Catherine Masitsa is a very optimistic woman. She knows she will be in business until the end of time.
“I know people will still be getting married when Jesus comes!” she says.
A trained veterinarian with an MBA in Strategic Marketing, Masitsa is a feisty entrepreneur making a decent living from Kenya’s growing wedding industry that is said to contribute KSh70 billion ($797 million) to the Kenyan economy and expected to grow to KSh100 billion ($1.14 billion) by 2015.
These figures are not captured in any government documents or financial projections. Kenya’s wedding industry is a gold mine made up of multiple smaller suppliers like caterers, wedding consultants, dress-makers, beauty consultants, photographers, DJs, honeymoon planners et al. While the industry as a whole represents a lot of money, each of the component parts is much smaller, some smaller than the others.
These smaller composite suppliers can be very local and likely will be small and privately-owned, traditionally the types of businesses that do not necessarily report financial information to any agency other than the Kenya Revenue Authority. This is in sharp contrast to larger industries, comprised of companies that make public their profits making it easier to find information. Secondly, many of the smaller components like caterers, DJs, photographers, printers of invitation cards, also do other events that are not necessarily bridal events.
Masitsa’s own story runs in tandem with Kenya’s growing wedding industry. She had never dreamt she would be a part of it when growing up in rural Kenya. At the height of her veterinary career when she was in her mid-20s, she got bored of her job, quit and went into publishing without any knowledge of the business. In 2000, she started Going Out magazine with only KSh45,000 ($500) and it is only when she was in the publishing business that she learnt how advertisers in Kenya operate.
“Advertisers wanted publishers to nail their market. They expected you to know what your target audience was doing every hour of the day. The Going Out audience was wide and I noticed a gap in niche magazines,” she says.
After her own wedding in 2003, Masitsa was inspired to start a wedding magazine – Samantha’s Bridal Wedding, which was the first bridal publication in Kenya. Eleven years later, it has become a major player in East Africa’s wedding market, evolving into a wedding media and lifestyle company.
The Show That Changed It All
A turning point in Masitsa’s entrepreneurial journey was in 2008 when Kenya went through post-election violence.
“After publishing Going Out for eight years, I had to shut it down. That year, we had no advertising and we couldn’t publish for about six months. We used to give the magazine for free. You can’t publish when you have no adverts. I simply lost the passion,” she says. The same year, she also shut down another publication she owned – Business Woman.
Magazines are very capital-intensive and Masitsa found it impossible to repay her bank loan.
She had a KSh7 million ($80,000) bank loan and a KSh3 million ($34,000) overdraft. Overnight, the bank loaded the KSh7 million on the overdraft and she now had a debt of KSh10 million ($114,000) to repay.
“They say in war, you pick the soldiers who look like they can survive. That is how I stopped publishing the two magazines and picked Samantha’s Bridal because it was more promising,” she says.
Masitsa put her house on the property market so she could clear the bank debt. She ended up paying the bank KSh32 million ($364,000).
“After I found a buyer for my house, my documents at the Ministry of Lands suddenly disappeared. For eight months I had a buyer with money but I had no documents and the bank interest was increasing.” One day she went to the Ministry office and started crying. The officer took pity on her and in two days her documents were found. She sold the house for KSh28 million ($318,000) and was left with a balance of KSh4 million ($45,532). What saved her were the real estate investments she had.
“Then, I was in my 30s. The good thing about being in your 30s is that you have a very huge appetite for risk. If you don’t utilize your 30s, you will never take any risks. Now in my 40s, I take more calculated risks.” In the same year (2008), she launched a TV show called Samantha’s Bridal and that changed her fortunes for the better.
Masitsa realized that if she was not on television, people would never know her magazine existed. This is what motivated her to get into producing television shows centered on weddings.
“TV stations pay me for the cost of production. I specialize in producing good TV lifestyle content because there are so many things that go on in weddings. When you watch the show, you can tell about the fashion trends in Kenya, youth issues, finance, music etc. It is a window to society. They are telling their story through an event.”
According to a survey commissioned by Samantha’s Bridal, over 28,000 couples get married in Kenya annually in a formal wedding ceremony, an increase of up to 10% over the last five years. On average, 26 businesses are involved in the staging of one standard wedding.
“The annual average spend per wedding is KSh800,000 ($9,000) to KSh1.2 million ($13,700) making the wedding expense the biggest single expenditure other than buying a house and a car for most people,” says Masitsa. She says these are just conservative numbers.
“I have seen a wedding worth KSh200 million ($2.3 million) and another that cost only KSh7,000 ($80). Weddings are recession-proof. Couples will stop at nothing to show the world the true meaning behind ‘what’s love got to do with it!’ when it comes to the wedding budget,” she says.
In Kenya, couples are engaged for an average of 16 to 17 months before marriage. During that time, on a national average, couples spend about KSh1.3 billion ($14.8 million) on engagement rings, wedding rings and other jewelry, KSh7 billion ($80 million) on gowns, suits and tuxedos, flower girl outfits and bridesmaids’ dresses, dresses for guests, and KSh2 billion ($22.7 million) on honeymoons.
The survey also revealed that annually, engaged and newlyweds spend millions of shillings on new home purchases.
“They are responsible for a big segment of the wedding registry gifts and furniture industry. In addition, each couple spends an average of KSh700,000 ($8,000) on fitting out their homes with furniture and household electrical appliances,” says Masitsa.
In East Africa, Ugandans and Tanzanians spend more than Kenyans. This spend is driven by the fact that weddings are community affairs and families spend a lot of money on their children. It is very normal for them to hold a fundraiser, while in Kenya, the couple foots most of the bills.
Those who can spend, spare no expense on lavish weddings. There are couples who fly in Bollywood stars to perform at their weddings so as to create a personalized experience for their guests. A bride recently flew in the Cake Boss to bake her cake.
There is a couple who spent KSh200 million ($2.3 million) for an eight-day wedding.
“For all those days, they had an open bar and French champagne for 3,000 guests. The bride’s dresses were valued at more than KSh4 million ($45,500), each made of real diamonds and she wore a new outfit every day. Family members flew in from all parts of the world. The couple hosted them in high-end hotels in Nairobi.”
In another wedding, the groom wanted to replicate Prince William’s wedding suit. He went to the UK and bought three military suits each valued at KSh3.5 million ($40,000) – for himself, his best man and the page boy. Then there are those who make their wedding planners sign contracts with non-disclosure clauses.
“However, there is nothing new under the stars. It is about creating experiences for wedding guests from the moment they arrive – how you put those elements together makes it a truly unique experience. If the money was budgeted for, the couples spend it. They don’t want to look at their wedding pictures and feel bad.”
Masitsa describes a wedding as the launch of the couple’s new life together to the public.
“The way you launch a Toyota is not the same way you launch a Benz!”
With Kenya’s wedding market projected to grow steadily, there are already international designer brands setting up shop in Kenya. The Echo Boom, also known as Generation Y or the Millennial, is the next big generation to move into the ‘engagement zone’.
Eighteen million Kenyan men and women, born between 1980 and 2000, make up this generation. This group offers bridal marketers an opportunity to reach a larger audience than in the past and also an increase in market share.