka, we’re on a mission to treat outsiders as insiders. With the Ruka Cocreator Crowdfund, we want to create a community of consumers whose seat at the table means they’re able to share their thoughts and hold us accountable. It also means Ruka can move towards ownership of the whole manufacturing process which, within a sadly unregulated industry, means we’re able to maintain standards of safety, quality, and compliance, which are less likely to be a concern when less well-intentioned brands don’t have proximity to the consumers using their products everyday.

After a series of successful pop-ups, Ruka recently launched at Selfridges. Why is it so important for the brand to have this kind of physical presence?

Black women have been overlooked within the haircare industry for so many years, with purchasing hair extensions pushed into back alleys despite the expense and vulnerability surrounding the experience. It makes me proud to see Ruka alongside brands such as Estée Lauder and witness our customer’s excitement at seeing themselves represented so intentionally within such a prestigious, high-profile setting. They also love getting advice from our sales consultants and trichologists without feeling judged and disrespected, something that hasn’t always been the case when shopping for extensions.

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