Imibongo kaMakhulu
Gogela's daughter playing with her doll. Images supplied by Nondumiso Gogela/Imibongo kaMakhulu.
  • It took some courage for fashion buyer Nondumiso Gogela to leave her job and start a new venture.
  • But Imibongo kaMakhulu, a business that grew out of the frustration of not seeing relatable dolls in stores, has proven a big success.
  • Gogela makes meticulously crafted handmade dolls, which celebrate South Africa's heritage. 
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Life as we know can take many twists and turns.

Just ask fashion designer Nondumiso Gogela who went from training to buy clothing for a large retailer to starting her own business making toy dolls that teach toddlers about their South African heritage and diversity.

Imibongo kaMakhulu
Gogela working in her home in Cape Town. Images supplied by Nondumiso Gogela/Imibongo kaMakhulu.

Gogela is the brains behind Imibongo kaMakhulu, a business that grew out of the frustration of not finding a suitable doll for her soon-to-be-born daughter.

“I remember going into my local shops, at the time I was pregnant, and I wanted to buy a soft doll for my daughter. But I could not find one doll that looked like me. When I spoke with my peers and I complained about the lack of diversity in the toy industry they were saying that was their experience as well. I ended up buying a stuffed animal.”

The experience left such a strong lasting impression that Gogela took a gamble: she used her talents as a fashion designer to start making a fully-fledged homemade soft toys line. It's now taking Cape Town by storm.

READ | Here are some of the best SA-made toys and games for the festive season

“My daughter’s first doll was made with pieces of material I gathered from around the house. Just the fact that she was interested was enough confirmation for me to go ahead [and make it a business],” said Gogela.

“Once I made the doll, I decided to send a couple of pictures to some friends. Almost immediately I had two friends saying that when I was ready, they wanted two of their own. That’s how it started.” Soon after, she launched her company Imibongo kaMakhulu, which in IsiXhosa means Granny’s thankfulness.

Imibongo kaMakhulu
Gogela has dressed the merbabies' in beautiful shweshwe prints. Images supplied by Nondumiso Gogela/Imibongo kaMakhulu.

“Seeing the children recognise that the doll is brown like them, it instills a sense of familiarity and normalises your identity. Kids now can know their identity is not necessarily just European or white. That they can also be black like me,” said Gogela.

“The same with the dolls' clothing. You don’t need to wear traditional attire only on Heritage Day. African fashion is beautiful, and it is something we should be taking inspiration from as well. It’s important to recognise this is where it comes from and we should incorporate it more in our day to day lives.”

Imibongo kaMakhulu
Gogela's lastest work includes adorable merbabies. Images supplied by Nondumiso Gogela/Imibongo kaMakhulu.

From her latest line of beautiful merbabies in blue shweshwe prints, to Nozi, a doll with adorable floral paper bag pants, orders for the dolls are coming in faster than Gogela can make them.

One of her most unique items in her range is a boy-doll, Sibu.

Imibongo kaMakhulu
Sibu is a boy doll. Images supplied by Nondumiso Gogela/Imibongo kaMakhulu.

“When I added him to the range, I never thought people would be ready for boy doll, but he’s actually becoming a staple. Boys should also be allowed to play with dolls.”

It can take Gogela up to a full day just to make a single doll. It's not easy in between swollen thumbs, pricked index fingers, being a mother and running the business by herself.

Still she wouldn’t have it any other way because she feels she is making a difference.

“The pictures I get from my customers are so beautiful they honestly reaffirm what I do every day.”

It’s strange to think that the venture almost didn’t even happen. It took Gogela almost three years to work up the courage to leave her job and start making the dolls full time. But in the end, it was seeing her daughter carrying that first carefully crafted black doll that inspired her to keep going. 

“I wanted my daughter to see that I was doing something I love and fulfils me. Just opening her mind to the possibility that you can make your dreams come true was enough motivation.”

“My daughter still plays with it even now. She calls it her baba baby and all her other dolls she calls her grown up babies.”

The Imibongo kaMakhulu dolls can be bought direct from Gogela’s website, and they are also stocked in a number of Cape Town stores.

Imibongo kaMakhulu is a recent winner in an entrepreneurship competition organised by TV channel VIA (DStv channel 147). Six small to medium-sized businesses each won marketing airtime and a TV commercial – worth more than R3 million in total.

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