Medical doctor Theo Mothoa-Frendo has swapped her consulting rooms for an entrepreneurial venture. The rising star founded and runs the only locally manufactured luxe skincare brand developed specifically for darker skin tones. And now, her products are sitting pretty on the shelves of one of South Africa’s prominent retailers.
Mothoa-Frendo is chief executive of African Dermal Science, the company that owns the 'Uso' advanced facial skincare range. She struck a deal for her products to feature among the biggest global skincare brands at Edcon’s Edgars stores.
The word ‘uso’ means face in Swahili, and that is the area of the body that Mothoa-Frendo wants to keep looking and feeling radiant.
City Press met the corporate gladiator at an eatery in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs to find out what motivated her to become a disruptor in the so-called recession-proof subsector of cosmetics.
Mothoa-Frendo was schooled in Gauteng – initially at Mmatso Primary School in Hammanskraal before proceeding to Boepathutse, a school in Soshanguve, and then later matriculating from Grenville High School in Rustenburg.
Raised by her maternal and paternal grandparents, Mothoa-Frendo was exposed to the family’s retail businesses from an early age, but was academically more inclined towards science. She also had a passion for fashion.
“I had two interests – fashion and science. My mother advised me to study medicine and told me that I could always pursue fashion later on,” she said.
So she enrolled at what was then known as the Medical University of SA, located in Pretoria North (it is now the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University).
After qualifying as a medical doctor at the tender age of 23, she went on to complete her internship at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital and did her community service at Leratong Hospital in Krugersdorp.
Mothoa-Frendo then headed back to her childhood neighbourhood in Soshanguve and worked as a doctor for two years, before moving into the pharmaceutical industry in 1996.
She joined Roche Pharmaceuticals as a medical manager and, four years later, became the medical director for sub-Saharan Africa, a position that gave her the opportunity to travel extensively across the region and abroad.
After six more years with Roche, she resigned to study for her MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg. It was while planning her exit from Roche that Mothoa-Frendo decided to harness her MBA studies for the greater good.
“During my MBA, I focused on this opportunity that I had identified one morning when I got a random thought, which went like this: ‘How is it possible that a black woman like me owns so many skincare products from all over the world, none of which is local and designed for people like me living in the African climate?’
“Those brands come from mostly Caucasian countries, in a country where more than 88% of the female population is black. So, how is it possible that more than 95% of the market share belongs to foreign brands?”
This idea prompted her to embark on a research and development project that cost a fortune and took several years to complete. But it proved invaluable as Mothoa-Frendo partnered with some of the best brains in the sector.
Those brands come from mostly Caucasian countries, in a country where more than 88% of the female population is black. So, how is it possible that more than 95% of the market share belongs to foreign brands?
While most of the raw materials used to manufacture the 'Uso' range are imported, everything else along the value chain is locally produced.
The light at the end of this research journey was when Mothoa-Frendo launched her range via a pop-up store in Sandton City for a week in November 2017. The response proved more than impressive.
This led to Mothoa-Frendo opening an online store, which remains the only other platform besides Edgars for people to purchase the Uso skincare range.
Ever the entrepreneur, Mothoa-Frendo said her vision for the business far exceeded these premium products.
“Our focus area is not on premium products, but rather on providing solutions that are tailor-made for Africans across the board.”
She is proud of the deal, clinched last month, for Uso products to appear in 27 Edgars outlets across the country, alongside some of the best global brands – and is prouder still of the fact that it is the only brand among them that caters specifically for African skin.
Now plans are under way to introduce an Uso range for men.
After paying her dues by going through the “rigorous yet joyous” process of building the Uso brand and its selling point – “get the perfect glow” – Mothoa-Frendo reflected on one of the harder lessons she learnt along the way – running out of stock.
“That happened seven months after the launch and it was very stressful. But we learnt from this and we have put measures in place to ensure that it never happens again.”
Another important lesson learnt relates to funding.
“The biggest lesson financially is that you have to be willing to compromise all aspects of your life because it is not an easy road,” she said, adding that securing funding from public entities was difficult, especially as far as seed capital went, never mind obtaining money to expand the business.
Mothoa-Frendo spoke of knocking on government doors in vain.
She then targeted friends and family, and the latter came through for her financially.
Now she is determined to capitalise on Uso’s market share by dominating the space that has been traditionally flooded with major multinational brands – and somewhere in there become the face of the African glow.