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Dr Joyce Gikunda: I started out when women couldn't get bank loans

ENTERPRISE
By Peter Muiruri | May 19th 2021
Dr Joyce Gikunda. [Courtesy]

There was something that fascinated her as she watched her grandmother exchange the juicy fruits in the market for money. It was the haggling, and the often fruitful exchange that sparked a seed of entrepreneurship in Dr Joyce Gikunda.

Only, instead of dealing in horticulture, she would be dealing in pharmaceutical products and beauty services under Lintons brand. Gikunda, a pharmacist, started out with a pharmaceutical outlet in 1983 that later morphed into a beauty and cosmetics business.

Today, Lintons Beauty World is a household name offering a range of beauty products and services. The business has expanded to include a beauty college, giving Gikunda 38-years’ experience in running a business. She shares her entrepreneurship lessons learnt over three decades.  

You started out in pharmacy. Was that hard to break into?

I completed my studies aware of several options within the industry such as research, manufacturing, lecturing and hospital work. What appealed to me was retail pharmacy. Pharmacy has several facets including retail dispensing of medicines and dealing with people.

The other bit involves lifestyle products and services. Back then, pharmacy was dominated by Asians and I felt dwarfed by them. But I went ahead, starting with a shop in Buruburu in 1983 to serve the Nairobi’s Eastland’s market. Being the first pharmacy in this suburb, it did very well.

How did you raise the initial capital?

This was mainly from personal savings and periodical bank overdrafts. Those days it was harder to get financial services as a woman in business. I remember when one of the banks refused to open an account for us because we were a very small business.

There were others prejudiced towards us, including a landlord who told us he would not do business with black people, never mind that he was a black man himself! Eventually, he backed down and we got the lease.

How did pharmacy transition into a beauty regime?

In 1988, an Asian friend approached me with an intention to sell his fledgling pharmacy located in Nairobi’s Mama Ngina Street, the first Lintons shop in the city centre. It was a run-down business but we were prepared to refurbish and refresh it. This way we could strip it and start afresh. Here, we dealt in beauty products as well as pharmaceuticals. But why beauty? We needed to look at continuity and succession.

I thought it would be trickier for my children to run pharmacy as a business as compared to a beauty business. In addition, a lot of quacks had joined the pharmacy trade, and it was becoming harder to practice. Serving corporate clients was also problematic as insurance companies could not pay their bills on time. However, selling beauty products mostly involves cash transactions. You may sell less quantities but you are assured of the sales nonetheless.

Top global brands turned you away several times…

True. For more than 15 years, I pursued global brands and contacted manufacturers in efforts to get the nod to stock their products. But again, they would wonder who these Africans were to stock their expensive products.

The brands would say they were not ready for Africa. We would patiently wait and send in another application resulting in further rejection.

And then they came looking for you…

Yes, when one of the global players in the beauty business made a visit to the country. They visited Lintons Pharmacy in downtown Nairobi but said they could not partner with a pharmacy business.

They challenged us to start a full-fledged beauty shop. That was the time when Westgate Mall was opening. We applied for space, and got exclusively into the world of beauty. Several years on, we found that we were enjoying the beauty business and decided to sell off the pharmacy line.

However, I continued to make use of my pharmacy skills to advance beauty. The relationship with multinationals is one of partnering and a lot of learning because global manufacturers have been in the industry for longer.

Challenges in the business?

In the beauty industry, location matters. You may open a shop in a place where it may not pick up and you have to shut it down. We are also in a field riddled with many counterfeits, and raising the bar to be an excellent brand is our main way of fighting impostors.

We talk to different colleagues on dangers of counterfeits though it is only the government that can deal with this. We also educate our clients on genuine products and how to identify counterfeits.

Then you lost everything during the 2013 Westgate terror attack

Losing the first beauty shop, strategically located on the ground floor of the mall was my lowest moment. Although none of our 12 staff was lost in the terror attack, we lost a lot of stock. The shop was looted as it became the route into and out of the building. We had only one other store at The Junction.

While Westgate was my ground zero, it also became a point of resilience. Remember that a seed has to die before it grows. The business breakthrough came when we got the franchise for MAC Cosmetics after years of trying and being discouraged by the dealers. I felt that God had been so gracious to us. That was one of my best days ever. Today, we have more than 10 stores in Nairobi and Mombasa.

Tell us about Lintons College of Beauty

The college opened in 2017 in response to the growing need for professionally competent beauty therapists in the market. The institution enrolls anyone interested in working in or starting a business in the beauty industry.

We began with 20 students where tutors spent about 100 hours training them on make-up artistry and skin care. The college certification is recognised and the graduates are employed in various locations across the country.

Can the global beauty products be manufactured locally?

Yes, but Kenyan manufacturers need to partner with multinationals. Our government needs to relook at some policies such as taxation in order to attract these manufacturers.

Our people will also get important knowledge on these products when employed in such factories. However, such ventures are heavy in capital investment and expertise.

Best business advice ever received?

A friend once told me to focus on what I can do right, then do it over and over. “Focus on your business, give it personalised attention and work well with others for your business to grow.” I have followed that to date.

My best decision?

Scouting for prime spots for the business. Placing the shops strategically I believe is one of the reasons I am still in business doing great business.

Advice to entrepreneurs finding the going tough?

Have faith that it will all work out. For us, we had to introduce pay cuts, and even let some people go. But you cannot afford to give up. Talk to others and hear how people are managing and coping. Do not aspire for huge profits but endeavour to see your staff well catered for.  

 

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