Kangai Mwiti and I meet at the boutique, Tune Hotel, in Westlands. It’s a warm and wet afternoon when Kangai shows up in a casual patterned dress and open sandals. No make-up. Her hair is in large simple cornrows that she seems to have had done herself.
I’m shocked. And confused.
I did not expect the founder of Bellesa Africa, a brand that is all about make-up, to have shown up with no make-up at all, be in simple attire and not don a long, expensive, Brazillian weave.
Kangai makes herself comfortable and brushes me off, “I’m actually not about that life.”
I don’t understand. Playing with make-up earns her living, and a comfortable one at that. Kangai confirms this is true, but says that she personally does not wear it every single day, only when she must.
While her business does run on her clients’ special occasions like weddings, she personally does not particularly enjoy events. I’m even more confused now and Kangai sees it on my face. I tell her that I, like many others, would have easily guessed her for an event-lover, fancy-wardrobe-owner and girl-about-town.
Kangai corrects me on the spot. She is anything but those things. She avoids events like the plague, she doesn’t want to be “spotted” at this or that launch, and she doesn’t enjoy being in crowds, unless it’s a speaking engagement. Essentially, Kangai tells me as she sips up her mocktail, she’s an extroverted introvert.
Kangai, 34, has successfully been running Bellesa Africa, her YouTube channel, for five years now. Her online brand has garnered a huge following, with women from all over the world wanting to learn how best to flawlessly apply make-up.
As we have late lunch, Kangai tells me she’ll be going to the gym for a spin class right after we are done. She then hilariously reveals that she was actually tempted to show up for the interview in gym attire, except she wasn’t sure the hotel would let her in.
As I try not to laugh too hard, Kangai tells me more about the YouTube world, quitting her full-time job to work for herself, the Master’s degree she’s currently undertaking and what friendship means to her.
When I ask more personal questions, the refreshingly honest, outspoken and witty Kangai tells me a little about some of her dating experiences.
These, as she narrates, quickly become clear undoubtedly formed some of the most dramatic chapters of her life. The more she narrates, the more speechless I am. I cannot believe the things people have put her through, and how remarkably she’s been able to dust herself off and keep going.
Kangai later remembers our conversation is on record, and pleads with me not to publish the details of that part of her life.
On asking her why not, Kangai assuredly, and like a woman who has comfortably grown into herself, says, “There’s just no point in it. I don’t want to channel attention and energy in that direction and to the people concerned. I’m over it all now.”
Here’s the rest on Kangai:
Who is Kangai?
Wow. You know, these kind of questions, (pauses), how does one answer that kind of question? (Laughs)
How would you describe yourself to a stranger who knew nothing about you?
Well, I am a young lady, in my 30s, very stubborn, I speak my mind all the time and I really hate dishonesty. I despise lies with my entire being.
Describe to me what it’s like to be in your 30s?
There’s a funny thing about being in your 30s. You just get to a point in your life where you start weeding out people who don’t align with your values and beliefs. For me this also meant waiting for quite a while before starting my business.
How do you mean?
There is a lot that goes into starting a business. It was hard, but I wanted to do it legally and I wanted to surround myself with people who understood my vision and values. I think I get this from my dad, he is very value-based and has a PhD in leadership.
Does this mean you believe in cutting people off?
I wouldn’t say “off,” but “out.” I have cut people out. When I hit 31, I made an actual, conscious choice to surround myself with people who would a) tell me like it is, and b) people who would be self-aware enough to apologize for the things they did.
I cut people out who did not know how to, and who weren’t aware they were supposed to apologize for the things they did.
I don’t understand, elaborate that for me?
For example, if we are sitting here and you come and step on my toe, your first reaction shouldn’t be, “Oh gosh, why is your foot there?” It should be, “Oh, my apologies for stepping on your foot.”
Ah, I see.
Yeah, before that, I used to hang out with friends who would be like, “Why did you put your foot there for me to step on?” So I realised I’m 31, and I need to keep it moving. I needed to move on, and I did.
Do you miss the friends you cut out?
I do, sometimes. But because I’ve travelled so much, I’ve had to let go of people often, so this is not new to me, it’s quite manageable.
Do you worry about loneliness?
Loneliness, not really. It’s more about finding genuine friendships. I worried about it a lot but my sister – she’s in Australia – told me that as I’m going through this phase, it will be tricky, but eventually it will pass and I’ll find fulfilling friendships. It’ll happen on it’s own.
Yeah, but a lot happened then, including quitting my job at the time.
What job was it?
I used to head the marketing department for one of the leading cosmetic brands in the country, but it wasn’t working out.
The job in itself was great, but my values weren’t aligning with the company’s practices. So I just thought it would be best to leave and do my own thing.
Bellesa Africa, how did it all start?
Oh, this goes back to friendships. There was a group of us, I thought we were really cool, but then one day I found out that they’d started doing these productions, and I wasn’t included. I didn’t understand. I was like, “Why? Why wasn’t I included?” You know? Sometimes you just want to be included. (Laughs)
That exclusion served as fuel to start my own thing, together with the fact that there wasn’t anywhere I could really jump in and start working. Print had its own make-up artists, and so did advertising and the like. So I started the YouTube channel, I didn’t stop, and here we are.
