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 percent of a small but fast-growing market.
“I like it,” said five-year-old Ifunanya Odiah, struggling to contain her excitement as she checked out 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.
Tailored to local tastes: Mattel, the world’s largest toy company, has been selling black dolls for decades, but said its presence in sub-Saharan Africa was “very limited”. Furthermore, the firm does not “have any plans for expansion into this region to share at this time,” according to 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 off the shelves of most toy shops.
Multinationals also cite poor infrastructure and corrupt port authorities as reasons for steering clear.
South Africa’s Woolworths pulled out of Nigeria last year, blaming supply chain problems, though analysts said it also misread the local clothes market.
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’ Surulere suburb, his workers stitch brightly patterned West African fabrics into miniature dresses and “geles” – traditional head gear.
Nigeria’s three largest ethnic groups of Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa are represented in the “Queens of Africa” range so far, highlighting the growing sophistication of consumers – and the need to tailor products to local tastes.
The dolls go for between 1,300 Nigerian naira to the special edition 3,500 naira ($22), while cheaper “Naija Princesses” sell for 500 to 1,000 naira apiece. As well as selling at home, is increasingly shipping to the United States and Europe.
He plans dolls from other African ethnic groups, and is in talks with South Africa’s Game, owned by Massmart, a part of Wal-Mart, 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, and the kids didn’t like them. But he still 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.”