One day, Fatuma Abdullah’s daughter came back from crèche and asked for her hair to be straightened.
Still amazed by her little girl’s consciousness, the mother of two tried to explain how her curly hair came about based on Afrocentrism (the study of world history that focuses on the history of people of recent African descent).
The girl was adamant in her reasoning, she wanted to be like her friends and her doll. On her quest to empower her daughter and other African girls, Fatuma created a black doll named Akiki.
REPRESENTING THE BLACK CHILD
Fatuma spent her childhood in Kenya and was not exposed to diversity. She moved to South Africa when she was older and now lives in Johannesburg with her family. Looking back, Fatuma says her limited exposure made her unconscious of who she is.
Her daughter’s wish to have her hair straightened made her realise how kids are aware of their surroundings. She didn’t take her daughter’s revelation lightly and felt the need to contribute to creating a positive African self-image.
“I wanted to give black African children direction. Kids are so conscious and feel excluded when they see nothing that resembles them. When children see themselves represented in a positive light consciously, and unconsciously, it imprints ‘I am’”.
After graduating from university, the 43-year-old worked under her father’s paint manufacturing company and later left for a financial institution. She never saw herself as an entrepreneur, but decided to throw herself deep in business after her contract as an entrepreneur advisor ended. The mother launched Akiki doll and her first Akiki’s short story book in 2016, she has since released five books.
Akiki is a Swahili name for a ruby, a precious stone she says is associated with nobility, high energy, courage and confidence. In her creation, Fatuma didn’t just want to create a doll, she wanted to raise self-awareness and self-love amongst the black community and let children know that it’s okay to be black.
“Akiki addresses the diversity gap, and also celebrates African children in children’s play and literature. Akiki came into existence so African children have a positive kiddie character they can identify with, affirm positivity and connect children through stories in an African context that teaches and entertains,” Fatuma shares.
NORMALISING THE DOLL
The mother’s creation challenges the normal blonde doll and appeals to a five-year-old girl who is aware and proud of who she is and loves her curly hair.
Going against what is considered to be normal and beautiful by introducing the doll was the most difficult part of her project. But being a mother made Fatuma even eager to market and present her daring doll.
“The readily available toys and books are very Eurocentric and not representative of us. I don’t want my children to grow up thinking that they are less important. Akiki is a channel for our children to embrace their diversity, appreciate their differences and develop a sense of self-worth,” the entrepreneur shares.
STARTING THE BUSINESS
Fatuma has a project management background that helped her with the planning of the business.
The biggest challenge was breaking into the market. She tried to reach potential clients by going into retail, but things didn’t work out for her, so she decided to sell her products using her online store.
Online is proving to be fruitful, there are a number of clients ordering story books and dolls, but Fatuma still feels the need to make her products more relatable and appealing to her target market.
She does it all, marketing, designing, illustrating and writing. The demand is not too high, so she’s currently working on her own and says she will look into hiring staff as soon as demand increases. She’s currently working with small and medium sized-enterprises (SMEs) that share the same values as her.
“The tough part is entering and staying in the market. Change is constant so the business keeps evolving as it grows because what worked three or even two years ago, doesn’t necessarily work now,” she shares.
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
Parents are still buying dolls with straight long hair and kids still enjoy combing their hair. But Fatuma is not planning on giving up until she fulfils her purpose. She’s working on changing the minds of Africans and says her focus is on raising a generation that is proud to be African.
She says it’s important that kids be taught about diversity from a young age and believes that her books have the power to do exactly that.
“In five years, Akiki should be an established reader brand for foundation learners in schools across Africa. I believe it is important for our children to learn to read about African stories, and this starts at the foundation phase,” she says.
Fatuma used to advise entrepreneurs and admits that she never really knew what it meant to be one before she became an entrepreneur herself. She had to learn to be flexible and take a lot of risks. She is her own motivator when the going gets tough.
“Unless you walk a mile in their shoes, particularly for start-ups, you’ll not get it. Entrepreneurship goes beyond technical skills. You have to be a self-motivator in spite of challenges, you have to take risks and stay focused, you have to be open to critics and know when to shut out the naysayers; you have to be open to falling and have the strength to get back up again. It’s a tough journey.”
The entrepreneur continues to grow and says rejection made her a stronger person. Her passion comes from knowing her end goal. She says she still has to take a step back and see what works and what doesn’t.