Beauty and the ever advancing technology Beast that is taking East Africa to the world
In this interview, I speak with Kenyan-American Aisha Kibwana of asminibeauty.com
Who is Aisha? Yours is an interesting background - can you share your journey with us?
I am a Kenyan-American who was born and raised in Kenya and moved to the United States as a high school student at the age of 13. From a very young age, I knew I was passionate about the African continent and I wanted to find a way to dedicate my career to addressing some of its political and economic challenges.
During my time as a student in the United States, I took an interest in political studies and economics and I graduated from Rice University in Texas with a dual degree in Political Science and French studies. For a very long time, I thought I would end up in something related to international law or diplomacy but entrepreneurship had always been a part of my life.
At the age of nine, I was handmaking and selling bracelets to my peers (with a lifetime guarantee!), and as a college student, I made and sold jewelry at my university. It wasn’t long after graduating from Rice that I decided to try my luck again as an entrepreneur.
With Instagram as a free marketing tool, I started Asmini Beauty as an experiment to make access to American beauty products easier and more affordable for Kenyan clients. With assistance from family and volunteers, I slowly built and grew the brand as a side hustle remotely.
In 2017, I enrolled at Columbia University as a graduate student to pursue a Master of International Affairs and recently completed my double degree as an exchange student in Germany specializing in energy and development studies. I see private enterprise as a way to address the high youth unemployment across the continent and as a way to create resources to address different social needs. After many years, I have decided to combine my interest in creating solutions for Africa’s socioeconomic challenges with my passion for entrepreneurship and I hope to dedicate more time to building and scaling viable businesses across the continent.
The beauty industry is said to be booming in Africa- what opportunity does technology present for African beauty products to be prominent on a global scale?
It’s often said that technology, and especially social media, has really changed the way people and companies market themselves, their ideas, and their services. It has changed consumption and marketing patterns. In many ways it’s lowered the market entry barrier and allows for more creative control in how different entities brand themselves.
Around the world, Africa included, people have been successfully creating and growing concepts and careers that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. It’s also made it easier for existing SMEs and micro-enterprises to market themselves. In this way, technology has created a space for anybody and everybody to create something and sell it if they so choose to.
Besides the beauty industry, young Africans are successfully using technology to build businesses with regional and global reach. African influencers are getting featured by international brands and magazines and niche brands such as Lives are changing the way Africa is portrayed, not just within the African market but also globally. For African beauty brands, this presents an incredible opportunity to find creative ways to market through partnerships and collaborations. Beauty brands around the world have capitalized on this and I don’t see why African brands shouldn’t do the same.
Access to technology also presents an opportunity to learn. I always say between social media and YouTube and tons of other free resources, there is no shortage of avenues to self-educate. Can’t find the answers, then use technology as a way to connect to look for professionals and ask them targeted questions. There are answers out there so leverage technology to find them to address your most pressing problems. Use those answers to improve on your brand and capitalize on everything free (hashtags, features etc.) to reach out to a global audience.
Your www.asminibeauty.com platform currently services the East African market - why is it important to champion African beauty products and entrepreneurs particularly in that region?
I started Asmini Beauty under a different name (in its experimental stage) as a way to get beauty products at affordable prices to Kenyan women. At the time I started, I had just joined Instagram and noticed two things 1) that existing companies in Kenya were selling foreign products at extremely high prices and 2) that people were using Instagram as a free marketing tool. Having lived in the United States for a while, I knew these products were not as expensive. I began in Kenya for this reason and also because I’m from there. I speak the native language and understand the people and culture. The East African community also continues to integrate economically, and we also share common languages as neighbors so for me it’s a natural choice.
Like in other African regions, the beauty industry is also booming in East Africa with many local and international brands setting up shop, especially in Kenya. From the development perspective, my greatest concern is that local brands can get crowded out when there is not enough support for local industry and big international brands make their splash with multimillion dollar branding and marketing budgets. African brands in the past have also gotten a bad rep in terms of quality so foreign products are more in demand. This isn’t to say that there no local brands that are doing extremely well already but we aren’t there yet. Things are changing slowly as local entrepreneurs push for quality and higher standards. As a brand, we hope that by championing local African beauty brands on our platform, this not only increases visibility for local brands within the East African market but will also help change local perspectives on the quality of products available. When buying local, there is also a rippling effect within the economy. As more local brands get more recognition, they can sell greater quantities of their product, hire more workers and contractors, and recirculate money within the economy. Our hope is that as we grow together, we push towards improving on quality and service to better market the #BuyAfrican agenda.
What are some of the challenges you encounter as a young woman, penetrating a space that is largely dominated by big global brands, who are also taking a big interest in African beauty products? How do you overcome these challenges?
