When Taofick Okoya couldn’t find a black doll in Nigeria to buy as a gift for his niece, he recognized a niche in the market and opened his own doll business, according to a report in VoiceofAmerica.
With little competition from foreign companies such as Mattel, the Barbie maker, Okoya outsourced the manufacturing of his doll parts to China, assembled them in Nigeria and added a novel new concept in the industry – traditional Nigerian costumes.
Seven years later, Okoya sells 6,000 to 9,000 of his Queens of Africa and Naija Princess dolls a month, and told VoiceofAmerica he has 10 percent to 15 percent of the small-but-growing market.
While multinational companies are flocking to Africa, Okoya’s experience suggests there is still an opportunity for domestic businesses using local knowledge to tap a growing, diverse and increasingly sophisticated middle class.
Several multinational firms have been in Nigeria for years such as Diageo, which sells more Guinness in Nigeria than in the beer’s traditional home market of Ireland. South African grocer Shoprite has seven profitable supermarkets in Nigeria with plans to open hundreds more.
Between 2006 and 2011, developed countries saw toy sales grow 1 percent a year, versus 13 percent in emerging markets, according to Euromonitor data, VoiceofAmerica reports.
“When it comes to sectors like spirits or beer, or even cement, all the international players are already there,” said Andy Gboka, London-based equity analyst at Exotix LLP Partners. “Other sectors, such as toys or less-developed industries, provide a huge potential for local companies.”
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The world’s largest toy company, Mattel has been selling black dolls for decades, but said its presence in sub-Saharan Africa is very limited with no plans for expansion there any time soon, spokesman Alan Hilowitz told VoiceofAmerica.
There are good reasons for foreign companies to be cautious.
Two thirds of Nigerian children are born into families unable to afford anything off the shelves of most toy shops. Multinationals say poor infrastructure and corrupt port authorities are more reasons for steering clear.
South Africa’s Woolworths pulled out of Nigeria in 2013 blaming supply chain problems. Analysts said it misread the local clothes market.
The longer Mattel waits, the more time Okoya has to build his business and shape consumer tastes, VoiceofAmerica reports.
His employees fashion brightly patterned West African fabrics into miniature dresses and “geles” — traditional head gear — at a small factory in Lagos’ Surulere suburb.
Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups — Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa — are represented in the “Queens of Africa” range, highlighting the growing sophistication of consumers and the need to tailor products to local tastes.
The dolls cost from around $3 to $22. Okoya’s profit margin is about 33 percent. Sales at home are increasing, as are orders to the U.S. and Europe.
He plans to start making dolls from other African ethnic groups, and is in talks with South Africa’s Game supermarket, owned by Massmart/Walmart, to sell to 70 shops across Africa.
Like Barbies, Okoya’s dolls are slim. Despite the fact that most of Africa abhors the Western ideal of stick-thin models, Okoya said his early templates were larger bodied but the kids didn’t like them.
But he hopes to change that.
“For now, we have to hide behind the ‘normal’ doll,” he said. “Once we’ve built the brand, we can make dolls with bigger bodies.”