Golden chance to take African beauty higher

Stellar Mwende equips vulnerable women with hairdressing skills

In Summary

• A self-help organisation has tapped Africa's multi-billion dollar beauty industry

• It aims to help young women gain financial independence and change their lives

MEC founder Stellar Mwende
MEC founder Stellar Mwende

It's a chilly Friday morning in Kayole-Soweto, an informal settlement some 14km outside Nairobi, and several young women are seated on plastic chairs in a room on the ground floor of a cement-coloured building, having their hair woven.

Outside the building, a woman is standing at a pot, preparing githeri, a dish made from a mixture of beans and corn. Among the women inside, a debate is raging over the benefits of self-employment over regular employment. A sign on the building reads ‘MEC Training Centre'. MEC stands for Mrembo Empowerment Community.

Jackline Adhiambo, 24, ignores the ebb and flow of the argument as she moves from one woman to another, guiding them through the different hairstyling designs she has assigned to them during her class, which started promptly at 7am. A few of the women are weaving hair on dummies.

“I have reached a level where I can, if I am privileged, get my own school. I have enough experience,” Adhiambo says as she works.

“One day I will do better than this.”

That attitude is exactly what the founder of MEC, Stellar Mwende, would like to hear.

Just over three years ago, Adhiambo travelled some 350km from her childhood home in western Kenya to the capital to secure a brighter future for herself and her nine-year-old child.

She fell pregnant at the age of 15, dropping out of school the same year.

“I feared pupils would say, a mother has come back to class,” she said.

The toughest period, she said, was when her grandmother, her ‘strongest pillar’, who had encouraged her to return to school and who had been helping take care of her child, died.

“There were times when, in school, I would think of my baby and when at home, thoughts of what we will eat engulfed my mind,” she recalled.

Schooling, however, didn't guarantee her work in her home community. Adhiambo's big break came when she was admitted to the Mrembo Empowerment Community training centre to learn hairdressing skills.

“This training enables the young women to rise from poverty to financial freedom,” said Mwende, who was raised by her single mother in an informal settlement.

In 2017, the year it was founded, MEC received recognition as Africa’s most innovative organisation for changing the lives of commercial sex workers, domestic abuse survivors and single mothers.

The organisation topped more than 40 organisations in a regional business innovation challenge themed, Connecting Impact Entrepreneurs to Impact Investors, led by The British Council, Acumen Fund, Standard Media Group, International Labour Organisation, Villgro Kenya and The Catholic University of Milan, Italy.

So far, more than 500 underprivileged young women, including commercial sex workers and physically challenged individuals, have been trained in the centre.

“Most have been placed in the job market or have started their own businesses,” said Mwende, who chose the beauty industry as an avenue for business and skills training because of the huge opportunities in the region.

Market research estimates show that the beauty industry in the Middle East and Africa was worth some $27 billion in 2018.

According to the report, South Africa's beauty industry alone is worth $4.5 billion a year, with Nigeria second. Kenya’s market was valued at more than $320 million a year.

Tech and Research firm Technavio, in its March 2021 report, projected that the beauty and personal care market in Africa will grow by $1.26 billion between 2021 and 2025.

The hair and beauty market is driven by the growth of a young and vibrant youth population with disposable income, according to the report.

Adhiambo, now a trainer at MEC, specialises in cosmetology and is in charge of 23 young women trainees, many of them victims of gender-based violence, some single mothers, others refugees. She earns a living as a trainer and earns extra cash through private hairdressing appointments.

Beatrice Chemutai is one of Adhiambo's students.

“I like weaving. Every time I see my work coming out neatly and people often ask if I can train them. This motivates me and I feel like am going far,” Chemutai says as she arranges strands of hair on the arm of a plastic chair.

Chemutai is the 10th of 13 children in her family.

“Through this training, I want to be able to lift up my younger siblings,” she says.

The centre also offers a six-month training programme that entails team building activities, trauma counselling, mentorship, financial management and life skills training.

“We hope to see a day when young women will be celebrated as unique and viable members of the society. Meanwhile, we continue to change lives, one girl at a time,” Mwende said.

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