Seaweed has for decades been popular along the Kenyan coastal region, especially among fishermen who use it for bait. It is also an important food source for marine animals. Around the world, seaweed is used to make food, beauty products, fertilisers and industrial gum and chemicals. And now, a group of former prisoners has set out to explore the use of seaweed on a commercial scale in Kenya, and it is fast proving to be a fortune changer in their entrepreneurial pursuits.
The former convicts had experimented with several income-generating activities in an effort to turn their lives around and become responsible members of society. Nothing really took off until they came across the seaweed business idea by chance.
“We had been producing aloe vera beauty products for a while, and one day we were at an exhibition and a certain mzungu passed by our stand. He appreciated our business efforts, but then asked us why we hadn’t thought of using seaweed instead, saying it would make better cosmetics,” said Mwendwa Mwanzia, the chairman of the ex-prisoners’ group, dubbed New Beginning.
Casual observation Their interest was piqued by this casual observation, and it formed the beginning of a profitable relationship with the stranger.
“We arranged a trip to the beach and he taught us about the different types of seaweed and their uses. We learnt that the brown seaweed variety can be used to produce skin care products like soaps, body creams and lotions,” said Mr Mwanzia.
A number of compounds extracted from seaweed are of value in various cosmetic applications, and their use has been growing internationally. The ‘stranger’ boiled the brown seaweed and used its juices to make a sample body lotion. The group members tested it on themselves to verify its restorative qualities. After a few weeks of use, the 53-member group was convinced and decided to introduce it into the local market.
“The first thing we did was take a sample to the Kenya Bureau of Standards, which was tested and verified. We then rolled out our products into the market, and they have been growing in popularity by the day,” Mwanzia said. In their first commercial production in late 2011, the group produced a total 400 items in the three categories of soaps, body creams and lotions under the brand name, Risha.
“We sold out after about two months. Now, our production has increased to 1,000 units for each product category per month,” Mwanzia said. A hundred grams of soap is priced at Sh100, while 250ml of lotion costs Sh150. A 250g jar of body cream retails at Sh200. According to Mwanzia, the group earns a minimum of Sh90,000 from their beauty line. Their income is further complemented by their other income-generating activities, which include a seedlings nursery, hawking fresh fruit juice and managing a public toilet. “We earn more than Sh100,000 a month in total, and from this, Sh80,000 is spent on paying members’ salaries.”
Growing sales Mwanzia added that the line of beauty products has changed the group’s fortunes. “When we were starting out, our earnings from these other businesses were thin and I could only afford to rent a single room. But now, I live in a four-roomed rental house.” Isabella Kerubo, a member, added: “Before this, I struggled to profit from the many businesses we started; it was tough. These days I am sure of a regular wage at the end of month and I’m raising my children with what I earn here. I am happy now, and if we can grow further, I’ll be happier.”
Since the members cannot afford to utilise formal marketing channels due to their relatively small capital base, New Beginning depends on exhibitions, entrepreneurship forums and word of mouth to grow sales.
“We are now receiving orders from as far as Nairobi, Machakos, Western and even from Uganda. However, the challenge in serving the Ugandan market is that we are yet to procure the regional standardisation mark that would enable our products penetrate outside the country,” said Mwanzia, who founded New Beginning in 2008 to give ex-convicts a second chance.
Through the probation department’s rehabilitation and re-entry programme, the group has been provided with an operations base in Kizingo, Mombasa town.
View original article at: Ex-convicts find their fresh start in seaweed cosmetics