In Summary
  • Men may rally how much they want a “real” woman without makeup and weaves but it seems the women have long made up their minds — to do as they please to look beautiful.
  • Weddings are not the only reason  women engage makeup artists. Some pay between Sh2,500 and Sh6,000. A ‘quick fix’ session, say for a dinner, could cost about Sh2,000.
  • Government data on cosmetics is tallied together with that of jewellery and assembled vehicles. According to the Economic Survey 2017, the amount of revenue that Treasury generated from the three items in 2016 was Sh2.4 billion, up from Sh902 million in 2015.

It used to be that makeup was something you applied in the privacy of the bedroom, perhaps with a limited range of beauty products on the dressing table. But a revolution in the cosmetics industry and a change in makeup habits has spawned a new breed of well-paid professionals.

Of course Kenya’s vibrant social media space has also played a role — never mind the sharing of jokes like the one about some women getting scared of being rained on in case their makeup washes away and their real look is unmasked; or the tongue-in-cheek advice that a man should go swimming with his partner before marriage just to be sure about her “true colours”.

But while makeup and the artistry around it is sometimes the source of banter, there is a crop of practitioners who are laughing all the way to the bank, taking a slice of the multi-million-shilling Kenyan beauty industry that is still showing signs of further growth.

According to Euromonitor International, a market research company, the local beauty industry was estimated at more than $260 million (Sh2.6 billion) in 2011, placing Kenya at position three in Africa, after South Africa and Nigeria.

In its 2015 report, Euromonitor said beauty and personal care registered “strong” growth and predicted that the industry would grow even further.

“Population growth, projected positive economic growth and heightened marketing activities are set to promote value growth across the industry over the forecast period,” it says in its 2015 report.

“Additionally, growth is set to be driven by increasing the rate of urbanisation, with the rapidly growing middle class increasingly purchasing non-essential products, while the growing young Kenyan population is boosting demand for beauty and personal care,” it adds.

Government data on cosmetics is tallied together with that of jewellery and assembled vehicles. According to the Economic Survey 2017, the amount of revenue that Treasury generated from the three items in 2016 was Sh2.4 billion, up from Sh902 million in 2015. The highest amount that the government has collected in the last five years from the three sectors was Sh2.7 billion in 2014.

That the growth of the market had not escaped notice was evident when the Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich, while reading the 2016 budget, proposed a 10 per cent excise duty on cosmetics and beauty products.


The thriving of the market should come as no surprise, however, when you realise that seven in 10 women prefer buying beauty products ahead of paying for basic needs like rent, buying clothes or even saving. A 2015 survey conducted by polling firm Consumer Insight found that beauty comes a close second to food for the Kenyan woman.

This demand means that more and more people are getting into the makeup business and they are making a pretty penny.

From lipstick, powder, and a dash of blush for a look that screams “nude and natural”, to the dark eye shadow and over-the-top glitter for a dramatic night out, the cosmetic industry has gone mainstream.

Stories of successful cosmetologists and makeup artists are becoming more and more commonplace, with one perfect example being that of Suzie Wokabi, the founder and brand ambassador of SuzieBeauty Cosmetics, who last year sold her company to listed firm Flame Tree Group.

And in 2013, L’Oreal, the world’s largest multinational cosmetics company acquired Interconsumer Products, whose brands included Nice & Lovely, in the multi-million-shillings transaction.

L’Oreal, it was reported at the time, bought the Kenyan brand looking at penetrating the country’s and the region’s low-end cosmetic market. According to Business Daily, the deal was a major coup for businessman Paul Kinuthia who built Interconsumer Products from scratch in the backstreet of Nairobi in 1995 and low-end Kariobangi Estate to a major player in the beauty market to rival giants like Unilever Kenya Ltd, Beiersdorf East Africa Ltd, Haco Tiger Brands and PZ Cussons East Africa Ltd. The company crossed the Sh1 billion sales mark in 2009 and Mr Kinuthia told the Business Daily in an interview then that he was looking for new investors to spread business risks associated with sole proprietorship

Men may rally how much they want a “real” woman without makeup and weaves but it seems the women have long made up their minds — to do as they please to look beautiful.

And because makeup has very much become a part of Kenyans’ lives, the amounts that clients are paying to have their looks perfected are getting higher and higher.

For example, some established makeup artists will charge anything between Sh10,000 to Sh20,000 to work on a bride on her wedding day. The bridesmaids will spend almost half of that. Amateur makeup artists will charge anything from Sh5,000.

Weddings are not the only reason why women engage makeup artists. Some pay between Sh2,500 and Sh6,000 for a face makeup. A “quick fix” session, say for a dinner, sometimes costs about Sh2,000.

