It's only logical that an overwhelmingly black country should opt for a black doll where the choice presents itself. But we don’t live on planet logical yet, nor do we live in a world where a choice of that nature even exists for many (although e-commerce is rapidly changing that). Whilst the Queens of Africa range is succeeding in reflecting the beauty of African phenotypes, fashion, and culture, it also reflects the power of a growing trend towards Africans taking into our own hands responsibility for our own representation. By doing so, it has given consumers something that they didn't previously have – a choice.
Taofick hasn’t reinvented the wheel, or invented the next iPhone, or developed a cure for ebola. But what he has done could yet have immeasurable social impact, through empowering the next generation of young black women to see beauty in both themselves and their cultures. In a previous article on the Onliris blog, Ghanaian singer Efya wrote about the scourge of skin bleaching. If more girls grew up with figures of beauty more akin to how they themselves look, it may lead to more of them growing up to be fully confident in their own skin.
What Okoya has achieved also serves as encouragement to Africans, or other ethnic groups, to strongly consider what images and narratives we feed to our children, either overtly or subliminally. If, in doing so, you spot a niche, cater to it. Chances are, the demand and consumer base will be there.
Okoya, who started the business in 2007, said he couldn’t find a black doll for his niece. Rather than buy a white doll, or no doll, he decided to start making black dolls instead.
How many of us would have just bought the Barbie?
Okoya took a pre-existing concept and made it locally relevant, merely changing their colour, wardrobe, and backstories. That was all that was required. Rastamouse, and Monopoly Lagos are two other examples of two other forms of children’s entertainment (a crime-fighting cartoon character, and a popular board game) that have been given an ethnic twist. Bianca Miller got to the final of The Apprentice UK pitching the simplest of ideas – a range of tights that come in different colours, because people come in a range of different colours too.
The rise of Africa’s consumer class has largely meant that middle-class Africans have been able to acquire goods made abroad, or made by multinational companies who have wilily adapted their global products for local African markets. If these dolls are outselling Barbie in Nigeria, it is a strong indicator that Africans will support a product that is well presented, of good quality, locally relevant, and reasonably priced – irrespective of whether it was made in Africa by an African or made by the world’s leading toy manufacturer.
The response to these dolls seems to be overwhelmingly positive. Comments range from ‘I’ve been looking for something like this for my little girl for ages!’ to ‘I don’t even have kids, but I’m buying one!’ to ‘I’m white, as are my children, but these dolls are just so beautiful I know my girls will love them’.
White girls growing up playing with black dolls sounds absurd to the naked ear (it shouldn't do, but it does). Black girls growing up playing with white dolls should also sound absurd, but it doesn't; it's been the case since forever. There is nothing wrong with a non-white child having a white doll per se. There is, however, a concern if the only available representation of feminine beauty is presented as a thin, leggy, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman, and that image is impressed on any child of any race at an age where they are learning about the social norms of the world they live in.
And why stop at dolls? The vast majority of the superheroes our children are familiar with, as well as fairy tale characters, video game protagonists, and cartoon characters do not reflect our race or cultures. Then again, neither do many of our national curricula, or entire educational systems if we’re really honest about it.
Black dolls is one battle in one country that seems to be being won, but the moral of the story rings loud – it’s possible to beat a billion-dollar superbrand, and to do it in a royally fly fashion too.