Until recently, it was hard–or even impossible–to find a black doll in Nigeria. Eight years ago, when he was looking for a birthday present for his niece, Nigerian entrepreneur Taofick Okoyo realized that none of the dolls his niece owned looked like her. He couldn’t find an African doll in stores. So Okoyo decided to start his own line.
Today, his Queens of Africa dolls are selling better than Barbie in the local market. And Okoyo believes that might be helping young Nigerian girls feel better about the way they look.
“I realized [my daughter] was not too happy with the fact that she is black when she was younger,” he says. “This, I believe, came about from not having any dolls or her favorite characters in her image. … I felt it’s very important to have her embrace her skin color and race, and be proud of who she is. I believe this will lead [her to be] a more confident adult.”
Granted, the dolls are somewhat Barbie-esque, with impossibly thin figures and giant doe-like eyes. The company plans to introduce more diverse body types in the future (though an early attempt at plumper dolls failed to sell). But Okoyo says the dolls’ range of brown skin tones and traditional costumes help girls identify with them.
The Queens of Africa line was inspired by the three largest tribes in Nigeria, and the company plans to soon make specific dolls for other African countries. It’s also making music, comic books, and an animated series based on the characters.
“I created my range of dolls for children of African decent to have a doll that they can identity with, and to tell stories that are relevant to them and their race,” Okoyo says. “I don’t believe Mattel created Barbie for African girls.”
The startup had a slow beginning–at first, girls weren’t interested in buying African dolls, and Okoyo took time to focus on education before actually marketing the toys. Eventually, the demand for black dolls grew.
“I attribute that to over two years of talking about the importance of children owning dolls in their likeness, through various media mediums,” he says. “Creating awareness made some people realize that indeed their was a lack of black dolls, and they supported and encouraged me. Once the word started going around, this helped sales.”
The company also created a line of dolls that was more affordable; in the past, dolls have been seen as a luxury item in Nigeria. “The plan is to reach children regardless of the income bracket of their parents,” says Okoyo.
To keep prices cheap, the dolls are made in China, though they’re assembled in Nigeria, where workers also make local clothes and braid the dolls’ hair in traditional styles. Eventually, Okoyo hopes to begin manufacturing locally as well.
As Barbie sales continue to plummet around the world–Mattel reported a 59% drop in the company’s total earnings over the past few months–the Queens of Africa dolls keep getting more popular.
The company now sells between 6,000 and 9,000 dolls each month, making up around 10 to 15% of the total doll market in Nigeria. Mattel, meanwhile, doesn’t have any plans to expand in Africa.