The artists insist this is a fair charge due to the high costs of makeup, not to mention the inflated cosmetics taxes.

“Imagine a Laura Mercier foundation, for example, costs Sh5,000 and you have to buy almost 50 ranges of products, all different kinds, shades and brands,” says Winnie Awino, a makeup artist.


Most of the makeup artists interviewed for this story said that it is not as easy as just buying a brush and a few products. They undergo training and have to invest time and money in order to produce the best results and to keep abreast with current trends.

The most important lesson before picking up a brush or a sponge, they say, is to learn to assess a client’s skin type — including colouring, condition and sensitivity, not to mention the bone structure. These factors determine the type of makeup one uses.

Makeup artists also have to work long hours, and in most of those they are on their feet. This requires stamina and fitness.

To ensure they thrive, the artists rely almost exclusively on “word of mouth” which these days includes social media. Most of the established names in the industry have a huge following on social media, especially Instagram.

One of the most famous bridal makeup artists in Kenya is Kangai Mwiti of Bellesa Africa whose impressive résumé means sometimes she flies out of the country just to spruce up high-value clients.

The demand for make-up tutorials has gone a notch higher and has spawned an industry online, with thousands of video bloggers setting up YouTube accounts to teach people how to apply makeup.

Local celebrities and other influential individuals have also realised the importance of personalised care. From model Ajuma Nasenyana, musicians Wahu Kagwi and Timmy T-Dat, to TV personality Lillian Muli and businesswoman Anerlisa Mungai, the number of Kenyans who have enlisted the services of makeup artists is ever rising.

Lifestyle talked with some of the top-grossing makeup artists on their day-to-day lives.



Steve Koby

The 31-year-old father of one ventured into makeup artistry after spending two years in the insurance industry where he worked as a trained underwriter. Earlier, he had also spent a few months in the online movie rental business.

In 2009, he began studying beauty therapy at Vera Beauty College and wanted to be a hairdresser.

“I love making ladies feel good and more confident about themselves, the priceless smile at the end of every session is worth every second of what I do,” he says.

After taking up massage therapy and makeup artistry courses at the college, he found himself pulled by his love for all things beauty and his highly artistic background into doing makeup — under the guidance and training of the renowned beautician Suzie Wokabi who also gave him the exposure he needed.

His big break came in October 2010 when he started doing makeup for True Love magazine and got to work with big personalities such as former model Bidanya Barasa, and Nairobi Woman Representative Rachel Shebesh among others. Coincidentally, around this time, he met Njanja Koby, a fellow makeup artist. They are not only husband and wife now but together they are a driving force in the makeup sector in Kenya.

Asked what constitutes a decent look on a woman, Koby says: “For me, a decent look is well shaped eyebrows, mascara on the lashes to give them an elongated effect, minimal foundation to even out the skin tone and well moisturised and glossed lips.”

He is now one of the most sought after makeup artists. After working with many celebrities including Elani, Sarah Hassan, Wahu Kagwi, and even going international to celebrities such as Kenyan supermodel Ajuma Nasenyana, Tanzanian musician Vanessa Mdee and Nigerian artiste Yemi Alade, it is safe to say Koby knows his brushes and sponges.

“If I wasn’t a makeup artist I’d still be an artist, drawing and all. If in the beauty industry then I’d be a massage therapist,” he says.


Kangai Mwiti

A 2016 winner of The YouTube Africa Creator Awards, she is a digital strategist whose professional background spans the retail, beauty and IT industries. Her YouTube channel BellesaAfrica was Kenya’s first to be dedicated solely to makeup and beauty tips and tutorials for the average black woman.

The channel currently has over 100,000 subscribers and views averaging seven million. Its impact is felt in over 100 countries around the world.

Kangai began her journey overseas with an undergraduate degree in business. She decided to venture into the makeup business in 2007.

Her family and friends encouraged her to get more involved, and her mother even helped her put together her very first professional makeup kit.

Then in 2008, her friend approached her to do the makeup in a professional shoot for an album cover. She has never looked back since.  

“I love the freedom that comes with what I do. I wear many hats and each project I work on enables me to do what I want, whenever I want. Of course that comes with discipline, which is something I learn more about every day. But overall, I love my freedom,” she tells Lifestyle.

After social media backlash from one of her viral makeup tutorials, she has taken it upon herself to put an end to stigmatisation of women who use makeup.

Her biggest work ethic, she says, is learning to work with the client’s facial structures.

“I try not to exaggerate or go overboard; which I can, however, do if the client requires it. What this means is that I work with what you actually look like, and I don’t use products or techniques that would change who you are,” she says.

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