Taofick Okoya’s ‘Queens of Africa’ Dolls are Taking on Barbie
Okoya couldn’t find a doll that looked like his niece, so he decided to do something about it. Now his dolls are outselling Barbie.
ELLE.com talked with Okoya about the evolution of the line, the importance of its message to little girls (including his own), and how it’s changing the toy industry..
Queens of Africa, the black doll line that’s outselling Barbie in Nigeria, started as a personal mission seven years ago. Taofick Okoya was frustrated that he couldn’t find a black doll on the market for his niece. “I happen to be the kind of person that doesn’t enjoy complaining and criticizing without taking any action,” the 43-year-old businessman tells ELLE.com. So he researched making a doll that Nigerian girls could identify with: one with their skin color and traditional African fashion.
“It became a frontline project for me due to the resistance the dolls received because of their color and outfits from most children and distributors,” he explains. “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. It’s been a tough journey but one I have enjoyed.”
Okoya created two lines of dolls, Queens of Africa (which come with three outfits, four accessories, and cost 1,300 to 3,500 naira, or $6.75 to $18.18) and Naija Princesses (which come with two outfits, two accessories, and cost 500-1,000 naira, or $2.60 to $5.19). Each doll represents a different African tribe (Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa).
Okoya sells 6,000 to 9,000 dolls a month, Reuters reports—10 to 15 percent of Nigeria’s small but growing toy market, by Okoya’s estimation. The dolls have quite a few fans. Okoya shares one’s testimony: “Usually the black dolls are so dark, I don’t buy them because they look nothing like me. I think that if they had maybe a better variety of black dolls with different colors like yours, that would be a lot better. No two black people are the same color: Some have darker and some have lighter pigments. Like many other African Americans, I have never found a doll that really fits me ’till now.”
And the dolls’ Facebook page consistently gets new comments. “You can be sure my future daughter will be playing with those,” one wrote on it. “Thank you for your hard work and keep on doing it, you are helping our girls in being more confident and proud of themselves.”
Queens of Africa’s reach is global thanks to the web, where Okoya accepts online orders for the dolls. He says after Nigeria, the greatest demand is from America, Brazil, Europe, the Ivory Coast, and South Africa. But despite this, he doesn’t feel the brand has made it yet. It won’t “until it reaches 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.”
The power of toys and play tools cannot be underestimated.
How do you feel about the dolls outselling Barbie?
I don’t believe Mattel sees the Nigerian market as a priority, yet their product has great influence on the psyche of the children here and affirms certain values contrary to our society. My mission is to make the Queens of Africa [what Barbie isn’t to Africans] a symbol of hope, trust, and confidence by promoting African history, culture, and fashion.
The dolls are meant to “subconsciously promote African heritage,” according to your mission statement.
Why is this message so important?
I have a daughter, Azeezah, whom I named one of the dolls after. 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. 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.
There are other toys out there like Lammily and GoldieBlox that aim to send a healthier messages about body image and career aspirations to little girls. How does Queens of Africa add to that dialogue?
The power of toys and play tools cannot be underestimated. It could be a greater influencer than we realize. I have had to tweak the looks of the dolls to get acceptance as we needed the sales to sustain the project. As our sales and acceptance grow, we are becoming more confident, and this will reflect in our next and subsequent collection.
The responsibility to represent Africa in a doll is not an easy task.
Right. You told Reuters to start, you have to sell slim dolls and hope to make larger-bodied ones once the brand is built. But does this make you feel like you’re sending a harmful message in any way?
What is really frustrating is the generalization that Africans all have to look a certain way or be a certain color. That is stereotyping. 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.
Where do you hope to take the line next?
I am looking to go global! We are hoping to release songs with positive lyrics, a TV series with encouraging storylines, and [to] get the dolls on all major 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.