Fifteen elegantly dressed women sit side by side on a couch at Palacina Restaurant in Hurligham, Nairobi. They chat away in soft tones, patiently waiting for the private beauty talk session by a famed Kenyan cosmetic doctor to begin.

On the table rests packs of beautifully arranged beauty products. Curious to see what they are, I move towards the table looking through the range of skin care products displayed.

The unpackaged products are clearly marked “JANMARINI”, a cosmetic brand by one of the leading skin care and aesthetic product manufacturers in North America.

Though JanMarini is a familiar cosmetic brand in a flooded American market, it is a new product line in Kenya. Dr Othoro, the product’s ambassador opted to distribute it due to the numerous requests he was getting from his clients.

According to him, clients often asked for his advice on the skin care products he found appropriate for their particular type of skin and that was how JanMarini came into the local market.

Today, Cosmeceutical has become part of his business, although he has also stuck to his first line of business – plastic surgery, skin cancer screening and treatment and Botox.

Players in the cosmetic industry admit the market has grown in leaps and bounds from what it was just three years ago. According to Muthoni Ochiel, a cosmetologist with her own line – IMAHA, consumers are now more sophisticated and more adept at using cosmetic products. They are also seeking more knowledge through industry experts.

This is the eagerness I could see from the 15 women present this evening. They wanted to hear from the specialist about skin care among other cosmetic procedures.

They listened carefully and asked Dr Othoro many questions on their fears and reservations about cosmetic procedures and products. They also sought advice on cosmetic products they currently use.

From the questions asked, it was clear that Kenyan women are becoming increasingly mindful about their looks and are ready to do all it takes to look good.

More and more women are overcoming the fear powdered faces and embracing the use of cosmetics as they go about their personal grooming. Men, too, have joined the bandwagon and are now to be seen making visits to beauty parlours for manicure, pedicure and haircuts.

Cosmetic multinationals have noticed this growing interest in high quality beauty products and are now scrambling to get a cut in the Kenyan market.

The continent once seen as having constrained consumers who were unable to indulge in the finer things in life, has now become the target for cosmetic companies in Europe and North America.

“There is an increasing demand for quality cosmetic products, as well as an increasing demand for non-surgical and surgical aesthetic treatments. Kenyans, particularly the economically stable, are investing more in their appearance,” says Othoro, who runs Valentis Clinic with Dr Tilman Stasch, a consultant plastic surgeon in Germany.

The clinic offers both non-surgical and surgical treatments that include botox, dermal fillers and advanced skin care products as well as all aspects of cosmetic surgery such as liposuction, tummy tucks, breast surgery and facial rejuvenation surgery.

The demand for these procedures by Kenyans has seen Dr Othoro, who practices in the UK, increase his visits to the country to take care of his ever increasing number patients.

According to multinationals already in the country, they have come to offer Kenyans quality products and to save them from making numerous trips abroad to buy the same products since many of them were hitherto only available abroad.

The launch of Revlon products in Kenya through a franchise deal with the Nakumatt Supermarket chain in February this year, is one of the avenues set to meet these needs.

Consumers will not only have international brands at their door step but also personalised services. They will have beauty advisers at their disposal to offer advice and answer any questions the customers may have about the products. They will also get full make over and free product testing as is the case in most beauty capitals of the world.

The entry of Estée Lauder, one of the world’s leading cosmetic lines that is manufactured in American, Revlon, the French L’Oreal and Swedish cosmetic line Oriflame in a span of less than three years remains a visible sign on the directions taken by multinationals.

According to Sonali Shah, Nakumatt’s Group Lifestyle Category Manager, the decision by Revlon to set up shop in Kenya is a good sign and one which is making other cosmetic brands reconsider the African market as a whole.

According to Ms Shah, until recently, giant cosmetic manufacturers kept away from Africa because of the assumption that this was a lows pending power region and the belief that there was low demand for their products.

But even as they see the unfolding opportunities, the huge demand for counterfeit products and misinterpretation of the East African market is another impediment to their optimism. Cosmetic players say Kenya is one of the African markets with huge counterfeit cosmetic demand.

Kenyan consumers have innocently used counterfeit products, only realizing what they were using is fake after the side-effects come to fore. “Sadly, Kenyans have not been aware of it (counterfeit cosmetics),” says Ms Shah.

Consumers, who have been through this cycle of fake products then end up on the ever growing list of Kenyans who send friends, colleagues and family who are travelling abroad or those who live there for products.

They have to deal with delays and the hassle of finding someone flying out to replenish their stock. However, the online market has offered them some reprieve. Statistics show online shops made $7.2 billion globally two years ago.

“The frustrations were due to the fact that the already known brands were too expensive and most of the colour shades offered did not match most of the Kenyan women’s skin shades and tones,” says Muthoni, who started IMAHA, with the help of a friend. She developed a range for dark-skinned women with the help of a chemist who worked with a couple of giant cosmetic brands.

Currently, the make-up price is between Sh800 to Sh30,000 for a full range which most consumers feel is way too expensive. Another challenge is the nature of the cosmetic market in Kenya. The industry has long been operated as briefcase ventures with little attention on brands. Although this form of business does not affect the industry, it only complicates statistics.

The cosmetic industry in Africa was estimated to be worth $10 billion in 2007. This represents about six per cent of the global cosmetic sales.

According to data from Datamonitor, the global sales stood at $170 billion in 2011 with the biggest gains being realised from skin care products which account for 27 to 31 per cent of the global sales. Others are hair care and fragrance.

“My sales data shows on average a client can spend anything between Sh3,000 to 25,000 a month. This demonstrates that the Kenyan woman prioritises her beauty needs in her prearranged budget,” says Ms Muthoni.

Despite the challenges, Suzie Wokabi a beautician with her own line is glad about the transformation taking place in Kenya when it comes to beauty. Things were very different a decade ago when she came back to the country after a stint abroad.

“Then there was a huge gap for quality and affordable product. The products available were also not locally created,” says Ms Wokabi. The gap Ms Wokabi spotted created an opportunity for her to put her skills in beauty and product development into practice and that is how Suzie Beauty product line (SB) came into being. Local celebrities – Ann Kiguta and Angela Angwenyi make her list of clientele.

As the Kenyan cosmetic market blossoms, Ms Shah is confident that the entry of multinationals will bring more excitement to consumers. This change she says will keep retailers on their toes and cause them to develop new products.

Established beauty markets abroad have healthy competition despite the numerous number of products available. New products abroad are launched almost every three months,  according to Ms Shah.

Nakumatt started off with Revlon because of the popularity the brand already enjoys in Africa. It is also a familiar brand in Kenya having been present from 15 years ago. It is also among the few brands specialising in dark skin.

The retailer’s cosmetic unit is set to launch three more brands this half of the year.  The supermarket chain envisions becoming a departmental store in the near future.

The Revlon products are found on counters across Nakumatt hyper stores. Among the big cosmetic giants in the world are Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and L’Oreal.

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