How Suzie Wokabi is building her African-based cosmetics company

How we made it in Africa first interviewed Suzie Wokabi, the founder of SuzieBeauty, one of Kenya’s first local cosmetics companies, in 2011. At the time the company was just about to launch its SB line in retail outlets. Dinfin Mulupi caught up with Wokabi to find out what progress she has made, lessons she has learnt in business and her future plans.

Suzie Wokabi

Suzie Wokabi

What has changed since we last talked?

We received the funding we were looking for from two investment groups that gave us 6 million shillings (US$71,000) and Chase Bank, a local bank, which gave us 10 million shillings ($118,000). We launched in December 2011 and received the first shipment of SB products in March 2012. We have been retailing since May last year.

We are at quite a nice place today with our distribution after a lot of trial and errors. We are now stocked in 13 outlets in Nairobi, three in Mombasa and one in Kisumu. We are opening our own space at a shopping mall in Nairobi and we should be entering one of the largest regional department stores in July. We are also selling SB products in Australia. We are just packing the second order for a distributor in Australia. There is a big African population in Australia and the women love SB because most products in that market do not cater for them.

How much have you actually sold?

By December of 2012, after just about seven months of retailing, we had sold about 12,000 units translating to about 12 million shillings ($142,000) in sales. By the end of the first year of retailing we should have made 15 million shillings ($178,000) in sales. I am not disappointed given that this is our first year. Most of our products cost just over $10 and our target market is the growing middle class – the professional woman who doesn’t travel internationally many times in a year but wants good quality beauty products at affordable rates. She doesn’t have to travel for her make-up any more.

Some international beauty brands have recently entered the Kenyan market. Can SB stand out from the competition?

None of them will ever beat me in price. The whole point of SB is the affordability of quality beauty products. Our quality matches those international brands and they have come in knowing there is an existing player that is competition to them. SB is a local brand and there is patriotism in that. I think there is a market for all of us.

Describe the challenges you have faced so far.

The fundraising process was tough. I would not wish that on my worst enemy. It was the hardest thing since we did not even have the products yet. Moving forward, we need to figure out how to provide more products, whether it’s through another round of fundraising or savings. That is a challenge I foresee. We have nine products in the market today, although I initially developed more than 30. We want to gradually expand our product range in the market. All the same, we are at a place today where we know ourselves better and we have a bit more clout. We have been giving out products on consignment but that will change now. We can call more shots because we have sales and a market to show.

SuzieBeauty's product line

SuzieBeauty’s product line

Tell us about some of the lessons you have learnt in entrepreneurship.

I could write a few books about that. I have learnt that business can be extremely difficult and challenging. If I did not completely love everything about SB and the beauty industry, I would have given up a very long time ago. I now understand why most startups fail. When you don’t have the passion and everything is an uphill battle, it becomes so easy to quit. I do not have a background in finance and that has been a challenge. Luckily my husband has been supportive in that area. I am passionate and therefore it is very easy for me to take things personal, but he keeps bringing me back to earth. Despite all the difficulties, quitting has never been an option. SuzieBeauty is one of my kids.

What’s next for SuzieBeauty?

I want to take the product all over Africa. We are going to an exhibition in Nigeria in June and we are hoping to meet retailers there. We also want to expand our presence across Kenya. We will continue building SuzieBeauty Australia. My dream job is to only oversee things and be concerned about manufacturing and the creative side. I am really looking forward to the day I won’t have to micro-manage everything. I am really proud of where this has come from; looking back to when I first thought about SB and today holding the products in my hands is just an exciting experience. My role models are American entrepreneurs (the late) Estée Lauder and Bobbi Brown who have the same background and products as mine and are extremely successful.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Invest in what you love. If you don’t love it, it’s going to be even harder. If you do something the right way, for the right reasons you will get there. If you are doing it to make a lot of money you will fail very quickly.