My biggest challenges have been mostly building the brand as a one-woman show, remotely. I definitely have a lot of help on the ground and I am so grateful because that is how I have been able to grow, albeit slowly. But you have to learn to be a master of everything because you don’t have a team or people specializing in certain areas of the business. So you have to keep the finances straight, manage communications, learn about and manage the marketing, and also network and build partnerships as you go along.
There is no shortage of things to learn, challenges to faces, and mistakes to make and grow from. It’s an exciting journey but something that could take one several years to master and grow an idea that a big global brand can do in months or weeks because they have the capital and resources. For me, for example, I was juggling Asmini Beauty while working, then after that as a full time graduate student. When I first started, hardly anyone was paying attention to the Kenyan beauty market and now many big name brands are investing there and there are several local players growing similar enterprises with slightly different takes. In some ways it’s also interesting because some of these international brands source raw materials from Africa, put them in their finished products elsewhere, and then either have their finished products resold to the African market through various channels or retail it themselves through corporate partnerships. A part of the challenge there for me is: how do you convince an African that the shea butter they are buying from foreign brand x is the same shea butter that is sourced and refined in Uganda or Ghana? In terms of juggling Asmini with other things, I’ve had an immense amount of help from my parents. Especially my mom who has also been incredibly supportive and helps me manage things on the ground when I’m not there. One thing I’ve learned is to ask for help more often and always ask questions.
When you are working on something within your own mental bubble, you sometimes convince yourself that your questions or problems may be silly which isn’t true. With regards to the other challenges, I actually don’t really see them as negatives because ultimately I think it forces me to continuously refine and define the brand’s selling points. What makes us unique? How can we stand out in this market? What can we do differently? To be quite honest, there are perks of being able to start from scratch as a startup. Many big brands sometimes come with blueprints from other countries and end up failing or faltering because they either don’t understand the local market or just cannot adjust. As an “insider,” you sometimes have unique perspectives or learn unique things about the market that you can implement that a big brand can’t and you can use that to your advantage.
What advice would you give young females looking to get into the 4th industrial revolution?
- Be proactive! Sometimes I see young entrepreneurs waiting to be given the right answers or waiting to be given a framework to work with. Start with something and work your way up. There is no one single way of doing things and you learn best by trying.
- There is no perfect timing and you don’t need a perfect plan. Of course weigh the risks first but find a way to start. You’ll figure it out. Things will inevitably go wrong somewhere if you are doing it right and you’ll have to find ways to pivot.
- Network! I’ll say it again: Network. Tell people about your idea. Perfect your pitch. I used to be shy talking about what I was building but the more I talked about it the more I realized people were giving me brilliant ideas, FOR FREE.
- Find your (brand’s) voice. It’s so easy to copy what someone else is doing. There is a difference between inspiration and copy/paste. You can steal someone’s ideas but not their vision. You also set yourself up for failure if you don’t get the logic of why they are doing what they are doing. Be yourself. Trust your instincts. When you focus on what someone else is doing and trying to emulate them, you don’t give yourself room to reflect on your own brilliant ideas and the unique things you can bring to the market.
- Don’t be afraid to scratch things off your list. Not all of your brilliant ideas will be brilliant. Figure out which areas in your plan you need to do away with so you can focus on what’s working. If something isn’t working, it’s really not the end. On the other hand, always be thinking about the future and the additional value you can bring to your target market. Don’t stagnate as there is always room to improve.
- Think about the value of everything that you do. Whether it’s content, descriptions, a website…anything related to your business…think about the end consumer. How is this adding value to their lives?
- If you are planning to go the social media route, engagement is more important than likes and followers. If you can engage with your audience, that means they listen to you and you can actually sell them something. In a “noisy” world, getting people to respond to you takes effort and is meaningful and that becomes your leverage.
- Seek inspiration everywhere: in books, YouTube videos, online courses, free webinars etc. Keep an open mind. Maybe it’s the liberal arts education I’ve had but you never know where your next source of inspiration will come from.
- Not every business has to have a social enterprise component but it certainly helps to have a big vision and purpose tied to what you do. For me, it helps keep things in perspective when I am faced with challenges or moments of self-doubt.
- Some might disagree with me on this point but after a few years, I have discovered that it’s hard to grow as a part-time entrepreneur. You can play around with an idea as a side project for a while but at some point, you’ll likely have to choose between being a full-time entrepreneur or going the traditional employment route.
- Track data. In times where you feel discouraged, data can be uplifting as you see your growth.
- Finally, if things don’t work out, that’s okay. Entrepreneurship is hard. Entrepreneurship in Africa can be even harder. One failed idea could mean you have an opportunity to build something even better.
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