Lucy King’ori’s son was born with eczema – a dry, itchy and often painful rash. His skin would dry out and become itchy and inflamed. He would scratch his skin raw and stay up all night crying.
“I always put him in mittens so the scratches would not be as severe,” says Lucy. His condition meant he barely slept through the night.
In her search for a cure for her son’s eczema, she stumbled upon some South Sudanese shea butter, which made the son’s condition better after two weeks of use, eventually curing his skin condition. Her business idea was thus born.
After doing research online and taking short courses in natural cosmetics, she began formulating skincare products – soaps and butters – with shea butter as the base.
“I wanted to come up with a natural product and I didn’t want someone else to do it for me. I learnt the different ways into which I could use shea butter to come up with different products.”
She converted her servant’s quarter into a workshop and started formulating and selling.
“It helped that around the time we started, the natural hair movement in Kenya had started gaining traction and by then natural products were not easy to come by.”
Re-inventing the business
Three years down the business, things were not going according to plan. “I started without a proper business plan. My business model was all wrong, I had the wrong partner and I had to start all over again,” she says of her business’ name that she changed from Shea by Asal to Bu.Ke Brands Limited, which was officially launched in February 2017. “Changing a brand name is as good as starting afresh,” she says.
Having rebranded she felt the need to re-invent her brand to keep the excitement and interest going. She decided to expand her product range. But to what exactly?
“In 2018, I went to Italy for Cosmoprof – the leading trade show in the world for cosmetics and professional beauty industry. The experience was both mind-blowing and humbling. Compared to what I saw there, what I was doing with my brand felt like child’s play and that motivated me to build something that had one unique locally sourced ingredient.”
A song she chanted during geography class back in school came to mind. “Kenya is known for coffee, tea, pyrethrum…” From that list, she picked black tea as her unique ingredient and started researching on it, making many formulations in the process.
She then went on YouTube looking for farmers she could work with directly, rather than going through middlemen. Asked why she decided to drive all the way to Meru, Lucy says she wanted to get a proper product. “Buying from middlemen meant I am not aware of what grade of tea I am buying. Besides, I wanted to give back to the farmer who works on the ground.”
Research and more research
“I chanced upon a clip on YouTube of a farm in Meru that grew a unique tea that would make a difference for Kenyan farmers. After watching the clip aired by a local TV station, I decided I was going to work with that tea. Purple tea. A tea uniquely ONLY grown in Kenya!”
With help from the tea research team, she found out that purple tea was as beneficial whether ingested (high in body healing antioxidants, great for weight loss and cardiovascular health) or when applied topically (an ideal age reversing ingredient that also stops hair shedding), a real work horse.
When she found that only Kenya grew purple tea, she knew for sure that this was her star ingredient. “This tea was clearly gold. I call it the ‘Rolls Royce of tea’. I made several drives to Meru to convince the farmer that I wanted to work with this purple tea, add value to it and export it. Then I formulated the first ever cosmetic range of natural products using purple tea.”
Running a start-up
Starting a business is always exciting. The possibilities seem endless until reality strikes when challenges start coming in. Finding good people who are loyal is key to succeeding in business. If your team isn’t sold on your brand vision, the brand goes nowhere.
“While I understand that we have a lot of education to do in the Kenyan market, reception to the purple tea range has been overwhelming thanks to Caroline Mutokos’ YouTube channel and her willingness to help educate the masses. We have now grown in Kenya and beyond,” she says. “We are hoping to be a regional brand within three years as we help put Kenya on the global map.”
One thing I know for sure
“The one thing I advocate for is originality. You can never own someone else’s idea as your own. Having a good support system is also very important. For me, my mum and husband, Tony, have been with me every step. My family helped me put some capital together when I was rebranding and I am forever grateful.
I wish I had someone to advise me on partnerships, marketing and organic growth when I started. It would have saved me from wasting a lot of time.”