A couple of years ago, Khulile Vilakazi-Ofosu’s then two-year old daughter came home and demanded flowy hair like her friends at creche.
"I told her that no matter what we do to her hair, it will never be as ‘flowy’." To drive the point home, she went looking for dolls that would help her daughter embrace her own natural hair and looks. She was also looking for dolls that were not sexualised and had bodies that resembled that of her daughter.
But the only black dolls she could find had western features, and the hair was all wrong. She decided to make her own.
It was then that she approached her business partner, Caroline Hlahla. Together they owned the hair brand Bounce Essentials Hair.
The pair met after Vilakazi-Ofosu suffered from hair loss after giving birth to her daughter. She bought a wig from Hlahla who was importing Afro-textured clip-ins and wigs. Vilakazi-Ofosu was so impressed with the products that they went into business together to create hair products and wigs
Hlahla jumped at the idea of creating a doll that more closely resembled black children in South Africa, with natural hair that could be styled and treated like real afros. She believed a new doll line would empower them to love their own hair. “When I spoke to her about what my daughter had said to me, she welcomed the idea and shared her own stories of growing up without toys that represented her and how that made her feel,” Vilakazi-Ofosu said.
They drew up plans to manufacture the dolls in South Africa and approached the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) for funding for their toy manufacturing plant. But the IDC told them it would not work.
The IDC said that other entrepreneurs had come to them with the idea, said Vilakazi-Ofosu. Past manufacturers have proven that this type of business was not sustainable, according to them.
"We were told to come back after a year," says Vilakazi-Ofosu.
Disappointed, the women went to a toy fair in China where they hoped to find manufacturers.
"We thought to go there as China is known as the manufacturing hub of the world," says Vilakazi-Ofosu. At the fair the women were discouraged by manufacturers telling them that black dolls were ugly and wouldn't sell.
"You can imagine there we were, as black women, shocked to hear this."
At the fair, they met up with a German contact, who referred them to a manufacturer from his country. There, they finally got a manufacturer who would produce the dolls to their exacting standards.
"We approached them because we know they don't compromise when it comes to safety standards."
To get the hair exactly right, and to get good quality hair that can be washed, conditioned and treated like the real hair on a child's head, the women got their hair suppliers to work with the toy manufacturer.
All the dolls smell of vanilla.
“This is something Caroline specifically felt passionate about. She wanted the smell of the doll to have as much presence as the doll. This is a topic with many of the kids at our pop-up events as they love the smell and tell us how it reminds them of good memories”, says Vilakazi-Ofosu
The Sibahle Collection of dolls finally went on sale in March last year. It has since sold out twice with parents in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Europe and America wanting the dolls for their children.
"Sibahle means ‘we are beautiful’ and we wanted that to resonate with all the kids to know that they are beautiful as they are,” Vilakazi-Ofosu says. Apart from the ‘Nobuhle’ and ‘Bontle’ African dolls with afro hair, the Sibahle range also includes an Indian doll, a coloured doll and a doll representing kids with Albinism called Zuri. The women have even been approached by local celebrities who would like replicas dolls made of them.
The dolls and accessories are sold online, and at their flagship store at the Ferndale Village Shopping Centre in Randburg. The two women, who still hold down full-time corporate jobs, have expanding their empire into a children's lifestyle brand. They have introduced school bags, party decor items and other accessories for sale under the Sibahle name.
Now that a year has passed since the launch of the dolls, Vilakazi-Ofosu and Hlahla plan to go back to the IDC to demonstrate that their plan is viable. They hope to be funded to start a manufacturing plant in South Africa.
"We need the IDC to believe in us and take the risk, there is a demand for this and it is growing."
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