10 Minutes With Taofik Okoya
By Jemi Ekunkunbor
Nigerian Entrepreneur, Taofik Okoya, in the year 2007 developed a set of African dolls that are almost outselling the famous Barbie. Named Queens of Africa, the line of dolls are styled in unique clothes depicting the various ethnic groups in Nigeria. The dark complexioned dolls which seek to promote African fashion, culture and history is very well being received not only in Nigeria, but in Africa and beyond.
Taofik, the son of business tycoon, Razak Okoya talks about his foray into children’s toys.
What inspired you to make African dolls?
The Queens of Africa dolls was inspired based on a personal experience with my daughter who had signs of identity crises. At about three years old, she had wished she was white. I realized this might be due to the fact that she had an all- white doll collection which I had subconsciously bought her. Also, all her TV programs and favorite characters, where white- based. I realized I had to change that, not just for her, but for the new generation of African girl child to help them embrace and appreciate the African culture and people. My life hasn’t been the same ever since.
How easy or challenging was it?
It was not easy! It was capital intensive and at that time, Nigerians were not ready for such an innovation. For generations, parents handed white dolls to their children without realizing the psychological impact these dolls could have them. The stores even said to me categorical, “bring us white dolls, black dolls don’t move”. So I had to embark on awareness campaign on the importance of children having dolls in their own likeness.
Also, corporate organizations would rather pay huge sums of money to license foreign characters for promotion with no cultural benefits to our children than use our local characters. But we were able to stay afloat due to international recognition and patronage.
How was your very first doll?
We had and still have a variant of three dolls that represent the three major tribes in Nigeria – Igbo: Nneka, Yoruba: Wuraola, and Hausa: Azeezah (named after my daughter).
We were going to have them all dressed in the respective traditional wears but during our market survey and sampling with various children, we realized that the children resisted the traditional wears. So we did a fusion using African fabric in contemporary styles, and they embraced it.
This year, we remolded the face to have more African features; full curly and kinky hair. They were very well received. We were also particular about how much makeup is used on the face so as to encourage natural looks in this age of makeup masking.
Were the dolls modeled after known personalities?
No, they are generic in creation. However, we have in the pipeline to create dolls in the likeness and image of African/Nigerian role models and stars. These would be under the limited edition. We would have to be commissioned to embark on these series. Corporate organizations can use our regular dolls with customized clothing like t-shirt with their logo, on corporate gifts.
How was your first collection received, knowing that Nigerians have a knack for things that are foreign?
There was an initial resistance, but with international acceptance there has been a better appreciation of our work.
Today’s Nigerian girl hardly wears her kinky hair. What kind of hair do you give to your dolls?
We have three types of hairstyles. We have wavy, curly and kinky. The unique thing about our dolls hair is that regardless of what state the hair is at time of purchase, it becomes a natural looking kinky hair, which can be styled and combed.
How are these dolls changing the perception of black children in the diaspora?
Africa and Africans are usually portrayed in negative or primitive ways. We use our dolls to portray positive image of Africa, enlighten and educate people about Africa and our history.
How have white kids also responded to these dolls?
It’s amazing, the kind of reception we have received form the various other cultures. They find them current and stylish. I am very pleased with the level of acceptance we have enjoyed from none-Africans.
Where is your biggest market?
Our market is defined majorly by the level of Africans in a particular area. As at now, the United States have shown keen interest. We are currently working on an effective distribution network which will make the dolls more accessible.
Which Nigerian Cultural costume is selling more?
I have come to realize that the skin tone is more a determining factor. Initially, the Nneka doll was the favourite and best-selling. She was the doll with the fairest skin tone. Wuraola has a caramel skin tone. As at now, it is the best seller. Azeezah is the darkest of all the three, and the demand for her varies depending on social issues surrounding race.
What are your plans for the future?
The future is bright and huge! We are working on Animation, Music, comic and story books. The above media are the vehicles we plan to use to tell the African story.