South African black doll breaks the Barbie mould in style
Decked out in the latest fashions and sporting an impressive afro, young South African girls are learning to love a new doll whose maker hopes to change the way black children look at themselves.
Maite Makgoba, founder of Childish Trading and Manufacturing, said she started her small business after realising that black dolls available on the market “did not appeal to children”.
“They were frumpy and unattractive, some in traditional attire. That is not the reality of today,” said the 26-year-old entrepreneur.
The dolls, called Momppy Mpoppy, are assembled in China, but the real work starts in Makgoba’s tiny workspace in downtown Johannesburg, where they are styled and packaged before they are sent to independent distributors.
Inside the two-room warehouse, miniature pieces of clothing are sewn and pressed by hand. Appearance is everything.
Eye-catching ballerina skirts, denim pants and “on trend” jumpsuits with bright high heels are just some of the items in Momppy Mpoppy’s impressive wardrobe, with each doll costing R180 (£9).
Among the different Mpoppy outfits are Denim Dungaree Delicious, Rockstar Tutu, Mohawk Fro and Seshweshwe Fabulous.
To complete the experience, the company also makes matching clothes for girls who own the doll. “This is more than just a business, we are creating awareness, that our dark skin and thick Afro hair are pretty as they are,” said Makgoba.
“We want kids to see beauty in Mpoppy, to see themselves while playing with her.
“Dolls are often white, people in magazines are white, even in a country like South Africa where the majority are black.
“Black children are confronted with growing up in a world that does not represent them, everything is skewed towards whiteness.”
Makgoba admits that the fledging company, which she started in 2013, faces stiff competition from established toy brands, but she was encouraged by the “overwhelming response” from buyers.
“Parents and children have quickly taken to the doll. But we still need to convince large retailers to sell our brand,” she said, declining to reveal exact sales numbers.
Nokuthula Maseko, a 30-year-old mother of two, said her children had “fallen in love with the unusual doll” after she came across it on social media – the company’s biggest marketing tool.
“I like the fact that the doll looks like my kids, in a world where the standards of beauty are often liked to Caucasian features,” said Maseko.
“This is a big social movement … it can help prevent body image insecurity among children,” she added.
But the Johannesburg mother said she was not in a hurry to throw away her kid’s white dolls.
“At school they play with their white friends, so this is my idea of maintaining that realism, so that they are aware of different races and not that everything is just white and only looks a certain way,” she said.
Black dolls are not new, but the African market has historically been flooded with white dolls, with manufacturers only producing black models more recently. The iconic 57-year-old Barbie range has dominated global sales, selling over one million a week globally – only releasing a fuller range of black dolls in 2009.
It’s a challenge to build a brand name for start-up companies like Makgoba’s, particularly as others such as Queen of Africa, a popular black doll range from Nigeria, have already become popular amongst children across the continent.
According to Johannesburg child psychologist Melita Heyns, toys have a long-term influence on children.
“It’s not just entertainment … dolls are a big part of a girl child’s life, it’s important that such toys help build a child’s character and self-esteem,” said Heyns.