Kenyan cosmetics entrepreneur discusses her ‘frustrating, but incredible’ journey

Nelly Tuikong

“I’m proud of having built a local cosmetics brand that is competing neck and neck with international companies in the market. Right now I can walk into a beauty shop and my stand is right next to the giants, such as Revlon and Maybelline. It is so incredible.”

So says Nelly Tuikong, founder and executive director of Kenya-based beauty line Pauline Cosmetics. The company, named after Tuikong’s mother, manufactures a range of products – including lipstick, eye shadow and make-up brushes – that retail throughout Kenya, and is also slowly gaining traction in Uganda and Rwanda.

Looking back on her journey so far, Tuikong, now in her early 30s, says she had to learn everything about being a businessperson from scratch. “Entrepreneurship is like having a child for the first time. You have all these people and books telling you what to do, but when that baby shows up you have no clue what to do.

“That said, in a way I’m glad I didn’t start out with a set of assumptions, and that I figured it out as I went along. Many people have been burnt by having a bunch of assumptions on how business in Africa works, only to see their ventures collapse. Whatever you read in international case studies or business books doesn’t necessarily apply to rural Kenya,” she explained.

Tuikong grew up in the western part of the country, living a typical Kenyan middle-class lifestyle. But around the age of 10, her situation suddenly took a turn for the worse after her father lost his job, forcing the family to rely on the income of her mother, who worked as a nurse. Upon completing high-school Tuikong’s options for further education were limited due to a lack of finances. So she went to stay with a family member in the town of Eldoret, where she took on several low-paying odd jobs.

Eventually she ended up working in a hospital, looking after abandoned babies. This experience stimulated an interest in healthcare, and she decided to follow in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a nurse. However, all three of her applications to medical training institutions got rejected.

As one door closed, another opened. At the hospital she met an American couple, Stephen and Judy Leapman, who were in Kenya for volunteering work. She eventually became friends with the family, even joining them on a visit to the town of Kitale, during which she discussed her career ambitions. About two weeks after the trip, Judy one day pulled her aside, and broke the news that the family would like to sponsor her to study nursing in the US. Tuikong’s life would never be the same again.

“My life just turned; they handed me a clean slate,” she later told talk show host Amina Abdi Rabar.

Trading nursing for entrepreneurship

It was in her final year of studying in the US that the entrepreneurship bug bit her, and she started thinking of developing her own beauty brand.

“I saw someone launch a cosmetics line in the US and I thought, ‘Who needs another product in this market?’ There are hundreds of make-up brands in the US, but I knew the new company was still bound to be a success. Then it struck me, ‘What about Africa?’ There was a gap in the colour-cosmetics division. I started entertaining the idea and soon could not shake it off,” recalled Tuikong.

It took her four years – 2009 to 2013 – from experimenting making lip gloss in her kitchen to launching her brand. She admitted facing “internal struggles” because of abandoning a career in nursing to become an entrepreneur. Even after moving back to Kenya in 2011, she took a job in clinical research – working on the cosmetics venture in her free time. In fact she kept the business a secret from most of those around her.

“I was feeling like a fraud. People had invested in me to go to school and I felt like I was betraying them… When I was around people in the medical community I would feel such a high level of guilt. I felt I was supposed to help people and save lives, yet I had this desire to start my own business and make profits,” said Tuikong.

In 2013, she imported her first shipment of products from Asia, storing them in an extra room in her house. At that point Pauline Cosmetics was unknown in the Kenyan market. She later admitted that it had been a mistake to import products before even knowing how, and to whom, she was going to sell them.

“I was running out of money, so I couldn’t afford to do a fancy launch. Eventually I had to give away almost half the products because of the shelf life. I was selling products at throwaway prices just to recoup the initial investment.”

Although she believed Kenya’s beauty and cosmetics industry was in for a major shift, at that stage the market just wasn’t yet ready for her products.

“All along I was speculating that this could be a big market. I knew of another Kenyan cosmetics brand that was under development and this gave me validation that I was right to see opportunity in this industry. I was also seeing international brands expanding into Africa. But when my products landed, that shift had not yet happened.

“People were still very conservative and there were limited avenues for selling new products. Things weren’t like today when people are more adventurous with make-up. It is a short period of time but a lot has changed – and it shows you how the beauty and cosmetics industry has transformed really fast.”

A steep learning curve

All Pauline Cosmetics products are currently manufactured abroad, mostly in China and Taiwan. However, learning the ropes of importing and working with foreign manufacturers came with many challenges.

“At some point I had to wire money to a factory in Asia, but the money was in my account in the US, yet I was living in Kenya. So I had a friend wire the money from her own account with the agreement that I’d refund her. My friend’s account was frozen because they thought she was offshoring money. I had to prove that the money was going to a legitimate party in Asia. It was so frustrating.”

