Led by Local Women, Makeup Sales Heat Up in Africa

Earlier today, I sauntered into a Sephora and found the exact right shade of red that made me look like Rose McGowan's fat, hip grandma*. It's a good look, but one that required me to try on about fifty shades of red before I landed on a color that didn't make me look like Ronald McDonald's fatter, less hip cousin. The luxury of sauntering up to a makeup counter is one of the reasons living in the sprawling shitbox of an American metropolis is all worth it. However, in Kenya, finding decent quality makeup —that doesn't come from evil empires like Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and L'Oréal — is not as easy as strolling into Sephora.

Luckily, Suzie Wokabi is looking to change all that. After moving back to her native Kenya in 2007, she noticed that there wasn't tons of high caliber makeup available, and the stuff that did exist was super expensive and in short supply. Wokabi thought this was bullshit (cause it is), raised 16 million Kenyan shillings (about $187,000), and started her own cosmetics company, SuzieBeauty.

Wokabi said her research showed that SuzieBeauty products were the only Kenyan-designed cosmetics on the market. "SuzieBeauty is for the African woman," she said. "It's the first Kenyan cosmetics line, and I've created it for us. For the first time, we have something that belongs to us."

The colors used by international brands are not always good for African women, she said. Also, "the humidity levels, the climate, the sun, the African sun, it changes something. I've had to take all of that into consideration."

Cool! Or, uh, hot, as it were.

The beauty industry in the Middle East and Africa, estimated at about $20.4 billion in 2011, isn't a huge slice of the International beauty pie — comparatively, the Asian market was estimated at $114 billion in 2011 — but "Africa is the next frontier for global luxury goods brands, said Fflur Roberts, Euromonitor's global head of luxury goods, noting that the continent is projected to have double-digit economic growth by the end of the next decade."

Another emerging African beauty brand, Africology, is finding success with its the organic, hippie vibe. So much so, that it's even started to be carried in high-end and resorts all over Africa. They plan a debut in the United States next year.

Although it seems like investments might take awhile to pan out, as Africa XX, Wokabi is far from worried. According to the New York Times, "[s]he conducted focus groups that showed the average Kenyan woman was willing to spend as much as 20 percent of her salary on beauty products."

Jeez, that's a lot. Is that how much Americans spend? The report, Beauty at any Cost, noted U.S. women spent some $7 billion a year, or an average of about $100 a month each, on cosmetics and beauty products. That's a lot, too, and I think it's probably more if you factor in stuff like salon visits and all that jazz. I'm of two minds. Part of me is upset at what feels like the gross spreading of Western beauty norms into other areas; when I was in Uganda in 2003, the main radio ads I heard were for weight loss pills and skin lightening creams, and that bummed me out.

But this is different, it's bringing good quality products that make people feel pretty, and looking good is part of feeling good! And when you feel good, you can conquer the whole damn world. Or at least feel like conquering the world is a possibility, right? And, as it stands, the imported makeup in Africa looks like it's either garbage or it's hella expensive and hard to find, so it's exciting that the market is opening up, especially with African women leading the way.

*Vincent Longo Lip Vinyl in Fellini Red is divine on red heads, and HEAVEN KNOWS NOT MUCH IS. Jkjk, being a ginger is the very best because hanging out with the devil is hella fun. The hottest parties, you guys. Seriously. So hot. I'll stop now.

Finding the Beauty in African Sales [New York Times]