With a booming economy in Nigeria and more black children than anywhere else in the world, Taofick Okoya was dismayed when he could not find a black doll for his niece.
The 43-year-old spotted a gap in the market and, with little competition from foreign firms such as Mattel Inc, the maker of Barbie, he set up his own business. He outsourced manufacturing of doll parts to low-cost China, assembled them onshore and added a twist – traditional Nigerian costumes.
Seven years on, Okoya sells between 6,000 and 9,000 of his Queens of Africa and Naija Princesses a month, and reckons he has 10-15% of a small but fast-growing market.
“I like it,” says Ifunanya Odiah, five, struggling to contain her excitement as she inspects one of Okoya's dolls in a Lagos shopping mall. “It's black, like me.”
While multinational companies are flocking to African markets, Okoya's experience suggests that, in some areas at least, there is still an opportunity for domestic businesses to establish themselves by using local knowledge to tap a growing, diverse and increasingly sophisticated middle class.
Mattel, the world's largest toy company, has been selling black dolls for decades, but says its presence in sub-Saharan Africa is “very limited”. The firm does not have any plans for expansion into this region to share, according to a spokesman, Alan Hilowitz.
There are good reasons for foreign companies to be cautious. While Nigeria sees thousands of births every day, two-thirds of children are born into families unable to afford anything in most toy shops.
The longer companies such as Mattel wait, however, the more time Okoya has to build his business and shape consumer tastes.
At a small factory in Lagos's Surulere suburb, his workers stitch brightly patterned west African fabrics into miniature dresses and geles – traditional headgear.
Nigeria's three largest ethnic groups of Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba 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 sell for between 1,300 Nigerian naira to the special edition 3,500 naira ($22), while cheaper Naija Princesses sell for 500-1,000 naira apiece. Okoya makes a profit margin of about a third, and as well as selling at home, is increasingly shipping to the US and Europe.
He plans dolls from other African ethnic groups, and is in talks with South Africa's Game, owned by Massmart, part of Wal-Mart, to sell to 70 shops across Africa.
Like Barbies, Okoya's dolls are slim, despite the fact that much of Africa abhors the western ideal of stick-thin models. Okoya says his early templates were larger bodied, and the kids did not like them.
But he hopes to change that. “For now, we have to hide behind the 'normal' doll. Once we've built the brand, we can make dolls with bigger bodies.”