When asked about one of the toughest situations she’s found herself in as a business owner, Tuikong tells the story of going to the port in Mombasa (about 500km from the capital Nairobi) to clear her goods from customs.

It goes like this: After her imports had arrived in Mombasa, she received documentation demanding double the amount of import tax she normally pays. She subsequently went to the Kenya Revenue Authority headquarters in Nairobi, where she was told to physically go to the port to get the taxes reduced.

“So I travelled to Mombasa. When I eventually gained access to the port area, which isn’t easy, I was surrounded by all these big sweaty men in wifebeaters clearing cargo for East Africa. There were hardly any women around. I walked in with my dress and was shown to the commissioner’s office. There were about 20 people waiting to talk to this very powerful man, and I had no idea whether he would grant me an audience. I arrived at 09:00 and only got to see him at 17:00.

“When I eventually got to speak to him, he was like, ‘Yeah, what’s going on?’, adding he was in a hurry to leave. After explaining my situation, he agreed to have my entire consignment re-evaluated. That meant I had to stay at the port another five days. However, they did do the re-evaluation, and I paid what I was supposed to pay. It was a crazy week, but makes for a good story in hindsight.”

Building a retail presence

Pauline Cosmetics’ products are predominantly stocked at beauty shops and pharmacies. Because of their unfavourable payment terms, Tuikong doesn’t currently supply mainstream supermarkets. Unlike developed countries, Kenya’s retail sector is highly fragmented, comprising thousands of independent shops. Brands therefore can’t just rely on getting into a few chain stores.

One of the initial mistakes Tuikong made in dealing with retailers was focusing too much on expanding to new outlets, and neglecting some of her existing stockists. Because many beauty-shop owners are inexperienced entrepreneurs themselves, they often need support in terms of things such as in-store promotions.

Whereas many global beauty houses predominantly focus on Nairobi, Tuikong is proud to have built a distribution network that reaches all corners of the country.

“It’s not like you can’t find other brands outside Nairobi, it is just that these towns don’t seem to be a big priority for them. For example, I remember going to a shop in a smaller town and seeing a dirty and empty Maybelline display, and the shop assistant said they haven’t had anyone from Maybelline come in for over a year.”

In some of Kenya’s smaller urban areas there is greater wealth than many people realise, generated by activities such as agriculture, trading and tourism. The growth of second-tier cities has also been spurred by the process of devolution, introduced in 2013, which divided the country into 47 counties, each with its own local government and county headquarter. These county headquarter cities have experienced an influx of government officials, which has subsequently led to greater commercial activity and economic growth.

A 2016 report by How we made it in Africa’s research arm, Maritz Africa Intelligence, produced for PwC, highlighted Nakuru, Naivasha, Kajiado, Kisumu, Nanyuki and Machakos as places that have seen rising economic activity in recent years.

Rising interest from retailers to move into Kenya’s secondary towns has also lead to the construction of small shopping centres. For instance, in 2015, a colleague and I visited the first modern shopping mall in the lakeside town of Naivasha, situated about 90km from Nairobi, well-known for agriculture and tourism. The small, but slick, Buffalo Mall is home to a Tuskys supermarket and a Java House restaurant, in addition to numerous smaller shops.

Sweet and sour

Starting out, Tuikong says her greatest weakness as an entrepreneur was being “a control freak” and “bad with delegation”. However, she’s become better at understanding the need to let go.

“For instance, in the past I used to spend a week in a town scouting for business. Now I’ve built processes around how it is done, which allows me to send someone else to do it. So I’ve built processes around how you scout for new retailers, how you follow up, how you close a deal, and if you can’t close a deal, what you need to do next.

“This aha moment struck me this year. I know people who have been in business for a long time would say, ‘Duh, of course that is what you need to do’, but this is my first venture and in the beginning it wasn’t that obvious. But this year it hit me very clearly, that, for instance, I don’t have to personally go to the bank every day, I can send someone else. So that freed my time to be able to think about the bigger picture.

Conventional business wisdom she disagrees with is that entrepreneurs should stick to their field of expertise. “I’m qualified as a critical-care nurse, and had zero background in beauty or business before I started this company.”

Tuikong has no regrets about giving up a stable career in nursing for entrepreneurship, but advises those only interested in making money, that they may be better off climbing the corporate ladder than venturing out on their own.

“I hear people say that being an entrepreneur allows them to control their hours and be flexible. It is absurd. There is no such thing. You don’t have your own time anymore. Your business becomes everything. The first years you are everything – the accountant, the social media manager, the messenger.

“Business is sweet and sour. It is the most frustrating thing that you will ever do in your life. I really control my emotions a lot because that is how I was raised. So when my husband sees me crying, he knows things are really bad. And sometimes I need to do that – I need to cry, binge on some TV shows, eat a whole tub of ice cream for a day, and pull myself up the next. It is very frustrating, but it is also one of the most incredible journeys you will ever take.” -Howwemadeitinafrica

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