Thirty-year-old Pamela Gatwiri is a former air hostess with Emirates Airlines whom, like others in this line of work, was constantly on the move around the world living out of a suitcase.
In 2013, after seven years in the carrier, Ms Gatwiri decided to quit the demanding job and set up her own business — a cosmetics line that initially specialised in making nail polishes.
The entrepreneurial bug bit her after constant requests from her family and friends in Nairobi to ship back specific nail polish brands to them, based on the belief that locally-available options were substandard.
As an air hostess, personal grooming was paramount and therefore her makeup kit and nail polish were some of the items that could be quickly retrieved from her handbag when the situation demanded it. Naturally, her friends trusted her choice and Ms Gatwiri entertained the thought that she could start a nail polish line. And she did.
She is the founder and chief executive of Pam Nail Care Products which owns the brand Pam, making her one of the first young entrepreneurs to venture into this line of business locally.
“One day while doing my nails in my Dubai hotel room I realised that there existed an unmet need in the nail polish industry,” Ms Gatwiri told Enterprise in an interview.
“Kenyans are mostly limited to brands from the Middle East, the United States and counterfeits mainly from China. I reached the decision to start my own line, basing my products on what women in my country really want.”
Armed with about Sh1 million in savings, Ms Gatwiri started off by doing market research to know who the players in the beauty industry were and different customer tastes.
She also fished out information on how nail polish in manufactured, including ingredients needed to make quality products which do not chip easily and do not form air bubbles when applied. The research stage lasted until 2014 by which time she had collected samples from different manufacturers in Europe since Kenya does not have a good plant yet.
“When I asked people in Nairobi whether they knew of any cosmetic scientist, nobody had a clue as to who that was,” she said, a reality which at first frustrated her.
After months of toiling, she narrowed down to two formulas in late 2014. Around the same time she ordered her first batch of Pam Nail Polish, a product named after her. She contracted a firm based in Florida, in the US.
At the turn of 2015 she opened a beauty parlour along Tom Mboya Street in Nairobi, a space that would allow her to showcase her new products as well as offer nail grooming. She has also entered into a deal with Carrefour Supermarket to sell her products at the Hub and Two Rivers shopping malls in Nairobi.
“Initially, the response was slow, but the momentum picked up soon enough,” Ms Gatwiri said.
“The toughest market is the high-end segment. Contrary to popular opinion, these clients usually buy brands based on their popularity and not necessarily how pricey they are.”
Ms Gatwiri, who graduated from Strathmore University in 2007 with an accounting and business management degree, said her company produces nail polish such as glitters, pastel colours, neon’s, base and top coats. She also deals in nail treatments which include nail strengtheners and nail bed healers.
Since her first batch arrived one and a half years ago, Ms Gatwiri said she has sold over 5,000 tubes, raising Sh1.8 million in revenue. Each tube retails at between Sh350 and Sh500.
“Gel polish, which is the most popular, is longer lasting; between two and four weeks. It dries under UV or LED light. Nail polish is preferred by people who want to change their look as often as possible. I personally like to change mine every four days,” she said.
Ms Gatwiri has already started expanding her business by introducing three types of body scrubs for which she contracted manufacturers in the Middle East. These retail at about Sh400 a tube. She hopes the business will grow to have a countrywide presence through franchising.
The beauty and cosmetics industry in Kenya has become a hub of investment that is pulling in big money to establish new lines of business and snap up successful enterprises through multi-million shilling acquisition deals.
The Sh6 billion industry recently saw Flame Tree Group acquire local start-up Suzie Beauty in a deal estimated to be worth millions of shillings, underlining the potential investors see.
The beauty products maker has also bought Miss Africa, Black Angel and Beauty plus hair brands from Beauty Plus Trading East Africa before taking up Monalisa skincare brand shortly thereafter.
“Our vision is to have the largest nail bar chain in the country,” said Ms Gatwiri, adding that she would also like to manufacture locally one day.
“We want to have stand-alone nail bars where customers can buy our products and experience our services.”