How hard is it running a YouTube channel consistently and successfully?
It’s very hard, for me, because my personality is such that I get bored very fast doing the same thing over and over again. I need new challenges. So now, I’m just taking some time to pause. I’m trying to decide whether I want it to represent more of who I am, or have it remain as just make-up tutorials. I’m leaning towards the former, but we’ll see.
Do you shoot and edit everything yourself or do you have a team?
I do it all myself.
It’s not as impossible as people think. If you’re willing to take the time to learn how to shoot and edit, you’ll realise it’s not that hard at all.
However, with time, I think I will inevitably need a team.
What are the different ways with which you earn from YouTube?
The major way is certainly advertising, but the better way to earn from YouTube is through branded deals. This involves working with companies who understand the power of your online presence.
Do you regret leaving employment?
No. Not at all. Starting the YouTube channel and giving it my all is one of the best decisions I ever made. it has opened so many doors for me.
It’s not all about money, but now, I look at what one of my clients pays me to create digital strategies for them and it’s nowhere close to what I was getting per month, for a high-level position with 40-hour weeks. (Shakes head) I’m glad I left.
Digital strategy, tell me more?
With the YouTube channel doing so well, a large following, many clients, referrals, people started coming to me for advice and seeking services in terms of digital strategies, and I thought, why not? So now I have a company that offers exactly that.
What do you wish you knew about business before you started?
I certainly wish I knew more. Especially now that I have a start-up, more information and knowledge on how to run a business would have definitely come in handy. But that’s exactly why I’m doing my Master’s degree.
What are you studying for your Master’s degree?
I’m taking a Masters of Arts in Communication.
Where are you studying it?
I would rather not say. I don’t want to give those guys any kind of publicity. I feel like it’s a huge waste of my money. I’m actually going to get it over with, and then go seek another Master’s degree elsewhere.
Wow. Is it really that bad?
Yes, it is! We are the first cohort, and the school, which is supposed to be one of the best in the country seeing as it’s private and all, doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing. They are experimenting everything, the lecturers don’t show up for more than half of the classes, they are disorganised, unsure, it’s just terrible.
What are some of the mistakes you’ve made in the past?
Those have been many. (Laughs)
Narrow them down for me?
Well, if I were to narrow them down, I would categorise it generally as fear.
Like, not too long ago, some guys approached me. They wanted to hire my make-up services in some island very far away. It was a very long flight: from here to Dubai, Dubai to Miami, Miami to the island. And I thought, wow! If these guys can see that far, why can’t I? I should be able to see that much potential in myself and work towards it.
No make-up vs a made-up face, what do you want your followers to keep in mind?
That they should do whatever they want to. I come from the belief system that, if it makes you happy and it doesn’t harm anyone, do it.
What are you wearing on your face today?
Nothing. Just moisturizer.
(Laughs heartily) I told you, I’m going to the gym right after this.
You did tell me. For those who hate employment but don’t know how to transition into entrepreneurship, what would you tell them?
Always know your strengths. Whilst you may hate employment, maybe a part of you really does appreciate a steady paycheck at the end of the month. And while you may want to go solo, perhaps you are not entrepreneurship material. These are things to keep in mind.
Find something you are really passionate about. There are so many ways of monetizing content. The online space gives us so many opportunities now. Find something you are really passionate about and are good at, and then work at it.
What’s your biggest fear?
(Laughs) I fear injections like you don’t understand. I also fear dying by drowning.
(Laughs again) Yeah, but on another note, another huge fear I have is that I won’t leave an impact, I won’t leave a legacy. I’ve really been thinking a lot about how I want to give back, I’m working on it.
What do you wish you did differently in your 20s?
I wish I was bolder than I was and I that I didn’t quit. In 2008 I was in the US, had bought all these fancy equipment, but I was scared of starting.
I wish I had just started. I think a lot about what those years would have done for my channel had I just started early.
Any advice on relationships?
Oh, no, I’m the worst person for that. But if I could try, I would say, don’t make that your goal. I’ve seen some people make that their end goal and become disappointed. Don’t do it. Just walk in your path, work on yourself, and trust God to make it happen at the right time.
And for those who are single?
Enjoy it! Enjoy every minute of it. The stories I hear from people in relationships, oh, I’d say enjoy all that freedom you’ve got now. You’re going to miss it one day.
Do you have a mantra that you live by?
Yes, “Move.” I have the type of personality where if things aren’t working out, or when I’m struggling or sad, I get into my house, shut the door and disappear for days.
But now, I’m trying to get out of it, which is why I started going to the gym, just to move, to make one step. So when in a bad situation, move to get out of it. And when in a good situation, move so that you don’t stagnate in it.
If you could make one special request to God today, what would it be?
That my parents would never die. (Silence)
And if you could make another request?
That one day my family would be in one place. My siblings and I are spread out around the world, so it would be nice if we could all be at the same place at the same time.
Any last words?
Be bold and don’t quit.