Kenya: Five emerging consumer companies looking to challenge incumbents

Michele Ntalami, founder and CEO Marini Naturals

Michelle Ntalami, founder and CEO of Marini Naturals

The consumer goods industry in Kenya is dominated by multinationals and well-established local players. But some emerging companies are breaking into the market, positioning themselves as alternative brands with better pricing and products that appeal to evolving consumer behaviours. Here are five companies looking to challenge the incumbents in the lucrative food, beauty and cosmetics industries.

Vava Coffee

On supermarket shelves in Kenya there is a wide array of processed coffee to choose from. These include international brands such as Nescafé and local labels Java, Dormans, Sasini and Out of Africa. In the midst of big competitors, emerging coffee company Vava Coffee has carved a niche in positioning its products as ethically-sourced, fresh, and ideal for coffee connoisseurs.

Vava Coffee has designed eight brands, each with distinct tastes. For example, Sotik Espresso is described as having hints of tropical fruits and should ideally be served after an evening meal, while the Swahili Blend has a combination of delicate citrus and floral flavours and should be brewed in a press.

“Coffee is such a complex product. There is so much more to it than just choosing a medium roast or a dark roast,” says Vava Angwenyi, founder and CEO of Vava Coffee.

The company is also capitalising on the story behind its coffee production, targeting consumers who value sourcing and supply chains that benefit farmers and local communities. The company works with 30,000 smallholder farmers, and part of its packaging is made by women in Nairobi’s Kibera slum.

Vava Coffee is also taking advantage of alternative retail options. It frequently participates in craft fairs where its team directly interacts with potential customers. Later this year the company wants to expand to the US and Europe. Read more about Vava Coffee


Long before high-end cosmetics giant MAC opened stores in East Africa, Kenyan company SuzieBeauty saw demand in the market. In December 2011 it started manufacturing a full range of make-up products and application brushes under the SB brand. At the time, high-quality cosmetic brands were either unavailable in Kenya or overpriced.

Although a number of international brands have since entered the market through local franchises, SuzieBeauty has an edge because of its affordably-priced products.

“None of them will ever beat me in price,” said founder Suzie Wokabi in a previous interview. “The whole point 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.”

SuzieBeauty products are stocked in 21 retail outlets across Kenya, and in a few cities in Uganda, Ethiopia and Côte d’Ivoire. Earlier this year 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. Following the acquisition, SuzieBeauty plans to grow its marketing and distribution network, and expand beyond Kenya. Read more about SuzieBeauty

Marini Naturals

For many years African women adopted chemical straighteners, synthetic wigs and extensions to achieve Western ideals of ‘straight hair’ beauty. Natural hair was considered unkempt, especially at the workplace. But this is changing with more and more black women flaunting the natural hair look. Some local companies are now developing products specifically for natural hair.

Kenya’s Marini Naturals manufactures six products including shampoo, conditioner, hair growth oil, curling butter, curling gel and moisturiser mist spray. The company uses oils such as tea tree, neem, castor and peppermint, sourced from Kenya, Uganda, Sudan, South Africa and even Australia. Incorporating these natural ingredients has made Marini Naturals products gain appeal even among women who don’t keep natural hair.

“Our target customers are women who are making a conscious effort to live a more natural way with regards to their health, lifestyle and beauty. You could have relaxed hair, but are tired of using chemical-laden products – so you will use our sulphate-free shampoo, for example,” says Michelle Ntalami, founder and CEO of Marini Naturals.

Marini Naturals products are stocked at major beauty stores in Kenya but it also runs its own branded shop in Nairobi. “That outlet is for educating consumers, it’s a collection point for distributors and it’s a consultation point for customers who have questions,” says Ntalami.

The company also has a strong online presence and frequently participates in natural hair events. Marini Naturals plans to expand its product range to include skin-care products such as natural oils, soaps and cleansers, as well as catering for children and men. Read more about Marini Naturals

Cherebut Foods

Convenience foods is another growing trend. Young people leading busy lives in cities want ready-to-eat or pre-cooked meals. More women are also working away from home with less time to whip up meals from scratch.

Githeri is a popular meal in Kenya, but the dish of maize and beans requires hours of boiling. In Nairobi suburbs, many women run businesses that just involve boiling githeri. Consumers buy the boiled grains and do the frying from home.

Cherebut Foods has formalised this business, offering pre-cooked frozen grains and legumes at supermarkets and grocery chains in Kenya. By last December the company was producing a tonne of food a week for seven grocery chains. Read more about Cherebut Foods 

Keyara Organics

For many decades East Africa’s beauty and personal care products market was the playground of a few multinationals. But today they face worthy opponents in local companies that have gradually built their own brands.

Emerging manufacturer Keyara Organics is targeting health-conscious consumers with its skin and hair-care products, feeding off a trend among consumers – especially those with high incomes – to pay premium for brands that incorporate natural and organic ingredients.

“We use the highest percentage of natural oils and scents, even in our formulated products such as the body butters. We use at least 80% or higher natural products,” says Terryanne Chebet, founder and CEO of Keyara Organics.

Initially Keyara Organics made natural oils, but its product portfolio has since expanded to include body butters, body balms, soaps and hair food. They are made using coconut, shea butter, cocoa butter, almond oil and macadamia oil. Read more about Keyara Organics