How this Senegalese entrepreneur seized an opportunity in the make-up industry

Lyvv Cosmetics produces several make-up products.

Most consumers complain when they cannot find the right products for their needs. Victorine Sarr Awuah started her own business instead, Lyvv Cosmetics.

“I was working for the number one cosmetic company in the world and even I could not find the right products for my complexion. There were many people like me across the world who had the same issue. I got frustrated,” says Sarr Awuah.

After three years working at L’Oréal in Dakar, Senegal, and several product launches later, the graduate from Institut Supérieur de Gestion (an international business school in Paris) had the necessary business acumen and access to market data to think seriously about creating a company.

Without any external investment, Sarr Awuah launched her beauty business in Dakar in 2015. Thankfully, she saved money fastidiously, a lesson learnt from her father. She invested her savings from seven years of work – four years at Apple in Paris and three at L’Oréal in Senegal – into her venture, giving her a two-year grace period of not having to worry about finding a regular income.

A little help from friends

“I looked for suppliers and a factory to manufacture for us. I sourced the ingredients and my sister, a chemist, helped me to create the formulations. Three friends backed me with their respective competencies: one is in finance; the other is in communication; and the third is an accountant. It took us 11 months from market studies to having our products ready for launch.

“One of the best decisions I made was to hire a public relations professional at the beginning because we wanted the brand to be known for quality. The PR’s job was to get our name out there. We targeted the professionals first, focusing on beauty institutes and beauty professionals. I knew when they endorsed our products, consumers would consider us credible. That’s how we started getting clients.”

Lyvv Cosmetics products – lipstick, lip gloss and lip lacquer – are hypoallergenic so less likely to cause allergies and free from parabens, a chemical preservative found in many brands of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The items are also cruelty-free.

The company’s mission is to make quality products available for women of colour to live their authentic beauty. Lyvv Cosmetics are sold by retailers in Senegal, Ghana, Canada, the US and France, with 60% of its consumer base living in Africa and the remaining 40% being the African diaspora. It also ships worldwide via its own website.

Aspirations for a global brand

Having launched the company in Senegal, Sarr Awuah was fortunate to enjoy a strong backing of the brand locally. “People were so proud of a Senegalese building a brand. They wanted to help put the brand out there and made it their own, sharing on social media, talking about us, inviting us onto TV.

“I’m Senegalese and proud of my origin but I want the brand to be global. I want it to be African. I want every woman of colour to be proud of the brand and find us everywhere and use our product. That’s the vision. Even in the black diaspora, living in France or Canada, it’s the same feeling of being proud to be consuming good products coming from an African company.”

Sarr Awuah relocated the company headquarters to Accra in 2017 after marrying her Ghanaian husband. The Lyvv Cosmetics team now numbers 12: five employees are in Dakar, five in Accra and two more travel between Côte d’Ivoire and France.

The move to Accra hasn’t been easy. There are more makeup brands in Ghana than Senegal, plus no one knew Sarr Awuah in Ghana, which meant a challenging first two years in her adopted country. “Last year, I partnered with a popular local makeup artist in Ghana who has a studio and beauty shops and she is the brand ambassador there. She uses our products on her clients and sells them in her outlets. That’s the strategy in Ghana right now and it’s working better than when we started.”

Victorine Sarr Awuah, founder of Lyvv Cosmetics.

The company has been featured in popular magazines such as Glamour and Jeune Afrique. The publicity has led to talks with a major French beauty retailer to carry the Lyvv brand. In Senegal, a major supermarket chain now stocks Lyvv products.

While the ingredients and product formulations originate in Senegal and Ghana, manufacturing takes place in Canada. “Interestingly, most makeup brands are produced elsewhere, not in Africa. We wanted to produce the makeup product here but it was not possible,” Sarr Awauh explains.

The challenges Sarr Awuah has faced have changed over the years. “In the beginning, it was more of a mental and societal challenge because nobody believed in me. My family is very education-driven; my dad is a telecom engineer and focused on statistics. Everybody thought I would continue working at corporations. Then I decided to quit my job at L’Oréal because I felt I needed a new challenge. People thought I was crazy. I went through a period in my life where I had to back myself and do a lot of personal work to rise above that doubt.”

Sarr Awuah’s confidence is no longer an issue. These days, the challenges stem from questions of expansion and talent acquisition. “Two years ago, we were growing faster than planned. With only five employees, there were too many roles being covered by too few people. In the beginning, you want to be everywhere. We were in Senegal, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and France. It was difficult to handle. So, I tried various recruitment agencies. Initially, we were experiencing high staff turnover. For the past 18 months, we have been working with an agency and now I have a good team around me. I can trust and delegate more.”

Adapting to market conditions

Before the pandemic hit, Lyvv Cosmetics’ revenue model was about 80% B2B (selling to wholesalers) and 20% through online sales and live events, which used to happen four times a year. “Now, instead of the events, we do everything online. We use influencers to direct people to our website and have a lot of e-commerce website partners who sell for us around the world. That’s how we make money since the onset of the pandemic. The influencer marketing has been huge; a pivotal strategy shift we had to do to survive.”

The target consumer for Sarr Awuah is niche – “the active woman between 25 and 45, who travels the world and is used to buying online” – and comprises only a small percentage of the population in Senegal and Ghana. “We have a long way to go to reach the full potential of e-commerce, which is linked to capabilities in the banking sector, fintech solutions and quality of internet connections. I see it not as a challenge but an opportunity to grow because if we’re making money already within a niche consumer market, it means we will make more money in the years to come because things are improving.”

Change is on the horizon for Lyvv Cosmetics. For a start, the company is going to launch a range of skincare products, which is in greater demand among Ghanaian consumers than makeup. Based on the market reaction in Ghana, the company will determine what needs to be tweaked to suit other markets. Additionally, Sarr Awuah is eager to leverage digital tools to enhance the consumer experience. Specifically, she will use artificial intelligence so customers can see whether a shade of lipstick suits them.

With a firm focus on the future and aspiration for innovation, Sarr Awauh is confident her business will continue to grow.

Lyvv Cosmetics founder Victorine Sarr Awuah’s contact information

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