In less than three years, Catherine Mbatha has progressed from shampoo girl to owner of an enterprising barbershop and spa in Diani, the busy tourist town in Kwale County.
In this part of the country, grooming services, especially shaving, have traditionally been done by men, but this is changing, there is a new wave of female barbers that is taking over the industry, enjoying good business while at it.
When we visit her business, known as Kate de Barbershop and Spa, we find her carefully trimming one of her male customer’s hair. Four other barbers, all male, are busy attending to other customers. Catherine is the boss here, but you can barely tell.
But her story does not start in Diani. It starts in Nairobi, where she would frequent a particular barbershop on her way to school to watch how they worked.
“I was in college in Nairobi and enjoyed watching the barbers at work. Later, I was employed as one of their shampoo girls, work that involved washing clients’ hair after a shave,” she begins,
Then, she would earn less than Sh1, 000 a day. But she had bigger ambitions. Whenever children asked for less complicated haircuts, she would volunteer to do it, keen on sharpening her skill.
After six months, she relocated to Diani, where she was employed as a barber for a year. It, however, was not easy, as most customers were reluctant to be shaved by a woman.
“With time, I think they, (men) loved the idea of being shaved by a woman. It is then that I started saving with the vision of putting up my own business.”
In less than a year, she had raised enough money to open her own business.She used the Sh140, 000 she had saved to buy a seat, shaving machines and co-rented the premises with a friend.
Business was so good, that she later saved up enough to buy another seat and employed another barber to assist her.
“Whenever I got a new client, he always came back for a trim from me. This gave me confidence that this was a sustainable business, which motivated me to expand it even further,” she comments.
She kept saving up, and early last year, acquired a new, bigger space along Beach Road in Diani and employed three more barbers to attend to the growing demand.
“My customers also started asking for massage services, so I expanded my space upstairs to have a massage parlour. There was no need for them to have hair services here and then seek other services from another shop,”
She further added manicure and pedicure sevices as well as dreadlocks installation, making her shop a one-stop beauty and grooming place.
Catherine admits that she never expected her business to grow this fast, but she always saved her earnings to ensure she met the demands of her customers for quality services.
She also does house calls. This is where anyone who wants her services and is unable to visit her premises is attended to in their home.
She maintains that quality services, a clean environment and good customer relations have made her stand out as a female barber.
“Most of my male clients say they enjoy the gentle touch, I take that as a compliment,” she says.
She further adds that the level of hygiene and order in her shop attracts more customers. For them, shaving is such a sensitive matter that one has to be satisfied with whoever is working on them and the environment that they are working with. Over the years, she has grown to be one of Diani’s most popular barbers, attracting people from other sub-counties within Kwale County, including senior government officials.
“I now shave a number of the high-level personalities in this county, including the former governor. I am humbled that each of my customers trusts me to do the job,” she says. Her rates range from Sh300 to Sh5, 000 for a haircut.
The cost for other services such as massage, pedicure, dreadlocks and manicures depends on the effort and time used. For instance, hairstyles that require dying or designing cost more than simple plain ones. To avoid a situation where customers have to wait long to get served, she has employed more than nine staff.
Though she has expansion in mind, she plans to explore all the beauty and grooming services at her current location before expanding her business to other parts of Kwale and beyond.
“Managing such a business is not easy. It requires one to be present at all times to ensure that everything runs as it should. It also needs you to have the skills you are offering so that you set the standards for your employees,” she advises.
Her advice to young people aspiring to venture into this businesses is that they have to be passionate about it, and also have the skills required to do the job.