Doha, Qatar – In the heart of the lively Doha neighbourhood of Al Mansoura is a beauty and fashion shop which has gained a strong following among Africans living in the Qatari capital ever since the store opened about two years ago.
Butterfly Beauty Shop is located along Al Mansoura’s crowded main street and is nestled among grocery stores – known locally by the Arabic word baqaala, restaurants, tea and snack spots and a smattering of hardware supply shops.
The shelves and aisles of Butterfly Beauty Shop are packed with beauty products, hair extensions, fashion accessories, clothes, shoes, and seemingly every possible fashion item from Africa.
“This is the only shop catering to the fashion needs of Africans in Qatar,” boasts the Kenyan shop owner Bernard Wanjiku, 32.
Qatar is home to a diverse foreign community that makes up 90 percent of the country’s population.
The sub-Saharan African community accounts for roughly 6 percent of the total population in Qatar, with foreign nationals coming from countries such as Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, Somalia and Ghana.
Wanjiku arrived in Doha from Kenya in 2013 to work as a driver for a local organisation, but switched jobs to become a taxi driver five years later. It was through conversations with his clients that he got the idea to start his own business.
“Every time someone from Africa sat in my cab, they would ask me if I knew of someone coming from home who could bring some beauty products,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“It would happen so frequently that I realised this was a business opportunity waiting to be grabbed.”
Testing the waters
Wanjiku’s operations started small. In the beginning, he would arrange for friends travelling from Kenya to bring skincare and hair products in small batches, and then he would sell them to Africans who he met on taxi rides. Those customers would keep coming back for his products.
“I wanted to test the waters before investing all my savings in one place. For four years, I ran this business as a side hustle on [a] demand-and-supply basis while having a cab as my main source of income,” explains Wanjiku, whose beauty business spread by word of mouth.
Since opening the shop in February 2021, Wanjiku has already established a significant clientele, most of whom have followed his journey from the taxi to his brick-and-mortar store in a bustling neighbourhood.
But Wanjiku admits he has social media to thank for the rapid growth of his business.
“Soon after the opening, African people living in Mansoura posted photos and videos from inside the shop,” he explains. “They would try on some wigs, hair extensions or rave about finally having access to skin products from back home.”
Some of these posts led to social media buzz among Qatar’s African community.
“A group of Sudanese shoppers once posted something from here, and it went viral within their community, leading to queues and traffic jams outside my shop in the following days,” he recalls, laughing.
At the time, the shop had recently opened and the Sudanese shoppers had posted pictures of themselves on social media trying on hair extensions and clothes. Wanjiku himself uses WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram to promote his business.
Jessie, one of the shop assistants, shows some face creams and hair products to a couple from Kenya. He tells them which product would work better for them, and assures them of its authenticity.
“Jessie is from Kenya as well,” Wanjiku says. “It is important to have people who understand the products and connect with the shoppers to make them feel like they are back home.”
Mehrab, who is from Uganda, is browsing in the shop. He says he first visited the store a few months ago after some of his Kenyan friends shared a YouTube video about it.
He says he often stops by to chat about news from “back home” and to see if there are any new products to try.
“Not all hair products work on African hair,” he says, running his hand over his head. “I have lost so much hair since moving to Qatar but now that I know about this place, I come here to get hair products from home.”
Satin dresses, World Cup flags
Colourful printed shirts called dashikis hang from a rail high above the shelves. Jessie says they are among the best-selling items as Filipinos and Arabs like to buy them as well.
He points at a rack of sparkly satin dresses and says Kenyan women love them because they are on trend.
“Kenyan women love following fashion from the rich and influential people back home, so we try to cater to their demands and bring them [fashion trends] here,” Jessie says.
“Sometimes, they just hold up their phones to show us exactly which trendy outfit they want and if we have it, they will put it on and post about it on their social media accounts right away.”
Some Nigerian men and women, visiting Qatar for the World Cup, enter the shop and browse the clothes on display. They want to see if the country has any African fan paraphernalia to offer.
“We are here to support the African teams,” says Steve, one of the tourists.
Wanjiku pulls out a few African flags from a box and unfurls them for the shoppers.
He says he changed the look of his shop front in the weeks leading up to the World Cup to match the occasion. The display is now adorned with large flags and the football shirts of Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Ghana and other participating teams.
“Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon flags are very popular. In fact, I have had to restock on Ghanaian flags as they have been selling out quickly.”
Looking for the next trend
An Indian fan of the Argentinian football team beckons Jessie from the door.
“Brother, do you have a Messi shirt? Number 10?” he asks. He walks away disappointed when Jessie shakes his head.
Wanjiku says the South Asians and Filipinos of Al Mansoura are interested in supporting only Argentina, Brazil and Qatar.
Wanjiku has already started planning for life after the World Cup.
“There is a trend of Kenyan, African-style placemats that is picking up back home. I want to bring them here for the local Africans. I know they will ask for them as soon as they see it on social media.”
Jessie nods and chimes in, “You see that yellow T-shirt up there?” He points to a bright T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of George Wajackoyah, a losing candidate in this year’s general elections in Kenya.
“We got it because this man was popular among the youth back home, and the young Kenyan people here wanted to be a part of the trend,” he explains. “Anything that’s popular in Kenya, we bring it to Qatar.”