Nigerian Man Creates ‘Queens Of Africa’ Dolls To Battle Barbie’s Homogeneity

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Barbie used to be arguably the most popular toy for young girls. But a growing unrest over the stereotyped and homogenous attributes of the doll has made other toy manufacturers cash in on the parents looking for an alternative for their child.

But it’s not just toy companies that are leading the way in this mass exodus from the Barbie phase, it is individuals who see a gap in the market where girls are not being catered to in a diverse and empowering way. Stanford engineer Debbie Sterling created Goldieblox because she believes the pink princess mentality is only handicapping a generation of girls to think outside the box when it comes to realistic futures and careers.

It is a movement that isn’t just limited to America. Nigerian man Taofick Okoya is fast becoming a go-to doll maker for girls in the country who have previously been unable to find dolls that look like them.

He created his own line called the ‘Queens Of Africa‘ dolls in 2007 after seeing a huge gap in the market in Nigeria, where companies like Mattel (who manufacture Barbie) are unchallenged by any other brand. He also wanted his niece to have a doll that looks like her, like a true African girl, rather than a white, skinny doll that doesn’t reflect Nigeria’s culture at all.

Queens of Africa are manufactured in China and Taofick and his company add Nigerian costumes to them when the dolls arrive in the country. He sells between 6,000 and 9,000 of his “Queens of Africa” and “Naija Princesses” a month, and reckons he has 10-15 percent of a small but fast-growing market according to a report from Reuters in 2014.

Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups of Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa are represented in the “Queens of Africa” range so far, highlighting the growing sophistication of consumers – and the need to tailor products to local tastes.

The dolls go for between 1,300 Nigerian naira to the special edition 3,500 naira ($22), while cheaper “Naija Princesses” sell for 500 to 1,000 naira apiece.

He plans to expand the line to include other African ethnicities and is in talks with a major retailer store to sell to 70 shops across Africa.

The 43 year-old business man is a prime example of the growing economy in Nigeria. With 170 million people, it is the most populous country in Africa, and it’s economy is catching up to South Africa, which is currently the biggest in the continent.

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So why are Taofick’s dolls so ridiculously popular, despite the fact that Barbie have been selling black dolls and dolls of color for many years? They don’t sell a lot of their diverse dolls in sub-Saharan Africa according to a Mattel spokesperson and doesn’t have any plans to expand in the near future. What a shame, but hey it leaves room for other products to flood the market that might actually cater to what consumers want.

“Our mission is to promote a positive self-identity in African girls as well as preserve the African culture. The Queens of Africa project is a Girl child empowerment program with the goal and aim of inculcating into the African Girl child positive attributes and interest through play by using fun and entertaining ways,” says the website.

In an interview with Elle magazine Taofick says he was initially met with resistance from locals, but persevered to show them the cultural importance of his dolls over Barbie.

“I spent about two years campaigning on the importance and benefits of dolls in the African likeness. During that process, I realized greater social issues such as low self esteem, which led to the passion to make a change in the coming generation.”

Today his dolls are being bought online from America, Brazil Ivory Coast and Europe, but he won’t rest until there is a Queens of Africa doll in the hands of every child of African decent all over the world and is a “symbol of pride by making them appreciate who they are as an African” he says.

It is certainly a lofty goal, but also very noble. Taofick believes these dolls are more than just toys, they are a symbol of hope to young girls that the idea of physical beauty does include dark skin color like their own. It is something Kenyan-born actress Lupita Nyong’o has spoken of quite often, saying her visibility in the media give rise to the representation of dark skinned women in pop culture.

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Taofick must agree with Lupita’s sentiments as his own daughter was part if the inspiration to make Queens of Africa a growing business.

“As her father, I wanted the best for her and to teach her to become a confident, responsible adult. I quickly realized that my direct influence on her development was about 40 percent and the remaining 60 percent was from her surroundings, i.e., her toys, TV, friends, etc. [These] were mostly subliminal and had a longer lasting impact on her [that] was somewhat out of my control,” he says.

“Even though we live in Nigeria, there was a lot of Western influence, which might have been responsible for her wishing she was white. It made me aware that I needed to make her proud and happy being a black African girl, and not limit it to her alone as this was a common trend amongst the younger generation. The Queens of Africa became a platform to achieve this.”

He also goes on to say that the power of toys should not be underestimated as they have a greater influence than we think. The feedback he has gotten so far is overwhelmingly positive, with one Facebook comment reading: “”Thank you for your hard work and keep on doing it, you are helping our girls in being more confident and proud of themselves.”

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Taofick has gotten some criticism that although his dolls may sport traditional Nigerian clothing and have darker skin, they are still all slim like Barbie.

“There are slim Africans, plus-size Africans, dark Africans, fair skinned Africans, flat-nose Africans, and pointed-nose Africans. We will do our best to represent as much of the diversity of Africans but surely not all at once. Some people have critiqued us quite harshly from an ignorant standpoint, forgetting we are relatively quite young. The responsibility to represent Africa in a doll or product is not an easy task. Our diversity is one of our greatest attributes.”

In the future Taofick sees Queens of Africa as a TV series, in music videos with positive, empowering lyrics and on shelves around the world.

“I have been told that our products will not make mainline stores in the States as it will be seen as a specialist product. As such, [it] will be limited to specialist stores in certain areas. I am looking to prove them wrong.”

Yes! We love that attitude that nothing will stop him from proving what a powerful symbol of hope diversity is.

Watch this in-depth interview with Taofic Okoya as he talks about Queens of Africa and why he is in the business of empowering African girls:


 

4 Comments

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