While Black parents in the U.S. remain frustrated with the lack of Black dolls for their children, a Nigerian businessman has tapped into the growing toy industry and created a line of African dolls that fill an important void in the market.
For years, Black parents and children have wondered why there are so few Black dolls available on American shelves. As it turns out, that problem was just as prevalent in Nigeria, but Taofick Okoya has tackled it with a vengeance.
The 43-year-old entrepreneur created the Queens of Africa and Naija Princess doll collections that are currently outselling Mattel’s classic Barbies.
According to Reuters, Okoya sells roughly 6,000 to 9,000 dolls every month, and he estimates that he now holds “about 10-15 percent of a small but fast-growing market.”
The three dolls of his Queens of Africa collection are based on Nigeria’s three largest groups.
Nneka is Igbo, Wuraola is Yoruba, and Azeezah is Hausa.
All of the girls have books that correspond to their backgrounds as well and reinforce their cultural identities.
One 5-year-old girl, Ifunanya Odiah, was filled with excitement when she saw the dolls, Reuters reported.
“I like it,” Ifunanya said, according to Reuters. “It’s Black, like me.”
It’s proof that there are huge investment opportunities in the toy market for those who want to create a more diverse set of dolls for young children.
Larger companies, like Mattel, are avoiding the Black doll market and show no signs of getting involved any time soon.
A spokesman for the world’s largest toy company told Reuters that Mattel’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa was “very limited” and that they do not “have any plans for expansion into this region to share at this time.”
In other words, the doors are wide open for smaller companies and startups to dominate the market and fill that void.
It’s something that Okoya has witnessed first-hand and economic experts can attest to.
“When it comes to sectors like spirits or beer, or even cement, all the international players are already there,” said Andy Gboka, a London-based equity analyst at Exotix LLP Partners, to Reuters. “Other sectors, such as toys or less-developed industries, provide a huge potential for local companies.”
That doesn’t mean the road to success will be easy.
Okoya told Elle Magazine that one of his biggest challenges was to educate the market on why his dolls were so important to the well-being of children.
“The ‘Queens of Africa’ definitely fill a void in the market,” he told Elle. “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.”
He said the entire process took nearly three years before the idea was finally accepted on a larger scale.
It was a serious hurdle to jump across, but it also means he has already completed some of the legwork for other startups and emerging entrepreneurs.
He is also seeing quite the return on the time he invested in educating the market.
The dolls are currently hot-sellers in Nigeria and go for anywhere between 3,500 naira ($22) to 500 naira (roughly $2). Considering the number of dolls he is selling on a monthly basis and a profit margin of about one-third, Okoya certainly made the right business move.
He is also currently in talks with South Africa’s Game, which is owned by a part of Wal-Mart called Massmart.
This deal would give Okoya access to roughly 70 shops across Africa.
For parents in the U.S., Okoya is starting to ship more of his dolls overseas, which means it could only be a matter of time before toy shelves in America are filled with African Queens and Naija Princesses.