There are many ways in which racial stereotypes still perpetuate society and steps still have to be taken daily to make sure that the message ‘black is beautiful’ reaches the ears of the children of Africa. Just take a look at the luminous Lupita Nyong’o who, despite her recent Oscar win, has confessed that she struggled to accept the dark colour of her skin while growing up.
One area in society where white figures still dominate is in the toy market until Nigerian entrepreneur, Taofick Okoya’s ethnic African dolls, which represent Nigeria’s three largest groups, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.
Taofick’s dolls aim to empower girls, so that they can interact and play with dolls that look similar to them. Currently he sells between 6 000 and 9 000 dolls each month and has plans to expand across Africa. We chatted to the Nigerian entrepreneur about his struggles and success.
1. How did you get the idea to make your first African doll?
I came up with the idea when I went birthday shopping for my niece and wanted to get her something that would be meaningful and also help with her development. I saw various dolls on display, and tried to rationalise how that will be of help to her development. At that point, I thought if they had African dolls she could relate to or identify with it could have a positive impact on her. From that moment on it stayed in my mind and I started paying attention to the availability of African dolls, and realised that there were none.
My daughter was three at the time and she had asked me, ‘what colour am I?’ Realising where it may be leading, I told her in an upbeat way that she is black. She got a sad look and when I enquired why, she said it was because she wished she was white. This, I believe, is because all of her favourite characters were white and she had imagined herself in their likeness.
This further drove my passion to create a doll that she and other African children can relate to. That was the beginning of the ‘Queens of Africa’ dolls. The goal is not just selling pieces of moulded plastic, but also to inspire and create a sense of appreciation of them by promoting value, culture and a heritage.
2. Do you think you filled a much-needed gap in the market?
The ‘Queens of Africa’ definitely fill a void in the market. I say this because the first reaction we got from retailers was resistance. They said, ‘black dolls don’t sell’. I then embarked on an educational campaign via various media, telling people about the psychological impact dolls have on children, and dolls in the likeness of the African child can have on them. It took almost three years for the idea to get accepted.
3. What impact do you think these dolls have on little girls?
African-inspired increase little girls’ sense of self-appreciation and confidence. When little girls play with dolls, they see themselves in or as the doll, they dress it in clothes they like and act out their fantasies. The more of their own likeness they see in the things they like, the more accepting they will be of their looks and culture.
4. What are some of the challenges you faced in setting up your business?
Acceptance – We got a lot of resistance from the children initially as they were not used to African dolls and didn’t find them attractive. They also didn’t like the traditional outfits, so we had to adapt to the current acceptable body and facial features. We plan to change this and add identifying African characteristics such as curvier bodies, bigger hair textures and fuller facial features. We adapted contemporary design using African prints. We are gaining acceptance but I don’t think that we have even scratched the surface yet. The project is being run almost at cost, as gaining acceptance is the major priority, so the underlying message is not lost.
Distribution – We have a lot of product requests from around the world and we need to get our products into major toy stores. This means we need to increase our distribution. We also need to develop a strong online presence to meet the large demand, as this makes the dolls more accessible. We still need our big break as our products are mainly seen as specialist items and not ‘mainstream’.
Partnership – As a social-cultural project that spans a wide spectrum, we have not had the buy-in of both individual and corporate bodies who believe in our vision of empowerment through play and the power and value of education on the African child. We have music and books with animation series in view to further achieve the goals of this project.
6. Could you give us a couple of examples of the reactions that you have been getting to your dolls?
People often have stereotypes about how Africans look, and forget we are a very diverse continent, so I get comments like, ‘They don’t have thick lips’, or ‘Their noses are too pointed’. Some people say they should have a kinky afro, and others say the dolls aren’t dark enough. We do realise that some features need to be adjusted but they don’t need to be exaggerated as has been suggested by some people.
On the positive side, we have had a lot of people thank us for embarking on this project.
Here are a few quotes:
‘Okay, my mother always said I hated dolls. My reason, they never looked like me. Now I'm 32 and have discovered these dolls.... believe me when I say I'm buying the entire collection. This is awesome!!!!’
‘That's cute, I like that. I wish they had that when I was a child.’
‘Positive. Powerful. Passionate. Progressive!’
‘Amen to positive things like this ...I'm so proud of forward thinking people.’
7. What do you think makes these dolls so popular?
Firstly, the dolls have been created by an African, who has first-hand knowledge about African culture, which assures people about their authenticity. Secondly, we are not just selling the opportunity to be in tune with African culture and heritage, ‘Queens of Africa’ is about promoting positive attributes in the African child with the aim to empower them so that they can become more self-confident and be proud of who they are.
We have books about African women of old who did great things in a male-dominated environment and music with positive messages. To the rest of the world, we are selling the beauty of our African culture.
8. Tell us a bit about the vision behind collection and what you hope to achieve as an organisation.
The ‘Queens of Africa’ characters are designed to represent progressive qualities such as endurance, peace and love, while developing literary potential in children as well as enhancing their career development for the future. The project is dedicated, through the use of books, dolls, comics, music, and animation series, to help empower children of Nigerian/African descent to be confident. The materials are designed to be fun and engaging, while it subconsciously promotes Nigerian/African heritage.
9. What are your future plans?
The future is very bright. We are planning an animation series or even a movie that will further drive our vision.
We will also launch the various songs already produced under ‘Queens of Africa’. We are working on introducing a ‘Queen of Africa’ doll for various countries in Africa wearing outfits that represent the main culture of each country.
We plan to work with various African designers and celebrities on a limited-edition range dolls to raise funds to support an education focused charity.
Find out more on queensofafrica.com