Wealthy Kenyans sink Sh40bn into weddings

Models showcase some of the wedding dresses from the House of Brides. Photo/ LEE PHOTOHOUSE STUDIO

Wealthy Kenyans are spending up to Sh40 billion (US $534 million ) a year on weddings, making the business one of the few growth sectors in the current difficult economic environment.

Research commissioned by wedding services company Samantha’s Bridal found that at least 28,000 couples get married in Kenya every year, and the average cost of a wedding for middle and upper middle class families is about Sh1.5 million.

“Kenyans are marrying late in life when they are established in careers that afford them a disposable income which they can use to finance the kind of wedding they want,” Catherine Masitsa of Samantha Bridal said.

In addition to income, Ms Masitsa said the present generation of couples has been heavily influenced by television and the internet which drive their desire for big spending. “This generation has a fixation on celebrity culture, and as a result, they are easily influenced by what they see celebrities doing,” she said.

Interviews by the Sunday Nation found that some wealthy families are spending as much as Sh50 million to send their children off to their new status as man and wife. Granted, weddings are expensive affairs, but the super rich in Kenya are spending a fortune to make their children’s big day as eventful and memorable as possible. Everything from imported designer bridal gowns to impressive guest lists reeks of money and makes a big cash statement.

The impressive convoy of top-of-the-range vehicles, some specially hired for the occasion, is meant to leave you in awe. In some extreme cases, the bride makes her grand entry in a specially decorated horse-drawn carriage. And such a carriage from Samantha’s Bridal Weddings drawn by four white horses doesn’t come cheap – it costs Sh135,000 a day.

But as Ms Masitsa points out, for this kind of clientele, money is not an issue as they are willing to spend as much as it takes to have a fairytale wedding, one that will stand out from the last big one. “The truth is that the wedding industry in Kenya is enjoying a boom like no other. Rich Kenyans are spending as much as Sh50 million on their wedding alone, and this is just the amount I am privy to – there could be weddings that have cost more,” she said.

She attended one wedding where the newlyweds had chartered planes to ferry 150 guests to the South Coast after the ceremony. They booked them into one of the top-of-the-line hotels for three days of wining and dining. “You can only imagine how much that cost them,” she said.

There are others who are willing to splash out even more and treat their guests to a cruise before flying off for their honeymoon at some exotic location. According to Ms Nelly Gathoni, a wedding planner with Beautiful Events, the cost of hiring someone to advise you and take care of the details is substantial.

Ms Gathoni said leaving the entire ceremony in the hands of a top-notch wedding planner could require a deposit of at least Sh1 million, which is considered as “consultation” fee. Of the Sh40 billion spend, wedding outfits account for an average of Sh7 billion. Engagement rings, wedding rings and other jewellery generate Sh1.3 billion a year.

Designer gowns

Wedding gowns can be quite expensive, and brides-to-be with the financial means can easily spend thousands of shillings on them. A specially-designed wedding gown by Nairobi design house Kiko Romeo can go for Sh135,000. And some brides who are willing to pay even more go for international designer gowns.

Ms Masitsa said she knows of a bride who paid 5,000 euros, or approximately Sh500,000, for an imported designer gown. When local news presenter and reporter Lillian Muli got married a few weeks ago, she chose to hold her wedding at Windsor Golf Hotel & Country Club.

According to a Nairobi-based wedding planner, Windsor may not fall in the category of the most expensive venues to hold a wedding, but it has become a status symbol among the rich, thanks to the many high-profile weddings held there. Hiring the grounds alone costs between Sh85,000 and Sh100,000, depending on the number of guests.

And as long as you intend to use their grounds for your wedding ceremony, Windsor does the catering as well. A plate of food ranges between Sh1,375 and Sh2,750 per guest, while the cheapest drink, a soda, costs Sh90. About 300 guests attended the news presenter’s wedding.

It is rumoured that attire for the groom and groomsmen, (which was imported) cost about Sh1.2 million, while dresses for the bridesmaids cost Sh18,000 each. Although the wedding must have cost the couple a tidy sum, theirs is considered an average event compared to what the wealthy are willing to pay.

When the son of Royal Media Services owner Samuel Kamau Macharia married earlier this year at Windsor, it was easy to tell it was a high-profile wedding from the guest list. According to sources, the wedding budget was Sh27 million.

