Entrepreneurs should be patient and make “continuous investment” in their businesses before expecting rewards.
This is according to Kenyan entrepreneur Carol Ngige. For the last seven years Ngige has been running Beauty Bee, a company that locally manufactures mother and baby related products such as breastfeeding pillows, nursing covers, maternity briefs, changing mats and travel neck pillows for babies.
Ngige also runs Baby Banda Fair. The annual event brings together health professionals and firms specialising in baby and pregnancy products and services to train and advise parents in Kenya.
“Business is not a short sprint, it’s a marathon,” says Ngige. “It’s for the long haul. You need to be patient with yourself and take time to nurture whatever business you have and grow it. There are projects we have done that did not translate into money immediately but we have kept at it. In fact, we did not break even in the baby fair until the third year.”
Ngige started Beauty Bee in 2006 after seeing a breastfeeding pillow at a friend’s house. The product was not available in Kenya and most mothers imported it or used ordinary pillows for breastfeeding.
Ngige borrowed a sewing machine from her mother, hired a tailor and started manufacturing at her home. She says she continued operating the business from her home for three years because she did not see it as a serious business.
“It was always something I did part time because I had another business that was occupying my time. I was really hustling. I had my hand here and there. I had a networking marketing opportunity that I really believed in and pursued with all my heart. This was always a nice to do side job. I never really focused on it,” says Ngige.
When Kenya plunged into the 2008 post-election violence, the network marketing business floundered, as did the pillow making venture.
“This was a very definitive period for me. I needed to decide what I wanted to do with my life. The two businesses were both not working,” she says. “One night I had a dream and I saw an event, very clear and vivid. When I woke up I knew what I needed to do.”
As the violence subsided and business picked up, Ngige visited a local shopping mall and began organising the first Baby Banda Fair.
The fair provided her with a platform to market her pillows and build the Beauty Bee brand.
“It became an opportunity for me to actually relaunch the business in a very serious way. I began to focus on the brand and our products. After the event we moved out of my home, rented a small office and I hired my first full-time employee.”
The company has since expanded its product portfolio, hired more staff and moved to a bigger office space. Beauty Bee products are stocked by leading supermarkets in Kenya, as well as baby shops and hospitals. Ngige says she had to “knock doors tirelessly” to get her products stocked by supermarkets.
“[A local supermarket chain] took three years before they agreed to stock our products. We were patient, we kept knocking for three years [and] made a compelling case on why they needed to stock us,” says Ngige. “These days they call us when the stocks are depleted. When they open a new branch they ask for our products. Times have changed but it has come with hard work and investment in the brand.”
Another challenge Ngige has faced is accessing good talent and retaining staff.
“Getting skilled workforce for our production department has been a challenge. Quite unlike the other personnel, tailors and artisans don’t develop their CVs. You don’t have a pool to choose from. Therefore being able to ensure that whoever you are hiring is aligned to what it is you want to do can be quite hard.”
Beauty Bee’s flagship product, the breastfeeding pillow, retails for KSh. 1,650 (US$19).
A study by Transparency Market Research shows the global baby care product market was worth $44.7bn in 2011 and is expected to reach $66.8bn in 2017.
Developing countries are seen as growth markets due to their large baby populations, increasing numbers of women joining the workforce and an upsurge in the disposable incomes of parents.
“Today’s mother is more informed. We have access to various channels of getting information and people want to find things that make life easier and more comfortable. You can’t ignore the fact that we have a growing middle class, people have a bit more disposable income and that places products such as [ours] in the considerations set when one is doing purchases.”
Ngige’s seven-year journey in entrepreneurship has come with many lessons. She says she honed her skills in the IT industry where she worked in the marketing department of a leading firm. This background has helped her utilise technology to improve her business operations.
“Technology is an enabler… It levels the playing ground for the big and small alike because it is relatively more affordable in terms of marketing communication. I may not be selling online solutions but we use technology a lot to uplift this business.”
She advises other women entrepreneurs to build relationships with their peers and improve their professional competency by advancing their education and reading widely. Nginge went back to school in 2010 to study an MBA in order to improve her business management skills.
“Sometimes I wonder to myself, did I really want to be a CEO? It’s a tough job. The buck always stops with you. When things are not working it is up to you to fix them. I think it is important to invest in yourself professionally and also as a person. Professional competency is important if you are looking to be a business leader.”