Two women have joined forces to help support young girls in Africa with representation and identity.
And they’re doing it with dolls.
Khulile Vilakazi-Ofosu and her business partner and friend Caroline Hlahla originally came together to build a hair company — Bounce Essentials Africa — specialising in 100% natural textured extensions to suit African women’s natural hair.
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“However shortly after we noticed that beyond the deeply personal connection that women have with their hair, the identities and confidence of our customers’ children became a conversation piece,” the pair told Global Citizen.
Vilakazi-Ofosu also experienced this issue with identity through her own daughter who, when she was just three years old, started to want long, blonde hair.
“This made us start thinking of how we could address the hair issue amongst black girls,“ Vilakazi-Ofosu said. “We identified the very real lack of black dolls with kinky Afro hair, sold in toy shops for parents of black and mixed heritage kids to buy,”
So she and Hlahla decided to challenge the norm, and came up with a collection of dolls with the features of an African child.
“Our quality beautiful dolls collection called ‘The Sibahle Collection’ was then born,” Hlahla said. “The collection would be representative of a child of African child.”
The dolls’ Afro hair texture is their most distinguishing feature, and the child gets to experiment with the hair, wash it, and care for it as with their own hair.
“Up until recently, the European market attempted to fill the gap for black dolls with western dolls just painted black, with hair nothing like the typical African kinky hair,” Hlahla said.
“We want children to see the beauty of their skin and feel comfortable in it. Sibahle is a Zulu word that means ‘we are beautiful,’” Vilakazi-Ofosu explained. “The dolls in the Sibahle collection have features that resemble most African children’s facial and body features.”
She said they want the dolls to instil self-confidence in African children and teach them from a young age how to take care of their hair and also how to celebrate and embrace diversity.
Both women have travelled the continent and are familiar with Africa’s hair politics. Hlahla was born in Zimbabwe, raised in Kenya, and is currently based in London; while Vilakazi-Ofosu was born Kwa Zulu-Natal and is currently based in Johannesburg.
The dolls currently in the collection — all of which are vanilla scented — are Nobuhle, meaning “the one that represents beauty”; Bontle, meaning “beauty”; Ayana, meaning “beautiful flower”; Neha, meaning “cherished beauty”; and Zuri, also meaning “beauty”, whose features are those of a person with albinism.
And the collection is also expanding, to including school bags, umbrellas, wellington boots, tuts, and the women are also planning a range of books based on their dolls’ characters.
To bring about the whole collection, Vilakazi-Ofosu said they have partnered with two young clothing designers, based in South Africa.
“One operates from her own garage and the other is a stay-at-home mother who sews from her own dining room table while looking after her toddler,” said Vilakazi-Ofosu. “The designers now have reliable income from the Sibahle orders and we want to use the dolls to create more jobs in South Africa to empower many more women.”
But, according to the women, starting out in their business wasn’t easy.
“When we first started we thought it would be much easier to find a manufacturer, but we were point blank rejected by manufacturers” said Vilakazi-Ofosu. “The consistent response was that black dolls don’t sell, black dolls are ugly.”
While the rejections were a shock, it only made the pair more determined to succeed and, since launching the brand, “we have had overwhelming support,” they said.
Like most start-ups in South Africa, funding can either make or break a business.
“Being a small business, it has been tough to get funding,” said Vilakazi-Ofosu. “There are times where we have really had to dig deep in our pockets to keep going, as we have the ideas but are constrained by cashflow. We funded this business from our own pockets.”
“It has been a tough but exciting two years, with a lifetime of life lessons left,” she added. “This business above all has taught us about grit and resilience in the tough times when we came close to giving up.”
The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.