We were also informed that the cost of the reception for the wedding of the son of the chairman of Equity Bank, Mr Peter Munga, also held at Windsor was Sh6 million. The wedding was attended by all the big political players and businessmen in the country.

But the very rich in Kenya are keen on steering away from the tried and tested themes like garden weddings that are now considered commonplace. New sites for out-of-the-ordinary weddings are in out-of-the-way places such as the middle of Maasai Mara game reserve and Nairobi National Park.

In August a one-of-a-kind wedding between the son and daughter of two prominent Kenyan businessmen was held in Nairobi National Park. Guests at the wedding of Jeff Kiboro and Wacuka Gichohi included Zambian First Lady Thandiwe Banda and Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s wife Ida, whose son Fidel who was one of the groomsmen.

According to a guest, a number of other prominent personalities attended as well. Guests were asked to leave their vehicles in the parking and boarded mini-buses that took them deep into the park. “We were treated to a mini-game drive before we arrived at the spot where several marquee tents had been put up,” said the guest.

Marquee tent

Depending on how many people it can hold, a marquee tent costs about Sh450,000 to hire. The wedding is rumoured to have cost Sh15 million. “Swanky, upmarket restaurants such as Osteria and Tamarind are also fast becoming favourite wedding venues for those with money to spend,” Ms Masitsa said, adding that to reserve them for a day, or even a few hours, you have to be willing to pay an arm and a leg.

These are usually invitation-only affairs, and guests are expected to produce the expensively embossed cards at the door; it is a strategy that effectively keeps gatecrashers at bay. The rich in Kenya fall into two categories – old-moneyed, and new-moneyed.

The old-moneyed group is usually secretive about their wealth, and though they are willing to part with millions to have a wedding befitting of their status, they are discreet about it, probably because they have always had it. As a result, rarely will you read about such weddings in the papers, at least not in detail.

These events exude “style”. They are put together by top-line wedding planners who understand how to transform the millions into taste and who understand the importance of discretion. In fact, planners who co-ordinate such weddings are sworn to secrecy regarding the amount spent.

Theirs might not have been lavish weddings bursting at the seams with high-profile personalities, but the wedding of Wairimu Njonjo, the daughter of former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo, to Bassen Volker a few weeks ago is a perfect example of how much “old-money” people value privacy.

It was reported that only about 30 guests were invited to the ceremony. Among the lucky few were Mr Odinga and his wife Ida. The afternoon wedding took place behind closed doors. Although a low-key affair, there was no doubt that it was not an ordinary wedding.

The guests were driven into the church compound in top-of-the-range vehicles, and when they had all arrived, police officers stood guard at the closed church doors as the ceremony took place. It may have been low-key, but the sight of police guarding the doors of the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi attracted onlookers all the same.

But those of the new-moneyed class are likely to flaunt it. They have no qualms spending mind-spinning amounts on a one-day affair and will gladly shout about it from the rooftops. Their weddings speak of “excess”, according to one wedding planner. Obviously, the extraordinary glitz and glamour says a lot, but so does an impressive guest list.

According to Dr Ken Ouko, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, there are a lot of factors that come into play when the rich plan their weddings, hold parties or other social events, factors that are unlikely to influence the average Kenyan when planning similar events.

“Among the rich, a son or daughter’s wedding is considered the perfect opportunity to make a statement, to show financial might and clout,” Dr Ouko said, adding that within the upper class, status rivalry is always brewing.

“This class is always trying to outdo each other, which explains why they have no qualms about splashing what you and I would consider a shocking amount on a ceremony that will last just a few hours.” He said it is, therefore, expected that this weekend’s rich man’s wedding will be even grander and more awe-inspiring than the one financed by another rich man the previous weekend.

Weddings, he says, are also the perfect chance for either family to make a profound impression on each other, and as a result, they will stop at nothing to achieve this effect.

He further explained that the big cars, the impressive guest line-up and the rich food that the new-moneyed serve at their weddings are status symbols that they believe are indicators of the elevated position they occupy in society. Most of the super rich are anything but modest about flaunting their money. “They have it at their disposal and will not hesitate to splash it around– it is just money after all,” Dr Ouko said.