Image: Arden

In the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and other populous cities like Mombasa, change in afoot. Amidst changing demographics and improving business conditions across Africa, the volume of consumer spending is on the rise, and Kenya – which boasts the largest volume of consumer spending in the entire East African region, according to the Brookings Institution and is home to the third greatest number of high net worth individuals all of Africa – is witnessing a marked rise in demand for high-quality, foreign-produced goods.

Of the products being sought out by well-to-do Kenyan consumers, one category, in particular, stands out: cosmetics. Consumer desire for premium branded cosmetics is proving to be “especially high,” according to Al Jazeera, with color cosmetics, alone, making up a nearly $120 million market in 2018, per Euromonitor, up from $53.3 million just 4 years prior.

Rising interest in the cosmetics segment has not been lost on multi-national giants, which are looking to expand their offerings by way of high-end retailers in Kenya’s “exponentially increasing number of retail centers.” Having identified an opportunity for growth in the East Africa, and using Nairobi and Mombasa as jumping off points for the region as a whole, a growing list of established global skincare and makeup brands from such Vichy and La Roche-Posay to MAC – are joining fashion retailers and luxury car-makers, such as Porsche, BMW and Bentley.

But with such growing demand for premium beauty products has come an ugly underbelly: a boom in counterfeits.

As “beauty specialist retailers, chemists/pharmacies and some high-end [stores] are rushing to offer up a larger variety of premium brands” in order to cater to clued-in consumers, Kenya has become awash with fake cosmetics, “placing consumers at risk of purchasing inferior products,” per Al Jazeera. And in no small number of cases, even reputable outlets are being duped into stocking fakes – from Gucci and Fenty goods to Kylie Cosmetics and Anastasia Beverly Hills – thereby, causing the problem to impact even well-meaning consumers in search of authentic products, as well as those in search of cheap alternatives.

The tide of seemingly endless counterfeits has left both consumers and high-end retailers, such as Nairobi-based Lintons – which stocks Estée Lauder, MAC, Chanel, Lancome, and Clarins products – “scrambling to differentiate [authentic] products from the dangerous doppelgängers,” per Euromonitor. This can be a difficult feat since many of these copycat products look perfectly legitimate to the untrained eye, “craftily packaged to resemble those from genuine manufacturers using fake wrappers and bottles.” Only upon close side-by-side inspection does it become clear that there a slight differences, such as the in print size and fonts used.

“There’s a big challenge,” Bilha Karanja, owner of Sterling Cosmetics, a retailer on Nairobi’s affluent Aga Khan Walk, told Al Jazeera. “The samples that ‘suitcase distributors’ (or sellers who come to you marketing certain products claiming they’re importers) come with are legit, but [supply you with] entire batches, they throw in fakes if one is not careful.”

While imposter products may look the part, even bearing replicas of the manufacturer barcodes meant to track authentic products and separate out counterfeits, in reality, their contents are far from the real thing, with most failing to “conform to international and local quality and health standards,” and as a result, often prove hazardous to users.

“The Kenyan government recently started testing imposter cosmetics to gauge the potential health risks to consumers,” according to Al Jazeera, as part of a larger push to stop rogue importers of cosmetic products. “We have started with MAC and Gucci makeup and cosmetics, and will be proceeding to the others progressively,” says, Johnson Adera, the Anti-Counterfeit Agency’s deputy director of enforcement and legal services.

“We’ll be able to tell Kenyans what is contained in the products when the results are out,” he says.