By Ryan Andrew Mitchell The Afro News Vancouver
Abantu: Mark Okoth & Michael Okoth
In 1993 the Okoth family opened a beauty supply business called, Abantu Beauty Products Ltd. The shop was geared towards the people of colour mainly the Afro Canadians and people from the Caribbean. Michael states “The name Abantu which means people was opened to provide quality Afro Canadian products to the growing ethnic community in Vancouver. We carried just a few brands of hair-care and skin care products, make-up for women of colour and various types of synthetic braiding hair.” Michael & Birgit Okoth and their children, Michelle, Samali and Mark were all involved in running the business.
Michael Okoth and his late wife, Birgit Okoth, owned successful business’s in Kenya and Uganda including and a donut factory, but they decided to take a risk and moved to Vancouver in 1984. Michael Okoth admits his wife was responsible for the concept of the hair shop. “She was the brain behind Abantu. She taught Michael, Mark, Michelle and Samali everything she knew about the business.” Mark Okoth adds to the appreciation him and his father have for Birgit, “I’m most appreciative of my Mother, and how hard she worked to make the business what it is today. She was the driving force behind everything [and] the family glue.”
After a long battle with breast cancer, Birgit Okoth passed away in February. Michael states, “She was creative and will always be loved and missed.” Most of the Okoth family is continuing to take part in business operations, carrying the legacy Birgit Okoth created.
As the community grew, the business did as well. Michael states the shop was not just a business, but a community dwelling for newcomers, and people seeking clients for new businesses “We encourage business owners to bring information about [their company] to our shop to let people know what they were doing.” The years after Abantu opened proved to be quite busy, as the business expanded once again. “Abantu had grown over the years to three locations, throughout Vancouver and Burnaby.” Mark says the most important element he received from clients was the knowledge from them, “There are so many things to remember; the friendships you make, stories you hear, but I think most of all, learning to listen to people and find out what they really need.”
The Okoths plan is to continue focusing on Hair Extensions, Wigs and Hairpieces at the Vancouver location. “The Burnaby location that is currently closed will re-open as a Hair Extension Training Centre.” Mark hopes that the training centre will develop rapidly to create countless opportunities for careers through out the lower mainland.
Mark reminisces about the original store location that was previously closed. “There have been so many people, businesses and organizations over the years that it’s really hard to keep track, but the main group as always has been the African Canadian Community here in B.C. We wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them. The huge amount of wonderful loyal customers we got to know over the 17 years in business has been amazing. We have literally seen some children grow up from babies.”
The Okoths continue to operate Abantu and serve as a community beacon, not only to help their clients, but to inspire owners of starting businesses. “[We are] proud to state that it opened the door so that members of the community can start their own business.” Michael also reiterates the service of the store, and the impact it has had, “The highlight of the company is the excitement from the people. ‘At last,’ have a store of their own where they could come and buy hair wigs, hair care and body care products all in one place.”