Michael Sinclair is the General Manager, BIC East Africa, a subsidiary that he helped set up in 2019.
Sinclair has held senior managerial roles at the firm’s parent company headquartered in France. He has also worked for globally renowned brands such as Nestle Nespresso.
Why set up a subsidiary in Kenya?
We wanted to remain closer to our consumers as per our proximity strategy. This ensures we understand our consumers better and gather insights on what the market needs so that we can tailor and adapt our products accordingly. Today, the subsidiary hosts over 150 team members and serves 10 markets in the region, among them Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. We’re currently the market leader in the ballpoint pen category, with a market share of more than 35 per cent in value and volume.
How has the market responded?
BIC products have long been a household name across East and Central Africa. Upon setting up the subsidiary in 2019, our sales picked up and we managed to exceed our targets, which was phenomenal. Normally, our stationery sales peak during back-to-school seasons as well as around exam periods. One of the most interesting findings in the region is that students heavily rely on the BIC pen when writing their exams. They might purchase a different pen during the year but go for BIC during the exam period.
Bic has also diversified…
Diversifying a company’s portfolio is crucial to its growth, development and proximity to consumers. At BIC, our core categories include stationery, lighters and shavers. The subsidiary in Kenya had inevitably enhanced our growth in lighters by 200 per cent and shavers by 150 per cent excess growth. Prior to 2019, we were selling around eight million shavers across East Africa. Our diversification goes beyond just the product. We also look at purpose. Earlier this year, we announced a partnership with our brand ambassador, Azziad Nasenya, for one of our flagship shavers, Miss Soleil. The partnership targets women and aims to encourage them to be confident, comfortable in their skin, and shine in their own unique manner.
Like pens and shavers, why can’t you manufacture lighters in Kenya?
BIC has global operations with a manufacturing presence and capabilities in selected geographies. Our utmost priority is producing high-quality, affordable, and safe products for our consumers. We have stringent standards in the production of all our categories and we ensure centralised production lines across our geographies.
Has digitisation eaten into your pen market?
Digitisation is certainly increasing across the world, but the impact of putting pen to paper is irreplaceable. Digital tools can certainly complement writing tools. In East Africa, including Kenya, around 99 per cent of educational institutions are still predominantly dependent on pen and paper. I don’t foresee an immediate impact of digital tools on the consumer just yet.
How do you maintain your position as a market leader?
We work relentlessly to provide high-quality products and remain consistent. We ensure that our stock is always available to our consumers no matter where they are in the world. Apart from engaging our consumers through products, we also connect through values and purpose.
Having worked in south africa for years, what’s the contrast to the kenyan market?
Each market is unique based on the landscape in which it exists and the nature of the consumers and what they look for. The main difference between Kenya and South Africa is the split between distribution channels. While in South Africa distribution is predominantly through the modern mass market, in Kenya, 80 per cent of trade is done through traditional distribution channels.
Why would one go for a bic lighter and not a matchbox?
It is safe, simple, efficient, and affordable. Consumers in Kenya heavily rely on matches for various flame occasions, including but not limited to cooking and lighting candles. Matches are mistakenly seen as a cheaper alternative to lighters. However, the BIC Maxi lighter which costs Sh140 produces up to 3,000 flames. One matchbox gives up to 30 lights – assuming the lights work from the first round and do not get wet, misused or broken. To get to 3,000 flames from a matchbox, you will need to purchase around 100 matchboxes. If a matchbox costs Sh5, you need Sh500 for that purchase.
How do you deal with counterfeits?
Counterfeit is a global issue and companies in different regions and industries across the world constantly face it. Last year, we had an issue with the counterfeit of our shavers. We worked with the local authorities and counterfeit agencies and managed to eliminate a huge part of it. We also worked on an awareness campaign to educate consumers on what BIC products look like to help them spot or identify counterfeit products themselves.
What are the highlights since starting a subsidiary in Kenya?
One of the main successes in Kenya and across East Africa is that despite BIC being a French company, many consumers believe that it’s a Kenyan brand. This is a phenomenon that we see across many of our markets, not just in Africa. It is a testament to the brand’s strong localisation strategy and to the presence of a truly global team with local insights and understanding across the board. We see that this has also resulted in people associating with the BIC brand and not just loving it.
What about the challenges…
Every business faces challenges. For instance, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the closure of schools and universities undoubtedly had an impact on the business but we have a strong recovery. The key is to take on the challenge, solve it, learn from it, and move forward. At BIC, we operate a genuine and ethical business. We comply at every level across the geographies in which we operate, and we give back to the communities we do business in.
Do you receive complaints when it comes to product quality, such as ink spillage?
Not at all. We have been known for our manufacturing capabilities and the quality of our products, globally, regionally, and locally.