“I trained as a teacher, but I was never sure exactly what I wanted to teach until I came across the beauty and wellness industry,” says Astine Nyambura Muchiri.
She is the co-founder and managing director of Mvua, a company that sells handmade spa products and provides spa business solutions.
“When I started the company, it was called Bien-Etres, which means wellness in French,” Astine says.
“But last year, I went on the show KCB Lions’ Den and got an investment of Sh1 million in return for 20 per cent equity in my company.”
She got the investment from Olive Gachara, and one of the first things they did was change the company’s name.
“I came to realise that since my products were sourced from Kenya, it made more sense to give the company a home feel. So we went with Mvua, which means rain.
“Rain is associated with renewal, life and productivity. That’s what we aim to bring to our clients through our products and training.”
Her journey in the industry started at Aphrodite School of Beauty Therapy, where she worked as a junior therapist before training students.
She qualified as a professional therapist in 2000 after passing a UK-based exam carried out by the International Therapy Exam Council.
“It’s one of the highest qualifications a therapist can get. Even so, I knew it wasn’t enough. Spa and beauty is a constantly evolving industry and if you don’t renew and refresh, you get left behind. I wanted to be the best, so I pushed myself.”
In 2006, Astine applied for a job as a trainer in Dubai where she trained therapists for a cruise ship company, Steiner-OneSpaWorld.
“When I was in Kenya, I was thought of as one of the best, but at the back of my mind, I felt I still had a long way to go. When I got to Dubai, I realised how little I actually knew. The industry there wasn’t just about implementing what someone had learned; it was about creating unique signature treatments and massages. A therapist was not credited on how much they could mimic, but how much they could innovate.”
Back to Kenya
And as she trained other therapists, Astine got new ideas about spa designs, herbal treatments and massage techniques.
In 2007, she sat for another qualification, this time the Swiss-based Comite International d’Esthetique et de Cosmetology, which is run by one of the world’s major beauty therapy organisations.
In 2009, after working in Dubai for three years, Astine decided to return to Kenya.
“I thought, given my qualifications, that finding a job would be simple, but it wasn’t. Most spas thought I was over qualified. After failing to get a job, I decided to go into consulting,” she says.
“Borrowing from inspiration I’d picked from Dubai, I helped people who wanted to open spas with design and branding, as well as training their employees. I also helped existing spas improve their therapies.”
From her consultancy, Astine would make about Sh80,000 a month. And then in 2011, she got a job at a luxury resort, Planhotel, in Zanzibar.
“The best thing about Zanzibar was seeing how they infused spices into their therapies. I’d seen this in Dubai, but what made Zanzibar special is that we got to visit the farms where these herbs were grown and picked whatever we wanted to use,” Astine says.
“I knew that this was something I wanted to try in Kenya.”
She also worked closely with Thai therapists who taught her the value of good customer service and hospitality.
“For these ladies, beauty therapy isn’t just a job, it’s like a calling ingrained in their culture. Watching them do a massage was like watching magic happen.”
Astine returned to Kenya in 2014 determined to start her own company and implement what she’d picked up over 15 years as a therapist.
While in Zanzibar, she lived on the hotel’s premises rent-free and had all her expenses catered for. She had, therefore, saved a substantial amount of money from her monthly pay of $1,500 (Sh150,000).
In 2015, Astine decided to design herbal treatments packed in cotton pouches that could be used during massages.
These pouches would give the benefits of both aromatherapy and healing or relaxation of the muscles when pressed against a client’s body.
“I didn’t want to live in Nairobi because after three years in Zanzibar, it was too fast for me. I picked Nakuru as a destination for my business. My start-up capital was Sh150,000, which I used to register the company, buy herbs, a herbal heater and pure cotton for the pouches.”
Astine’s initial customers included Kakuma Refugee Camp, where she trained therapists who offered healing massages to traumatised refugees, and sold her herbal treatments.
“A single treatment goes for Sh1,600, but I sell a minimum of a dozen at Sh19,200. Anyone who buys a treatment also buys a herbal heater because the pouches must be heated to get the aroma and the most benefits. I sell a heater at Sh5,000,” Astine explains.
Each herbal pouch can treat up to eight clients.
“Most clients will also buy eye pillows, which go for Sh500 a pair, and gloves at Sh600 a pair.”
Astine additionally sells disposable cases at Sh20 that can be discarded after each treatment for hygiene purposes.
In 2015, while she was working part-time on her business and part-time in employment, Astine turned over approximately Sh700,000.
At the end of 2016, she decided to quit her job at Rift Valley Sports Club and run her business full time. She moved into her own premises so she could train therapists and offer treatments directly to clients.
“This move cost me Sh200,000 as I had to buy massage beds, towels, pay rent and other expenses,” she says.
“The first six months of business were amazing. I targeted hotels and spas to market and sell my products. I had to borrow money from my brother, though, to meet demand, but I always managed to repay him. By the middle of 2017, I was stable enough to run the company on its own resources.”
However, Mvua took a hit a few months after this, following the uncertainty around the country’s presidential polls.
Since her main clients were hotels who relied on tourists and they weren’t coming in, orders ground to a halt.
“It was tough,” Astine says, “but I knew I just had to weather the storm. Fortunately, in December business picked up again. Between then and this month, I’ve made approximately Sh300,000.”
Though Mvua’s main focus is supplying spa products and training therapists at hotels and institutions, it also offers personal treatments through home visits or at its offices, with a full-body massage costing Sh3,500.
By the end of this year, Astine hopes to increase her profits by 15 per cent.
“My vision for Mvua is to eventually have a mobile spa, targeting institutions that might not want a full-time spa. The benefit of this is we can treat clients from different backgrounds,” she says.
“Working in Kakuma Refugee Camp taught me that therapy shouldn’t be a luxury, it should be a part of everyday life. Therapy is wellness, and wellness only helps to increase our productivity and happiness.”