How did Dubois street become the cosmetic hub of East Africa?

Rose Wambui (left) proprietor of Perfect Lady Beauty Spot attends to a customer at her cosmetic shop along Dubois Road in Nairobi on August 4, 2020. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Alluring women posters smile from window displays announcing the names of the shops.
  • Cosmetics are in great demand in Kenya, and it was indeed the truth, judging from the number of buyers flocking the shops despite the economic downturn.

  • Then there is the underground skin-lightening trade on the street and also on the nearby street, River Road.

The street reverberates with activity. Shoppers, loaders, and sellers mill around the road while others walk about helter-skelter.

Salon workers dash about in branded aprons as they pop into stalls to purchase the products and tools needed for their work before they dash back to their respective work stations.

The street reverberates with signboards competing for attention. Alluring women posters smile from window displays announcing the names of the shops. "African Princess beauty shop" screams one of them. Others promise perpetual beauty with names like "Forever Beauty Care supplier". Welcome to Dubois road, the heartbeat of Kenya's beauty industry.

Landmark buildings such as Perida Centre and St. Bakhita stalls are among the most competitive real estate points in downtown Nairobi. Being iconic buildings synonymous with beauty shops, owning a stall here comes at a song.

Not only do prospective shop owners have to part with rents of Sh75,000 per month for a 7ft by 7 ft room which must be paid in half-yearly installments, but the goodwill of up to five million shillings is also necessary to pay for one to occupy a shop in these and similar buildings.

No one is complaining. Business is booming. So much so that there is a waiting list for shops everywhere. "People wait for up to two years to get a shop here," a caretaker reveals.

Cosmetics are in great demand in Kenya, and it was indeed the truth, judging from the number of buyers flocking the shops despite the economic downturn.


This street, not only serves the rest of Kenya, but also the larger East African cosmetics market. Hairpieces were packed into boxes together with other cosmetics headed for Uganda and Rwanda. One buyer, Mr. Charles Lwanga from Uganda said that he visits Kenya every three months to purchase beauty supplies for his family's' thriving salon and cosmetic business.

"In each trip, I buy goods worth Sh500,000," Charles says.

We also meet Ms. Maria Habarimana from Kigali in Rwanda. She visits Dubois Road every month for cosmetics and hair products to sell in her shop in Kigali. "The prices are reasonable here and the variety of products is appealing," says Maria who spends an average of Sh200,000 per visit.

A two-day bus trip followed by a day-long shopping spree and an overnight stay in one of the surrounding hotels is enough to create a profitable business trip for many of them.

"Kenya is a shopping destination for us Burundians," says Jean-Claude Rutabaga, a trader from Bujumbura. "These products are in great demand in our country and we make a lot of money after selling them," he says.

Kenyans other towns also get their supplies from this single street. Jennifer Kinoti from Meru runs a beauty shop in Timau who spends Sh20,000 weekly to replenish her stocks. "One can buy plenty of products here and sell at a good margin," she says.

Apart from the foot traffic, Dubois also caters to online sellers. Once online, the goods are sold for up to two to three times the original purchase price.

Making fortunes

So who is making a killing from the Dubois road?

We are told, the proverbial early worm catches the worm, reigns supreme here.

The movers and shakers here are those savvy business people who set up in the early nineties. "They own several stalls and control the trade and real estate bookings," a trader tells us.

But as another trader tells us, only those who persevered the harsh realities of the time, made it big. "In the early days, this area was a no-go zone for many people. Most of the cosmetic suppliers were Indians who owned shops uptown. Upmarket salons would avoid these places and we relied on upcountry buyers.

Now it is different and for those who stayed put, they are reaping because the whole game has changed. We are now the biggest supplier of products in Nairobi. Everyone comes here because we improved our product variety," Mwangi says.

Many of the stalls in Dubois Road are owned by individuals and big-time wholesalers such as Cosmix.

Claims of fake products

But with big empires comes a reputation dip. Dubois is known for advancing the counterfeit cosmetic trade.

Want a knock-off Maybelline, Revlon, or Mary Kay, for a few hundred shillings? You got it.

"The products come from China by special order. Some of the products are ordered online and shipped by companies based in Eastleigh," a trader who did not want to be named revealed.

Caroline Bisieri, a frequent shopper in Dubois Road says that she shops here because the products are fairly priced. "I can find everything I need here at very low prices. I particularly come here for perfumes and make up every month.

I have never reacted to any of these products and find them to be of good quality. The only problem is that sometimes you cannot be completely sure whether or not the products are fake," Caroline says.

Skincare made in River Road

Then there is the underground skin-lightening trade on the street and also on the nearby street, River Road.

"Mafuta Auntie ….nunua mafuta poa hapa" (Are you looking creams, Auntie, come and buy the best ones here)" a busty woman calls out to me on River Road. It is an open secret that women go there in droves to buy mixtures known in local parlance as "mkorogo" (concoction). These are mixtures of powerful chemicals to lighten and bleach the skin tone. Shops and stalls are squeezed in narrow corridors and crammed with thousands of varieties of skin products.

Enticing names such as "coco pulp" " Carol light", " White Secret" "Top Lemon Light" and foreign and exotic names like "l' peau eclairassante" others with medical-sounding ones such as "Clozaben" and Dermapen are common findings here.

A walk up a dingy staircase leads one into Mombasa Rest House, which is inaptly named because it is nothing close to a rest house. It is a conglomeration of desktop laboratories and tabletops creaking under the weight of tubes, bottles, and pots of beauty creams. Young and middle-aged women many with bleached complexions ply the skin trade from here.

Women of all ages shuffle and jostle each other for space in this crowded shopping exhibition. The stall attendants keep a close watch for any new arrivals from the stair landing. They are aggressive and persuasive. A queue of women waits around a counter strewn with laboratory equipment.

Spatulas, test-tubes, measuring jugs and filter funnels form the paraphernalia of tools used to create the creams that are mixed into the famous mkorogo concoctions. There is a price list indicating the prices as follows: Three days' action – Sh500 for 100 grams, 7 days' action – Sh300 for 100 grams, and Business starter kit at Sh3000.

A man yells to a waiting client "unataka ile strong ama ya kawaida"? (Do you want yours strong or of normal strength?). This is a typically busy day in the underground world of Nairobi's skin lightening centre.

One seller claims that her product is the most popular and that those who use it always return to keep their skin light and smooth. A lady in the queue says that since she began using the creams, she is unable to stop because her skin changes in tone and clarity once she skips a day or two.

Selling lightening creams on River Road

Asked, one trader, Jamila says that she is aware of the side effects but like all sellers here, she is here to make money and not to educate people about health. After all, she says, people drink beer, smoke, and eat unhealthily, even with the risks.

It is said that most women with skin problems tend to visit River Road as the first line of treatment looking for creams to clear spots and pimples.

The skin-lightening industry is worth a whopping 120- 200 billion in Kenya despite the government ban on the products.