Cosmetics: A Question Of Colour

Cosmetics is one of the largest industries in the world and it is now beginning to make itself felt strongly on the African continent. Until fairly recently, manufactured cosmetics aimed at the African market were the harmful skin-whitening creams dumped by unscrupulous traders. Things have changed dramatically, though, and now some of the biggest names […]


Cosmetics is one of the largest industries in the world and it is now beginning to make itself felt strongly on the African continent. Until fairly recently, manufactured cosmetics aimed at the African market were the harmful skin-whitening creams dumped by unscrupulous traders. Things have changed dramatically, though, and now some of the biggest names in the field are vying for the African market while several local firms have sprung up. Richard Seymour reports.

The market for cosmetics in Africa is yet another in the continent that is growing, albeit from a small base.

For many years, skin lightening among African women has been as common as it has been controversial. Opinions differ as to why so many African men and women want whiter skin, but whatever the reason, the health implications, which include various types of cancer and ochronosis, a disease which causes hyperpigmentation, which is often irreversible, are causes for concern.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, Nigerian women are the most heavy users of skin lightening products, with 77% of them using them regularly.

Legislation has attempted to control the most toxic skin lightening creams but they are still easily available on the black market. Nor is the practice restricted to women. Many men, for whatever reason unhappy with their black skin, take sometimes dangerous steps to make themselves whiter.
The trend, fortunately, appears to be changing toward better skincare and cosmetics. The success of American cosmetics company Avon in South Africa goes beyond cosmetics and demonstrates the potential of the industry as a whole to change society.

In a country where unemployment is high and where women in particular find it difficult to gain employment, selling for Avon on a commission basis allows them a degree of financial independence, not to mention self-esteem, often previously unknown to them.

South Africa is the only Avon market where the majority of consumers are black. Women representing Avon go door to door, or visit beauty salons, or even organise parties where customers place orders. An Avon Lady, as they are known, can earn enough money to give herself parity with most men.
It is well known that increasing entrepreneurship among women specifically goes a long way to alleviate poverty and raise living conditions in the poorest communities. When women make money they are more likely to spend it on good food, healthcare and education for their children than men are. Avon’s business model allows it to keep prices down and within the range of many the world’s poorest women. The company spends no money on advertising. For that they rely on their network of sellers. Their only storefront is a glossy brochure.

Avon’s image of female empowerment and self-confidence is what makes its products so appealing. The company’s view of itself as aiding the empowerment of women is not just a marketing tool, however. Its 126-year history and its subsequent success is based on that very principle.
Where NGOs and foreign aid often fail, private enterprise that encourages entrepreneurship among the poorest, especially women, so often succeeds. And it is. In 2011, Avon’s sales rose globally by just 1% but in South Africa that figure stood at 30%.
The cosmetic industry in Africa has had to overcome a number of obstacles to gain any sort of momentum in the market. Colonialism put an end to the tradition of face painting for many and less colourful European styles prevailed. Religious and cultural conservatism asserted itself and makeup on women was considered rebellious and sinful—a challenge to a patriarchal society where women were made to know their place.
Modern consumerism, that has had a far more radical and revolutionary impact on the world than any other ideology in the 20th and early part of the 21st centuries, arrived in Africa and all that began to change.

Rise of colour-specific make-up
Many economies in Africa are experiencing double-digit growth, resulting in an expanding middle class, with a taste for the finer things with which they like to treat themselves. Women in Africa are increasingly turning to cosmetics whether to assert their confidence or to pamper themselves.
Data collected by Avon is instructive for the wider cosmetics industry. The poorest customers were more likely to buy necessities such as lotions and deodorants. Wealthier consumers, however, were more likely to buy luxury products, with nail care at the top of the list followed by lipstick.
Bright red lipstick, though, tended to make the consumer think of promiscuity, but it appears that attitude is changing, even among older women. Water scarcity in rural areas meant bathroom products sold far less well there. In the US, the African-American market, for so many years largely ignored by the cosmetics industry, is beginning to be a highly lucrative and sought after segment, though difficulties regarding perception remain. This is especially so in hair care. Women of colour are very careful to purchase products that have been developed for their very particular needs.

