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How Suzie Wokabi sold her African cosmetics brand

Suzie Wokabi (right) and Heril Bangera, CEO of Flame Tree Group

Suzie Wokabi (right) and Heril Bangera, CEO of Flame Tree Group

When she returned to Kenya in 2007 – after studying and working in the US – professional make-up artist Suzie Wokabi found the high-quality global brands she was accustomed to, were either unavailable locally or highly overpriced. So in 2009 she started her own brand of cosmetics, called SuzieBeauty.

For three years Wokabi went through the process of research, development, product testing and fundraising. Having secured about Ksh.16m (US$156,000) in funding, she eventually launched her product line in December 2011. Her ambition was to build “the MAC of Africa”.

Yesterday it was announced that SuzieBeauty has been acquired by Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed manufacturing company Flame Tree Group, subject to approval from the competition authority.

Wokabi describes the acquisition as “a huge feat”.

“For me this is the biggest milestone so far.”

“I have achieved everything I wanted to,” says Wokabi, explaining her goal was to build a recognisable brand designed for the African woman.

Global brands like L’Oréal, Estée Lauder, Unilever and Procter & Gamble dominate the beauty and personal care market in Africa, but a few local entrepreneurs have started developing their own products, and are slowly growing their customer base.

“It has been a few successful years. And even with all the challenges, we have managed to gain market share,” she notes.

SuzieBeauty’s product line currently comprises a full range of make-up and application brushes.

Today the products are available in 21 retail outlets across Kenya, and in a few cities in Uganda, Ethiopia and Ivory Coast.

Teaming up with a stronger partner

Wokabi explains she needed a partner with the expertise and resource to take the brand to the next level.

With the resources at Flame Tree Group, Wokabi says SuzieBeauty will likely expand its range to include skincare products such as cleansers, moisturisers and eye creams. There will also be investments into better distribution and marketing. In the long-term, production could be moved from China to Kenya.

“We want to increase the brand’s presence in the market,” says Flame Tree Group CEO Heril Bangera. “We have seen the brand is successful, so there is an opportunity now to use that as a base to grow it within Kenya and beyond.”

Bangera adds that the acquisition is a strategic opportunity for the group to tap into the “large and growing” colour cosmetics market.

“Within Kenya the present market size is about $60m,” says Bangera. “We expect the East African (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) segment of the market to grow from the present $152m to $231m by 2018. So this is a special and a large opportunity for us. We believe it is an important area for us to venture into.”

Following in the footsteps of her idol

Wokabi has always looked up to Bobbi Brown, the American professional make-up artist who founded Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Beauty products giant Estée Lauder bought the brand in 1995, with Brown retaining creative control. And like her “idol”, Wokabi – who will be turning 40 this year – will stay on at SuzieBeauty as chief creative officer and brand ambassador. The company’s staff will also be retained.

She says the acquisition talks with Flame Tree Group began in May 2015. At the time she was also talking to other investors.

“The chemistry has always been right from the beginning. So any challenges we ever came across we would fix together.”

Despite receiving many accolades for being one of a few African entrepreneurs breaking into the continent’s cosmetics industry, Wokabi struggled with the financing needed to grow the business further. Previous partnerships were sometimes problematic.

“We have had so many bad partnerships. We have had both equity partners and debt investors. There were just too many mistakes made. We were very particular about this one. This time we didn’t make any mistakes – and it feels right, completely.”

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