The prominent Ivorian investment powerhouse Birimian Ventures is extending its influence from the traditional realms of African fashion to the beauty industry. “Beauty is embedded in fashion,” Laureen Kouassi-Olsson, founder of Birimian Ventures, tells BeautyMatter, “so it was natural for us to diversify our activities from the financing of fashion [in Africa] to the beauty sector.” While the fashion epicenters of Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Ghana have historically dominated the continent's creative narrative, this Ivorian firm's strategic focus on emerging beauty brands within and outside of these capitals sets a distinctive tone, as they’re one of the only known companies in the region to focus on emerging brands.
This, of course, is a tricky and interesting venture, as the investment landscape in Africa has been going through a series of ups and downs. According to a report by The African Private Capital Association, 263 VC deals took place in Africa’s venture ecosystem in the first half of 2023, growing to a collective $2.1 billion of capital to 258 unique companies. However, $3.5 billion was raised around the same time in 2022, signifying a huge 40% drop in volume and value. It also reported that due to shifting market forces, the venture investments in Africa fell by 43% YoY in 2023 H1, even though the African VC fund managers had a relatively strong fundraising experience in 2022.
Founded in 2021 with a vision to harness and support the latent potential within the African creative sector, the trajectory of the Birimian Ventures company is characterized by three major pillars: capacity building, access to finance (monetary investment), and access to market (operational excellence). This has also stretched into adept pitching, strategic fundraising, and a keen eye for burgeoning brands with the potential for significant impact. With an expansive list of brands under its portfolio, the company has invested from $5,000 to $300,000 in twenty seven brands, at incubation, acceleration, and growth stages respectively. These impressive figures are not only underscoring their approach to businesses in the continent, but also positioning them as key players in the evolution of the overall creative industry Africa is experiencing.
Birimian Ventures founder Laureen Kouassi-Olsson has been an active participant in the African investment space, with a focus on luxury fashion. She also has a degree from Emlyon Business School and Harvard Business School. Her career kicked off in London at Lehman Brothers, before she moved to Proparco, a subsidiary of the French Development Agency. She’s also worked at Amethis, a French private equity firm focused on the Sub-Saharan Africa region, before moving to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, to found Birimian Ventures. After securing a partnership deal of approximately $5 million with the Parisian private equity firm Trail Capital in 2022, she facilitated multiple other partnerships with leading fashion institutions, including Première Classe trade show and the Institut Français de la Mode.
As artisanal craftsmanship in the African fashion industry has been modernized in contemporary ways, so too has the African beauty industry. Beauty founders on the continent are finding success by tapping into local ingredients to make more refined and modern products for their customers, while keeping up with its traditional and historical element. These brands, including Suki Suki Naturals and Nature & Traditions have all undergone the different pillars of the Birimian Ventures infrastructure. “It became natural for us to look for those brands who will take our heritage and reinvent them into a modern offer, and a modern value addition proposal,” Kouassi-Olsson says.
This infusion of traditional elements has made brands on the continent largely popular and sought after. South Africa, for example, was listed with dominating cosmetics producers like South Korea, Japan, France, and Singapore, recording a $96.2 million positive net exports for beauty, cosmetics, and skincare products during 2022, according to World’s Top Export. Marketing intelligence and advisory firm Modor Intelligence also reports that the South African cosmetics and personal care products market size is expected to grow from $3.35 billion in 2023 to $4.19 billion by 2028, at a CAGR of 4.62% during the forecast period (2023–2028), making it one of the most marketable and most stable markets in the continent for investments.
In September 2022, Birimian and Orange Bank Africa (OBA)—a licensed bank with capital of FCFA 42.5 billion ($68,425,000), under the patronage of Madame Françoise Remarck, Minister of Culture and Francophonie, signed an unprecedented partnership aimed at promoting cultural excellence and exceptional Ivorian craftsmanship. “Nine months after signing this ground-breaking partnership, the Birimian and OBA teams are proud to note the success of this initiative, which to date has enabled some twenty creative entrepreneurs to be financed, with 100% consumption of the available envelope and a default rate of 0%,” they say in an email to BeautyMatter. “Of the companies financed with the first envelope, 18% of the portfolio goes to the cosmetics industry,” it continues. This success serves as a testament to Birimian Ventures’ ability to navigate and help fund the future of beauty at an infrastructural level, identifying and nurturing brands.
Kouassi-Olsson tells BeautyMatter that this strategic pivot into the beauty industry is not a whimsical venture, but a well-calculated move rooted in a nuanced understanding of its vast potential. While Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Ghana have witnessed the blossoming of successful beauty markets, this Ivorian company discerns untapped possibilities in regions yet to be fully explored like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire. They’re placing a deliberate bet on the industry's substantial growth, positioning themselves as pioneers poised to unlock new markets and redefine beauty norms. “Countries like Senegal are so important in the beauty sector. They may not be known right now, but we have found that they have been working locally with a value chain of suppliers and farmers to really unlock their potential and unlock those brands,” she says.
Behind this transition lies a meticulous approach in selecting brands with the promise of success. A blend of comprehensive market research, trend analysis, and a sharp eye for emerging talent ensures that their portfolio aligns seamlessly with the evolving demands of consumers across diverse African regions. In order to be a part of this Ivorian investment powerhouse, multiple checks and balances are made to ensure that the right candidates are selected. “Besides the brands being in existence for at least three years, we also look at their financial performance, including revenues, growth, and margin,” Kouassi-Olsson says. “We have a good practice, which is essentially that the funding should be limited to 30% of the annual revenue generated by the brand,” she continues.
Brands like Suki Suki Naturals which is the first beauty brand to be involved in the investment company’s Accelerator Program, Nature & Traditions, Sanáté, etc., have been beneficiaries of Birimian Ventures investments. As BeautyMatter reported, Birimian Ventures, being a part of Suki Suki naturals is already helping them delve deeper into markets in the US and Europe. Even brands like Nature & Traditions are on a similar journey. “Having studied the business cycle of Nature & Tradition [founded by Sandrine Assouan Kouao]—from the time between production and selling—the working capital, the balance sheet, and the treasury flow, we designed a self-renewable loan,” Kouassi-Olsson says. “It has been working really well, as she has increased her production, increased revenues, part of her staff, and is now going to the second generation of the renewable financing,” she continues.
However, financing isn’t the only offering from this investment juggernaut. With fashion, the company would support designers with their presentations in global Fashion Week platforms, pop-ups, etc. However, beauty presents a different opportunity—and challenge. “This is something we’re still thinking of and working on,” Kouassi-Olsson says. “But with Suki Suki Naturals, for example, which is based in South Africa, we’ve given them access to a concept store here in Côte d’Ivoire. We cannot have a one-size-fits-all strategy. What’s important is understanding the unique value proposition of the brand, where there is a multiplicity in terms of ethnicity, and then find the right approach depending on the right market,” she continues.
As this Ivorian investment powerhouse navigates an entry from fashion to beauty, it signifies not just a strategic business move but also a visionary leap into a sector poised for remarkable growth. Their journey serves as a compelling case study of a calculated fusion of financial prowess, market insight, and a steadfast commitment to cultivating the untapped potential within the African beauty industry.
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