South Africa native Jennifer Blaine, founder of ToyiToyi Toys, hopes that every child celebrates their different skin colors and uniqueness and in doing so, help change the way society and communities around the world define beauty. Blaine also believes in the evocative power of toys to shape the way a child thinks and appreciate his or her world. Which is why she was shocked to find that in a country as diverse as South Africa, there were no dolls that represented the majority mixed race or black people in the country.
“Two years ago I read a magazine article on a company in North Africa that was producing a traditional darker skinned doll and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I wonder if I can find similar dolls here in South Africa.’ Shockingly enough, I couldn’t find darker skinned dolls anywhere,” Blaine says.
Soon afterwards she carried out some research and discovered a glaring gap in the market. “It is almost impossible to find diverse darker skinned dolls not only in Africa, but worldwide!”
To address this problem, Blaine started her company, which designs and manufactures a range of darker skinned dolls. Her journey to the start of her company was an epiphany in the making. “Dolls around the world tend to come in one shape and form – pale and blonde. Being a campaigner and supporter of equal rights, this struck me as awfully odd. Why [was there] this worldwide shortage of darker dolls? It was at that moment I realized that I had to change this.”
Teaching children to love themselves
While carrying out some research on this, she read about the “doll test” carried out by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940’s. The doll experiment involved an African-American child who was presented with two dolls. Both of these dolls were completely identical, except for their skin and hair colors. One doll was white with yellow hair, while the other was brown with black hair. The child was then asked questions regarding which doll they would play with, which one was the nice doll, which one looked bad and which one had the nicer color. The experiment showed a clear preference for the white doll among all children in the study.
“I found the test results terribly sad and it broke my heart that from such a young age children are exposed to subtle racism, and that most of them thought that the white doll was better. It is now my mission to shift the world’s attitude on what defines beauty by bringing them different shades of diverse dolls.”
Blaine also thinks that it is vitally important that all children (including white children) play with diverse dolls from different cultures and religions. “It teaches kids so much at an early stage. A child’s perception of beauty needs to be realistic. Currently, it seems rather warped that black childrens’ only option is to play with white dolls, and that more often than not, their benchmark for beauty is tied to a pale skinned blonde doll.”
To get her concept up and running, Blaine brought on board an excellent manufacturer, who understands her design needs and works with her as part of the team on everything from the skin tone to hair texture. Once the dolls arrive in South Africa, each doll’s hair is hand braided by an expert stylist. While building her business has come with many wins, it also has also with its own share of challenges.
“One of my biggest challenges was trying to find a reliable supplier who could supply my store with a high quality product,” Blaine says. She initially got in touch with six different manufactures in India and China and asked them to send her samples. When most of the doll samples arrived, they were of a very poor quality. “On some dolls, the skin tones were not the correct shade, or some of the dolls looked too much like a “white Barbie” that had just been painted to look 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.”
After some trial and error she finally found a great supplier, who understands her brand, creative needs and who is especially particular about quality.
The response to ToyiToyi Toys dolls has been overwhelming positive and has been exciting for Blaine. “So far I am very happy with the way things are going,” she says. “The dolls are flying out of my online shore. I have shipped orders to places as far as the Netherlands, New Zealand and Indiana, in the United States.”
With the positive responses from global customers and the satisfaction that comes from building a business that is making an impact, she looks forward to a few partnership opportunities on the horizon. “At the moment I am working on two collaborations — one with a jewelry designer in Amsterdam who is designing an exclusive range of jewelry especially for my dolls, and the other is a gaming company that may feature my dolls in a video game!”
Moving into the New Year, she looks forward to opportunities for further growth as she continues to respond to the needs of her customers. “As we grow, we hope to design a larger range of toys to suit all skin types and colors. Our inspiration comes from the people and colors of Africa; in the future, we hope to produce a whole collection of assorted, realistic looking dolls and toys.” A range of darker action toys for boys is also in the pipe line.
With the highs and lows that come with running a startup, Blaine stays true to her mission. “My hope is that children all over the world see themselves in a positive light and love themselves just as they are.”
Olusheyi Lawoyin is the Founder & Creative Director of The Voix.