When Marvel’s Black Panther broke box office records last year, it also struck merchandising gold, with the Disney-owned franchise generating an estimated R250 million in licensed merchandise sales in 2018.
The US-based entertainment giant is not the only enterprise selling African-based toys, as several local entrepreneurs are looking to tap into this market. While these types of toys are becoming serious business, the lack of local doll manufacturers and distributors has proven to be an opportunity of sorts for husband-and-wife team Thabo and Mpumi Motsabi.
The Motsabis came upon this opportunity at a networking event when somebody sold them two dolls – one Zulu and the other Sotho – for their daughter. Wanting to celebrate African children and their natural beauty, they decided to buy another 200 to sell on social media, giving rise to Toys with Roots, a distribution company they founded in 2015.
Toys with Roots
“The most important thing for us is representation [in the toy industry],” says (Thabo) Motsabi.
“We want toys that celebrate African children, because for us representation is important.” He says just as it’s said black children need to see positive role models in the community, they also need to see toys that represent who they are.
He says that when a parent buys a toy that doesn’t represent the child’s heritage, often because they have no other option, they are subconsciously raising the child to suffer from an inferiority complex.
“You are giving them an inferiority complex and the desire to want to lighten their skin and want to be somebody they are not. This even affects them when they enter the corporate space, because they struggle with identification, and in most cases, they end up not knowing how to fit in.”
The philosophy for Toys with Roots is that ‘We are all different and it is okay because your value comes from your difference’.
The business is not just affirming for children, it has also created markets for products it has sourced from Botswana, Malawi and South Africa.
Distribution is through their Toys with Roots online store, which sells educational apps, dolls, books, tents, puppets, and puzzles. The products are also available at Toys R Us and pop-up markets.
The company recently started exclusively supplying retail giants Shoprite and Checkers nationally with Rainbow Kids – a range of three dolls named Khana, Pula and Nandi – which retail at R99.99 each.
According to Shoprite, its buyer Monique Richards liked the product but the Motsabis could not meet the retailer’s pricing requirements. While the designs and moulds for the dolls were developed in South Africa, to manufacture them here was not a viable option for the start-up because local production capacity and cost-effective pricing remain challenging.
Motsabi explains that Toys with Roots worked with Shoprite to partner with a Chinese toy supplier that could produce the volumes they needed at the right price.
The business is still small, but is growing fast. In its last financial year, the company achieved a turnover of R350 000, with projections for the current financial year expected to be over R750 000 because of this new deal.
A study on the social and psychological effects of racism and segregation, conducted by US psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, revealed that 63% of African-American children preferred playing with white rather than black dolls.
They displayed a distressing disconnect from dolls of their own skin colour and assigned negative connotations towards darker-skinned dolls.
This motivated Stacey Rethman, originally from Windhoek in Namibia but now based in George in the Western Cape, to found Afro Girl. The company makes a multilingual Hunadi doll (meaning ‘Blessing’ in Sotho), which speaks in Xhosa, Sesotho, isiXhosa and IsiZulu. The doll is sold on Takealot for R499.
The doll has personality and a favourite colour, which Rethman says is exactly what makes children so pure and unique. “We all have our favourite colours, food, seasons and origins. If I were little and was given Hunadi as a gift, I would be amazed that she can speak.”
Rethman sources the reversible shweshwe material from downtown Johannesburg. The doll is manufactured in Guangzhou, Hong Kong using 3D illustrations that are supplied to make sure she represents African beauty.
She is described as having unique facial features and a soft huggable body, with big brown eyes, a wider and flatter nose, and luscious lips. Her clothing is locally sewn, and the hair is hand-sewn using afro-style wig caps. Hunadi has real leather shoes, and wears a beaded necklace and bracelet hand-made by a group of women in Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal.
“I did try and reach out and find doll manufacturers in South Africa because I wanted everything to be made locally, but I could not find anyone to make the mould,” says Rethman, echoing the experiences of the Motsabis.
She says she has noticed growth in the market since she started selling the dolls last year.
“We’re offering our country something where there should be variety. It’s awesome to see the growth and I’m proud to be part of that, no matter how small. I do think selling African dolls for cheaper and distributing them across the country would be a great advantage to anyone entering the market.
The joy of seeing children identify with the doll is exhilarating for Rethman.
“My idea to bring an African doll to the market was never based on profits, but to create change in a subtle way,” she says. “To see children playing with Hunadi regardless of their skin colour is that change.”