Kenyan blogger finds e-commerce success with beauty products

Tabitha Tongoi

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A young Kenyan creative has managed to turn her authentic soul-searching blog into a budding e-commerce success.

Tabitha Tongoi, 27, exudes energetic contentment. She is articulated, intelligent and self-aware. Having lived on three continents she speaks with the voice and wisdom of an old soul who has seen and learnt quite a bit.

“I think my travels have aged me,” she says. “Sometimes I feel that I am 30 years older than what I am.”

Tongoi had to be independent from a young age as she moved away from home, to South Africa for schooling, at the age of 17. After that it was off to the US for further studies in political science and then to Australia for her first job – where she changed direction into social media marketing and community management. She now finds herself back in her home country of Kenya, busy nurturing a growing business that started when her creative personality sought an outlet for the journey of self-discovery that she found herself on.

While in the US she encountered pieces on self-portraiture of women of colour and what it meant to be bodied in the way that they were. This resonated with her as she was going through her own questions on being a black African woman living in a racialised society.

On the 1st of January, 2015, her Craving Yellow blog went live – essentially her stream of consciousness rendition about her self-discovery and identifying her self-worth.

Today Craving Yellow is certainly a success by any blog standards. In total Tongoi has about 173,000 followers – spread across YouTube (52,072), Twitter (1,986), Instagram (95,600) and Facebook (23,000).

How does one turn a successful and authentic online presence into a lucrative business venture? In Tongoi’s case: By diving head-first into an opportunity, without being quite ready.

“It has literally been four months!” she laughs as she relays the story. After coming back to Kenya, Tongoi positioned herself to be a resource for women seeking information about caring for their natural hair. In her interactions with local companies in this space she started gaining an understanding of the industry and one of her mentors asked why she was not creating her own offering to meet consumer needs.

That was the birth of her Craving Yellow beauty box – a product that combines the convenience of carefully selected beauty products for natural hair care and information on how to follow the treatment regime. She spent about 750,000 Kenyan shillings (US$7,400) on the products for the first consignment of boxes with an eight-week payment arrangement.

“It was a huge risk I took. I did no market research. I took on those products on a verbal agreement, with no contract in place. I still don’t consider myself a pro. But I did sell them all in eight weeks,” she says.

Following that very first sales drive, a follower from the US commented on her blog asking if she could purchase the beauty box. “I said yes without thinking,” Tongoi remembers. Her website platform was already e-commerce enabled, but she had no arrangements or plans for international shipping.

“I started calling different suppliers for shipping after the orders were already ready, but then got a call from Vicky Wambui from DHL, inviting me for a meeting,” Tongoi says.

The DHL Express team were very hands-on. They talked Tongoi through all the requirements and even physically helped pack the shipment boxes at one stage. A beneficial negotiated shipping rate, offered because the company believes in Tongoi’s vision, contributed to the current reality where one in every five boxes now ordered is for international shipment. Considering that the product is a luxury high-end beauty box selling for 5,000 Kenyan shillings ($49), this has increased Craving Yellow’s possible market and made the business instantly viable.

Tongoi admits that she is not the stereotypical business type. She is, at her core, a creative. “My motivation is always people-driven and people-focused. For my business, I believe if I keep the human need at the centre, the money will follow – the money is like a thank you for the service offered that genuinely meets a need that was there,” she says.

In a very short space of time Craving Yellow has evolved from being a highly popular blog to becoming a brand for natural beauty product consumers – offering specially curated products in the beauty box or workshops on the topic in the Craving Yellow classes. Recently Tongoi added her first branded products – the Craving Yellow shampoo bar and satin bonnets. This is a collaboration with well-known companies in Kenya who have a strength in specific products and then produce these items for her.

“I believe that as we get the shipping arrangements perfect and the products on offer exactly right, the international buyers would easily supersede my local buyers – they do have the purchasing power,” Tongoi states of her future plans.