This article previously appeared in the print edition of Drum.
She’d always been resourceful.
Growing up in Gugulethu, Cape Town, she didn’t like to play with dolls because she couldn’t relate to the fair skinned blonde-haired variety found in toy stores. So she set about scouring flea markets in search of second-hand dolls to experiment on. “I tried to re-colour a Barbie doll brown, but I didn’t like the result,” Yolanda Yawa-Donkers says. Today the 42-year-old is the proud owner of Luvuthando Dolls, a black doll brand that promotes diversity and aims to instill confidence in little boys and girls.
“I am passionate about the black child and wanted to create a product that will be fun and inspiring,” she tells DRUM. She made her first doll collection, which celebrates African beauty, in the images of her children, Luvuyo (17) and Uthando (17), and named her business Luvuthando. “Combined it means ‘feel the love’.
I knew I had to teach them about our culture and about diversity of the human race and how each one is unique,” she told SowetanLIVE.
Growing up, Yolanda battled colourism and when she became a mother she wanted her children to be comfortable in their skin. “In my youth I was teased for my skin tone by family members – they would call me nomnyamazan’egadini, which means the darkest one in the garden. The bullying would only fuel my energy to rise and shine my light brighter.” She’s been experimenting with creating dolls that look like her since she was 14 and in 2017 Yolanda launched her business. The dolls, which have African names and an Afro-centric look, are manufactured in China.
“We then put our own spin on some of the dolls to give them a more natural and realistic look. Some are braided, others have Afros or dreadlocks. We also change the eye and lip colour, and apply foundation and blusher before sealing the makeup for durability.” The businesswoman uses her background in fashion to design each doll’s clothing, using fabric sourced from all over Africa. She also designs the accessories, which include handbags, neckwear, headwraps and shoes. “The response has been amazing,” she says. “It was a validation this could not only be a viable business, but I will also be making a difference in the world, in a small way.”
Her positive outlook is truly inspiring. “I gave birth to my sons in the same year, when I was 25. They were born nine months apart,” Yolanda says. “At the time I had been living with HIV for four years. I felt blessed that regardless of the struggles and stigma associated with the disease, I was able to give birth not to one but two healthy, intelligent and remarkable boys.” Her HIV status has encouraged her to work closely with charities, spreading her message of living positively. “I’m trying to use my voice to inspire people. I don’t want to speak to people about what they can’t do – I want to show them what they can do, and living a vibrant, fulfilling life is the key message.”
She’s lived a colourful life. Apart from her work as a motivational speaker, she is also a fashion designer, dancer and singer. She wanted to study fashion design but when her single mother couldn’t afford to pay her tuition fees and for the textiles and tools she’d need for the course, she enrolled for a marketing diploma at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Even though she couldn’t study fashion, the stylista would walk the streets of her township dressed to the nines in her own designs.
“I was young, my body was still perfect and, of course, I wanted attention,” she laughs. A natural extrovert, Yolanda explored the arts and joined Coda as a lead singer, sharing the stage with Bongo Maffin, Freshlyground and Malaika among others. In 2009 she left the band, releasing her solo album, CrossOva, in 2011. “My love and passion for music and fashion started when I was a toddler,” Yolanda said on TV show Expresso. “I used to dress anything that resembled a figure or statue. I’ve always had flair for good, stylish clothes; a sense of line, colour and form; a sense of balance and proportion; and an eye for detail.”
She put her talents to use when she started her label, Y’awa Creations, which she hopes to leave as a legacy for her sons. Yolanda is certainly accomplished, but she’s most proud of her new business, where she gets to combine all the things she loves: fashion, marketing and inspiring young African children. Although she lives in the Netherlands, Yolanda’s business is proudly South African. She moved abroad five years ago to live with her husband, who helped get her business off the ground.
They met in Cape Town in 2009 when he was on holiday, and immediately hit it off. Using the allowance he gives her and savings she had stashed away from her performances over the years, she set up shop in Woodstock, Cape Town. “At the moment the only equipment we use are sewing machines for the clothing. However, we want to invest in doll-making equipment soon. It costs anything from R300 000.”
The self-made businesswoman is also economical, using off-cuts from her clothing range to manufacture the doll clothing and accessories. Yolanda used to make packaging for the dolls from discarded cereal boxes which she painted in African prints. Although it was environmentally friendly, it proved to be costly. “My biggest challenge was finding a packaging company to make the doll boxes. The doll outfits tend to have volume with the big Afro hair.
I also want the packaging to have more than one use, so it would double up as a doll room or wall,” she says. “I pitched a packaging design idea to the printers, and they created the boxes – I saved on production time and cost.” Now her biggest challenge is running expenses. “I employ eight women and a paraplegic gentleman. I make sure I work with youth or people from disadvantaged backgrounds and mentor them or transfer my skills.”
With the demand for her dolls growing, Yolanda has had to employ more staff and secure bigger premises. This is why she’s launched an online crowdfunding campaign. “I’ve tried getting investors, but most want shares, which I’m unable to accommodate. I prefer crowdfunding because it allows people to support a great cause and offers multiple rewards that contributors can opt for. “Our goal is to have the dolls 100% manufactured in South Africa.
I’ll be working with abused women and will train and teach them sewing and beading. The idea is for them to be self- employed and become our suppliers for the doll clothing and accessories.” Yolanda still has a few things to iron out when it comes to growing her business, but she’s happy her childhood dream has become a reality. “I always say each child needs to have a black doll in their doll collection, regardless of their race. This will teach kids to accept and respect their uniqueness.”