Nairobi, Kenya – When Chepkoech Limo woke up with black, cracked lips on an October morning in 2017, she turned to social media for answers.
“Who else is experiencing dark lips and a burning sensation in the evening after using lipstick all day?” Limo wrote on Facebook.
The post elicited an avalanche of similar complaints and ignited a social-media conversation about a pervasive and growing problem in Kenya: counterfeit cosmetics.
Limo believed she had bought a genuine brand-name lipstick. But the consensus on social media was that she had unwittingly purchased a dodgy knockoff that looked uncannily similar to a popular international brand.
Two years on, Kenya is awash in fake cosmetics, placing consumers at risk of purchasing inferior and possibly hazardous products and leaving high-end retailers scrambling to differentiate their products from potentially dangerous doppelgangers.
In downtown Nairobi, it is only 8:15am, and Milka is already looking overwhelmed. The counter of her tiny kiosk-sized cosmetics shop teems with customers. While they wait patiently to be served by her and a shop assistant, more customers join the queue that winds down a narrow corridor separating Milka’s kiosk from competing stalls.
Milka, who asked Al Jazeera not to use her surname, owns and operates one of hundreds of such shops on the ground floor of a four-storey building located on Nairobi’s infamous Dubois Road.
Widely regarded as the hub of cheap knockoff cosmetics in Kenya, Dubois Road – along with River Road – is home to thousands of wholesale-cum-retail outlets, from which makeup is distributed across the country to Kenya’s growing legions of beauty enthusiasts.
Increasing disposable incomes, urbanisation and population growth have fed a surge in the demand for colour cosmetics in Kenya, pushing the value of the market from an estimated 5.4 billion Kenyan shillings ($53.3m) in 2014 to 12 billion Kenyan shillings ($118m) in 2018, according to global market research agency Euromonitor International.
Demand for premium brands is especially high. Multinational cosmetics firms have responded by opening shops in tony malls in Kenya and selling products through high-end, reputable retailers.
But counterfeiters have also moved in, selling brand-name imposters to consumers at cut-rate prices and sometimes duping reputable retailers into buying fakes.
The barcode was a good idea until the counterfeiters got smarter and started copying that.
The price discrepancies between a premium brand and a fake are stark. While the least expensive lipstick in a MAC store in Nairobi sells for around 2,800 Kenyan shillings (approximately $27.60), at Milka’s stall on Dubois road, lipsticks claiming to be MAC sell for as little as 150 Kenyan shillings (approximately $1.50).
When asked by Al Jazeera why her prices are so low, Milka lowered her head and turned the question back around.
“What you want to know is whether what I have is counterfeit,” she said.
Milka told Al Jazeera that the cosmetics she sells are shipped from China, and that in the past, customs officials have confiscated her inventory – as well as that of neighboring shops.
“The Anti-Counterfeit Agency (ACA) has been here harassing us on several occasions, and claiming that what we’re selling is counterfeited, but no one has come to us and shown us what the original products are or told us, ‘look, these are the differences here and here,'” she said. “They just come and carry our goods away.”
A stroll down Dubois Road lays bare the Sisyphean task facing Kenyan officials.
Shop shelves burst with little boxes stamped with premium names. Lipsticks, foundations, mascaras, highlighters and whatnots – all of them purported to be all-the-rage cosmetics – are selling fast here.
In addition to products marked MAC, Al Jazeera saw those labeled Sleek, Black Opal, blackUp, Lime Crime, Kylie Cosmetics, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Gucci, and Fenty Beauty (pop singer Rihanna’s iconic beauty range).
If a brand has cache on the international market, a doppelganger is likely to end up for sale on Dubois Road.
With so many counterfeits flooding the market, the task of policing fakes has also fallen on high-end retail shops that want to guarantee the integrity of their stock against unscrupulous wholesalers.
“There’s a big challenge, especially if you buy your products from ‘suitcase distributors’ or sellers who come to you marketing certain products claiming they’re importers,” Bilha Karanja, owner of Sterling Cosmetics, a retailer on Nairobi’s affluent Aga Khan Walk, told Al Jazeera. “The samples they come with are legit, but when they bring entire batches, they throw in fakes if one is not careful.”
To guard against fraud, Karanja said she either imports products directly from the manufacturer or deals only with sole distributors. A beauty enthusiast herself, she listed some of the telltale signs of imposter products.
“The packaging of the fakes will often have sketchy information,” she said. “The contents will have a different distinct chemical-ish smell. And that is the scary part because that should forewarn buyers about their authenticity, especially those who are not first-time users.”
To gauge how difficult it is to spot fakes, Al Jazeera bought MAC products from a MAC store in Nairobi and Black Opal products from upscale beauty retailer Lintons Beauty World. We then compared the products purchased at the high-end retailers to products that were brought on Dubois Road and labelled MAC and Black Opal.
A side-by-side appraisal immediately revealed glaring discrepancies.
None of the five items purchased from Dubois Road had an expiration date printed on their boxes or tins. Nor did they have a sticker from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) indicating they had been inspected by officials.
But the absence of a KEBS sticker does not necessarily signal a product is fake.
“Under the East African Community agreement, products for the EAC community that have been certified in their respective countries do not require an import standardization sticker,” KEBS spokesperson Phoebe Gituku told Al Jazeera.
Gituku added that KEBS is not responsible for checking the authenticity of goods and that its mandate stops at ensuring products meet the required standards.
But beyond the KEBS sticker, there were other demonstrable differences.
The font used on the logos and labels of some of the suspected fake products and the size of packaging for one of the suspected imposters were different from the legitimate counterparts purchased from the MAC store and Lintons Beauty World. And some of the tins of suspected fakes had writing that rubbed off with little effort.
Of the five suspected counterfeits from Dubois Road, only two – a “M.A.C studio Fix powder plus to foundation” and a “Black Opal deluxe finishing powder” – had barcodes.
Al Jazeera checked the barcodes with two different scanner apps on an Android phone. One app showed the products to be legitimate, but the other did not produce the products’ details, indicating they could be fakes.
“We now realize that the barcode was a good idea until the counterfeiters got smarter and started copying that,” Edith Lumumba, regional brand manager for Black Opal cosmetics in East Africa, told Al Jazeera.
“Most of our brands are now moving to the QR code and have also rebranded for the same reason,” she added.
The Kenyan government recently started testing imposter cosmetics to gauge the potential health risks to consumers.
“We have started with MAC and Gucci makeup and cosmetics, and will be proceeding to the others progressively,” Johnson Adera, the ACA’s deputy director of enforcement and legal services, told Al Jazeera.
“We’ll be able to tell Kenyans what is contained in the products when the results are out,” he added.
In the meantime, Kenyan consumers are using Facebook groups such as Glam Life to expose suspicious products they’ve bought and to share tips with other beauty enthusiasts for identifying fakes.
But for Chepkoech Limo, who spent three months trying various remedies for her chapped, black lips, the best way to avoid painful counterfeits is to resist the allure of a bargain.
“I’ve learnt to go all the way,” she said. “Now I save up and buy my makeup from the brand shops locally or buy from the brand’s website and have the stuff shipped here.”
This article is the first in a two-part series examining counterfeit cosmetics in Kenya. Click here to read part 2.