Jennifer Blaine, the young founder and entrepreneur behind the startup company ToyiToyi Toys, which designs and manufactures a range of darker skinned dolls in South Africa, spoke with ElleAfrique about how the shortage of black representation in the worldwide toy market inspired her to start her company. For her, the idea came about while reading an article on a North African toy company that started producing a “traditional, darker skinned” doll. After which she began to search for darker skinned dolls in South Africa which were, to her dismay, nonexistent.
ElleAfrique (EA): What was your first reaction to the lack of Black dolls in South Africa and why is it important?
Jennifer Blaine (JB): “I was horrified that our country did not cater for the majority mixed race or black people in this way. A child’s perception of beauty needs to be realistic. Currently, it seems rather warped that black children’s only option is to play with white dolls, and that often their benchmark for beauty is tied to a pale skinned blonde doll. Isn’t it CRAZY that one has to look really hard to find darker skinned dolls in AFRICA? So, In collaboration with our manufacturers, we have started designing a range of black dolls.”
EA: So what were your first steps?
JB: “I did some research and discovered a glaring gap in the toy market. It was almost impossible to find diverse, darker skinned dolls in not only Africa, but worldwide! Dolls globally tend to come in one shape and form, usually pale and blonde. Being a campaigner and supporter of equal rights, this struck me as awfully odd. Why this worldwide shortage of darker dolls? It was at that moment I realized that I had to change this. Then I read about the Doll Tests done by Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s and this broke my heart! It is now my mission to shift the world’s attitude on what defines beauty by bringing them different shades of diverse dolls. It is vitally important that ALL children (including white kids) play with diverse dolls from different cultures and religions. It teaches kids so much at an early stage.”
The ToyiToyi Toys website explains the meaning of the company’s fun and catchy name and why it was selected. In parts of Southern Africa, to “toyitoyi” means “to dance and sing in protest about some real or imagined wrong by people in authority.” Jennifer describes the creation of these toys as a sort of protest, standing up against the lack of black representation in toys in Africa and changing the way our communities and society define beauty.
EA: What have been some of the highlights and challenges in creating Toyi toyi?
JB: “One of my main highlights was when my dolls first went to the “hairdresser”. My hairdresser was braiding my dolls’ hair in a busy market square in the centre of Cape Town. Every second person who walked past her asked her where they could buy a doll just like that! At that stage I hadn’t taken the dolls to the public market yet. It gave me a huge boost of confidence and reassured me that my dolls were going to be a win! Another highlight for me is seeing the look on the faces of the kids whose parents have bought them the dolls – it is priceless! They are always so delighted.
One of my biggest challenges was trying to find a reliable supplier who could supply me with a high quality product. I initially got in touch with 6 different manufactures in India and China and asked them to send me samples. When most of the doll samples arrived they were of a very poor quality: for example the skin tones were not the correct colour or some of the dolls looked too much like a “white Barbie” that had just been painted darker. One manufacturer sent me a doll with its hair tied neatly into a ponytail. I thought that it looked great, until I took the ponytail out and realized that the rest of the doll’s head was entirely bald. Thankfully, I have finally found a great supplier who understands my creative needs and who is especially particular about quality!
Generally the response to my dolls has been overwhelmingly POSTIVE! Even though it has been tough at times, it has been so exciting! I have shipped orders as far as the Netherlands and Indiana, USA. So far I am very happy with the way things are going. The dolls are flying out of my online shop.”
EA: Any advice for creative entrepreneurs?
JB: “Try to do a little each day. To be a successful entrepreneur one has to be passionate about your product and one has to work extremely hard. The life of an entrepreneur is not all glamorous, its often really tiring and stressful. Be prepared to give it your all, it will be worth it in the end!”
EA: What are your hopes and future plans?
JB: “I hope that my dolls are made available throughout the rest of Africa and the world!
My next step is to create a range of really really dark skinned dolls, with different hair styles like afros and dreadlocks. I am also busy designing a range of dark skinned boys action toys! I keep getting asked if I have “boys toys” by mothers of boys. I am hoping to build a sustainable ethical business and to create employment in South Africa and, eventually, I would like to bring the manufacturing local. It’s been such an exciting journey so far and I am learning a lot daily! I really do hope to shift the world’s perception of beauty by supplying it with beautiful, diverse dolls.”