To this end, cosmetics giants such as Revlon and L’Oréal have spent the last decade acquiring smaller companies which specialise in ethnic hair products and have dedicated large portions of their considerable research and development budgets on new products black women, they hope, can trust.
In 2011, L’Oréal opened two subsidiaries in Africa: one in Nigeria, to service the west and another in Kenya to help establish the brand in the east. Its Soft Sheen-Carson and Mizani brands, which were added to the company in the round of acquisitions it made are to be its flagships on the continent.

L’Oréal have made their presence in Africa visible by means of humanitarian schemes such as Hairdressers Against Aids in South Africa and, in partnership with UNESCO, the promotion of women in science. All of which underlines the company’s recognition of Africa as an important, growing market.

A $3bn  industry
South Africa often serves as an example to the rest of the continent as to what potential lies in various industries when they develop.
There, value addition in terms of products which combine, for instance, lipstick with moisturiser, foundation with anti-ageing properties, appears to be the direction consumers are leading the industry in South Africa, motivated partly by the wish for convenience and also by the desire to save money.

Revlon dominates the South African market with about a third share. Avon ranks second, with L’Oréal coming in third. However, when broken down in terms of product ranges, the picture becomes a little mixed, with L’Oréal doing better in eye make-up and Revlon leading the market with its facial products. Estée Lauder, Indigo Brands and Clinique Laboratories, among others, take up the rest of the market.  
According to research group Euromonitor, the South African cosmetics market increased in the five years to 2010 by 75% to $3bn. New products have driven this expansion and homegrown companies have risen with the tide. One such new company is Savane, which offers a range of organic skin care products. Started by Jennifer Peters and Stephan Helary from an idea they struck upon in 2006, the pair, with a background in conservation and rural health between them, began the process of entering an industry they had no experience of at all.

They spent four years sourcing organic ingredients from suppliers, worked with an organic formulator and won official approval from Ecocert, one of the world’s leading organic certification agencies. Despite a brief delay in launching their products because of the global recession, Savane (French for savanna where a lot of their natural ingredients are sourced) is now available from a wide range of outlets across South Africa, the US and online. The range makes use of the botany of the region that the indigenous people there have relied on for thousands of years, such as marula oil, Aloe ferox and kigelia fruit. Combined with modern science, these ancient skin treatments, ethically sourced and preserving ancient knowledge, are made of 99.9% to 100% natural ingredients, are rich in anti-oxidants and provide an ethical, natural option for Africa’s consumers.

Always keen for sources of value addition, naturally sourced products from Africa, relying on millennia-old understanding of the local flora, present an exciting opportunity for an industry whose customers, especially in Europe and North America, who have shown a willingness to pay a premium for ethical, natural products that bring direct benefits to small suppliers in economically poor parts of the world. Retailers, however, seem slow to appreciate the potential of cosmetics for black women. The supermodel, Iman, after years of having to mix her own foundations, decided to start her own, eponymous, range.

Launched first in 1994, the range took 10 years to reach the mass market. Despite her global stardom and the proven success of her products, large retailers in the West were still uneasy about stocking them. When they did, they placed them at the back of their stores in the ‘ethnic’ section.
Now a $25m business, despite having to rely on online sales – which, since make-up needs to be tested before purchase, represses sales – Iman’s foundation has proved a huge success. That a woman with worldwide fame and a proven product still has to confront reluctance from retailers shows just what an African cosmetics industry has to face in the future. However, such is the depth of African heritage that a broad range of cosmetics from the continent can and does cater for men and women of all colours.
It is not as if Africa is not rich in ancient knowledge and natural ingredients when it comes to beauty. Shea butter, the fat extracted from the nut of the African karite tree, is a staple ingredient in cosmetics all over the world, used in moisturisers, gloss and soap.

Although women harvest the butter and sell it to manufacturers abroad, receiving,too little of its true market worth, there are still too few African women leading the cosmetics industry from the front although more and more black women are entering with their own ranges in Africa and, globally,there is a lot of ground to recover. Even in more developed economies, the market for cosmetics for black women struggles for recognition even where its success can be demonstrated. The market in Africa, though, does appear to be changing along with attitudes toward women’s make-up as the middle classes grow.
The situation is ripe for a homegrown industry to use local resources and knowledge to cater for the specific needs of Africans, and men and women of colour worldwide.

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