Damaris Muga’s company, Imagepro, was born out of her love for computers and fashion.
The former model, who is 5’10’’ tall and a Face of Africa finalist, told Money that her interest in graphic design and developing websites started in 1998, long before the internet became commonplace in Kenya.
“It is from as early as then that I started wondering whether there was more that could be done with the computer than typing,” she said.
Fresh from high school, Ms Muga was hired as a receptionist at an internet service provider in Kenya as she also attended a language course.
After two years, her passion for modelling would take her to Germany, and right into a cauldron of financial hardship.
LEARNED HOW TO CODE
She modelled part-time as she looked for a job from yet another technology firm, where she says she learnt more than any school could have taught her.
“I realised that I needed a portfolio on the internet and decided to do it myself,” she said. She quickly turned to books and YouTube to learn how to code.
After a few months, she started designing websites with fonts and colour combinations that were not only easy on the eye, they were also user-friendly.
In 2010, a decade later, and after a successful career as a model and visual artist, Ms Muga moved back to Kenya to set up her own firm.
“I have worked for famous public figures who, instead of paying me, told me it was good for my name that I worked for them.
“It leaves me wondering whether the plumber they call to fix the toilets in their houses does so because it is good for the plumbing company.”
Being a model who has graced international catwalks, Ms Muga says she understands branding and impressions and injects all that knowledge in her customers’ work. She laments that in many cases, this is not appreciated.
“I want my customer’s blog, website, or business card to promote their cause,” she says. Then there is the matter of pay. “I invest all my time in making a blog that will speak volumes about its owner.
Unfortunately, most of them end up paying only a fraction of the agreed amount. When I ask for the balance, they say they cannot pay that amount of money for just a few pictures and a logo.”
In a good month, however, Ms Muga earns Sh300,000 from designing websites, business cards, posters, logos, and other works. Her charges, she says, can be as much as Sh5,000 an hour or as little as nothing, especially when she sees potential in a cash-strapped customer.
Makeup artist Rose Ntong’ondu also knows a thing or two about the difficulties an entrepreneur running a business that is considered to be a hobby faces.
The proprietor of Makeup By Rose, Ms Ntong’ondu says she has had the chance to work on the faces of celebrities, television news anchors, and female politicians and makes an average of Sh300,000 in a bad month, but she has learnt to be patient.
The pay is understandable, considering that her client list includes prominent personalities and big events such as the Strut It Africa Modelling pageant and Nairobi Fashion Market. To augment her earnings, she has a reality TV show that airs in Rwanda and Burundi.
SUZIE BEAUTY BRAND
Apart from her hourly rate of Sh5,000, Ms Ntong’ondu runs a training programme that costs her students — beauticians interested in learning the practical skills of makeup — Sh30,000.
“I have been in this business for more than seven years, reading and studying about it every day, but I still get customers who ignore my advice on what is good for their skin.”
Some customers, she says, make it obvious to her that they do not consider her to be a professional.
Ms Ntong’ondu’s journey to stability has been uneventful. Throughout secondary school, she loved beauty and fashion. She experimented on herself so much that someone asked her to help her make up the bridal team in a wedding in 2005. So impressed were her customers that she got referrals. From there, her in-tray slowly filled up.
The beauty industry in Kenya, as she realised in 2007, is not very receptive to startups. “A complete beauty kit is very expensive, so I had to hire it from established artists for Sh500 an hour.” Often, the charges varied drastically.
Still unable to pay bills from her beauty work, Ms Ntong’ondu got a job under renowned cosmetologist, Dr Irene Njoroge, with whom she worked for two years. She also worked with beautician Suzie Wokabi for the Suzie Beauty brand.
With Dr Njoroge’s encouragement to specialise in makeup, Ms Ntong’ondu set out on her own in 2007. She bought her first beauty kit for Sh45,000. She got a company logo, email address, and business cards. Over the years, Ms Ntong’ondu has worked hard to earn her customers’ trust and respect.
“I am there on time when they need me I use clean and sanitised equipment. I do not compromise on the quality of my products, no matter their price.” The kit Ms Ntong’ondu showed Money contains beauty products from globally-renowned brands such as Iman Cosmetics and MAC Cosmetics.
Designer-cum-tailor George Owiti displays the same tenacity. Speaking to Money in his shop in Umoja, Nairobi, Mr Owiti says his fashion brand that has dressed famous people such as singer Size 8 started with Sh1,000 seed capital, which he used to buy fabric and hire a sewing machine.
His clothing line, Very Rare, was established in 2011 while he was a second-hand clothes dealer at Gikomba market, Nairobi. When business is good, Mr Owiti makes Sh80,000 a month. His pieces — dresses, suits, trousers, and bags — cost between Sh2,000 and Sh7,000.
Imported jeans brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Rocawear impressed him so much that he started wondering how it would feel like to make local brands with Kenyan fabrics.
He would act on his dream by making clothes for himself using his neighbour’s manual sewing machine. Surprisingly, his friends loved his outfits that used a blend of Maasai and Western fabric. They soon started placing orders. “That is where I began tailoring and I have never looked back,” he told Money.
His designs were spotted by FBI Dancers during the first season of the Sakata Dance competition in 2011. From the proceeds, he bought his first electric sewing machine. His customer base grew to include singer MOG.
Despite challenges, these three entrepreneurs have learnt to shield themselves from their unpredictable markets. Ms Ntong’ondu had to work on her patience and communication in order to flourish.
“I show up with my kit on time and presentable. I use good language and deliver my all despite having difficult customers at times,” she said.
Like Ms Ntong’ondu, who says she has to keep reading about new beauty products, graphic designer Damaris Muga notes:
“There is no time that I will know enough. I have to keep researching, looking around at what other people are doing, and learning how to use new software.”
Ms Muga says that while it is important to have high academic qualifications, artiste must learn to manage their business.
“You have to know the math on investing, calculating taxes, profits, as well as the art of pricing.”