Bringing #BlackGirlMagic to the doll-making business

Johannesburg - Maite Makgoba is the founder of Mommpy Mpoppy, a high-fashion doll made to rival the best-selling dolls in the world - with a kasi twist.

The inspiration behind Mommpy Mpoppy came when she was shopping for a gift for her niece, shortly after becoming an aunt. She realised that there were barely any toys in stores which celebrate a black girl’s natural beauty.

This got the wheels in her head turning and she decided to bring a "fabulous" black doll to the shelves.

"When little girls want to try and merge themselves with any other standard of beauty, the first thing they go to is their doll.

"So that is the thing that just says to them, you are not worthy of beauty or being called beautiful. The only thing that is beautiful is this doll, and you look nothing like it.

"Then you want to aspire to look like something you will never look like."

'I am responsible to make the change'

That was when she realised there was something missing in the market. But she did not want another regular brown doll.

"I wanted something that was magical, because kids are very specific. They say, 'it must wear this dress; it must have those shoes'."

When she presented her first doll to her niece, Makgoba said the toddler fell so in love with it that she thought it was a smaller version of her.

"She was convinced that that is her. She was going around telling everyone it was her, even pointing out their hair is the same. That is when I realised that [Mommpy Mpoppy] can be a lifestyle brand."

(Mommpy Mpoppy dolls at one of the Toy Kingdom stores in Cresta, Mpho Raborife, News24) 

Knowing she was competing with brands that had dominated the market for years, Makgoba said she had to go the extra mile to make sure her doll would stand a chance.

"The kids are already exposed to other, bigger brands. They watch the cartoons, and everywhere they shop, those dolls are in your face constantly, on their clothes and with the kids at school."

Convincing them to switch to another brand was a challenge, especially with limited funding.

"You can’t compete with a company that has made its millions and billions, but we’ll get there."

Makgoba is a qualified linguist who studied at the Tshwane University of Technology and works for the SA National Defence Force.

Working in the military and growing up in the township contributed to her "now or never" attitude towards life.

"I’m from a background where I was taught not to complain. If there was something you don’t like, what are you going to do about it? If I see something that I do not agree with, I am responsible to say something. I am responsible to make the change," she said.

'No one is going to buy them from you'

When she approached retailers to sell her doll, Makgoba got harsh words and resistance.

"There have always been black dolls, but here is the thing that I found when I went into the market: I was told, 'black dolls don’t sell, black dolls scare children, black kids do not like black dolls'. That is all I was hearing and they were like, 'No one is going to buy them from you'. 'If you put it in a shop, it won’t move', 'it will take us a year to move 10 of them'.

"Obviously, it’s disheartening."

But Makgoba refused to give up.

"I had to sell it. I had to convince them that this thing is going to sell. As a business, it’s all about how you present your product.

"They need to see your target market in you. You need to say, 'I am that young black parent, I am that aunt. I know there are many people just like me who experience the same frustrations. Can I please prove you wrong? Give me a month, two, three and if they haven’t sold, then give me the amount of what was sold and I’ll take the rest back.' It’s been two years."

(Mpumi Motsabi co-founder of Toys with Roots, Mpho Raborife, News24)

Another woman, frustrated with not seeing enough toys black children could relate to, was Mpumi Motsabi, the co-founder of online store Toys with Roots.

The idea behind the store began when she came across a set of Ntombenhle dolls, whose signature look is traditional South African attire. She met the owner, Molemo Kgomo, at a function in 2014.

The mother of three bought a few of the dolls at the beginning of 2015 to see if she could find mothers who would find them appealing.

'My hair is beautiful, my skin is beautiful, my face is beautiful'

She asked Kgomo for 200 dolls and put pictures of them on Facebook. They sold like hotcakes. She bought 1 000 more and decided to take them to markets. Word of mouth helped as well.

Since launching the store in 2015, Motsabi and her husband Thabo have found more brands, including Mommpy Mpoppy, which they sell.

The message they have been getting from parents is that they want black dolls that will teach their children self-appreciation and self-love.

"We want to be that platform that gives you so many options, the same way that people enter into a Toys R Us and have so many to choose from."

But running a business, having a full-time job, and a family to care for has not been easy.

"I’m finding that you need to find the balance. What is it that you are trying to achieve and what sacrifices do you need to make along the way? It helps to know that you are in this for the long term, so you don’t have to sprint.

"Orders come in, people still talk about us, people still refer people to us, so it is moving."

Motsabi recently brought her own doll, Lali, onto the market. On the back of each doll's box is the affirmation: "I am beautiful and clever, my hair is beautiful, my skin is beautiful, my face is beautiful, my body is beautiful, I can be anything I want to be, I love ME!"

These words, she hopes, will stay in the minds of not only her children, but of children of all races.

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