Taofick Okoya had a problem, so he ended up solving it himself. Okoya was upset when he couldn’t find a black doll for his niece, so the 43-year-old Nigerian business man decided to take matters into his own hands and started his own doll making business.
Seven years later, Okoya sells between 6,000 and 9,000 “Queens of Africa” and “Najia Princesses” a month.
While Nigeria sees thousands of births every day, two thirds of children are born into families unable to afford anything off the shelves of most toy shops.
Multinationals also cite poor infrastructure and corrupt port authorities as reasons for steering clear.
South Africa’s Woolworths pulled out of Nigeria last year, blaming supply chain problems, though analysts said it also misread the local clothes market.
The longer companies such as Mattel wait, however, the more time Okoya has to build his business and shape consumer tastes.
At a small factory in Lagos’ Surulere suburb, his workers stitch brightly patterned West African fabrics into miniature dresses and “geles” – traditional head gear.
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. Okoya makes a profit margin of about one third, and as well as selling at home, is increasingly shipping to the United States and Europe.
Okoya is also in the process of inking a deal with South Africa’s Game, owned by Massmart, a part of Wal-Mart, to sell his dolls in 70 shops across Africa. Okoya also realizes that his dolls, although thin, should emulate different body types. Previously he designed thicker bodied dolls but says the kids didn’t like them, but he hopes to attempt it again.
“For now, we have to hide behind the ‘normal’ doll. Once we’ve built the brand, we can make dolls with bigger bodies.”