- Players: Molemo Kgomo
- Company: Ntombenhledolls
- Established: 2005
- Contact: ntombenhledolls.co.za
Back in 2005, Molemo Kgomo wanted to buy her toddler a doll. She was emphatic about giving her black child a black doll that would reflect who she is. This was no easy task.
“I wanted an African doll that would help my daughter embrace her heritage and skin colour, but I could not find anything suitable,” Kgomo recalls. “There were a couple available, but none that I wanted her to wake up to every day in her young, impressionable years. They were simply not true representations of black people.”
On their travels, Kgomo and her mother found a few that they liked in the US and Germany, but that was not good enough for her. “What about people back home, and on the rest of the continent?” she says. “That was when I made a commitment to creating my own range of African dolls for Africans.”
A clever business idea
Kgomo designed the dolls using herself as a model. Her search for a manufacturer that understood her vision and goals led her to China. “The company I found was open to experimenting until we came up with the right product,” she says.
“I also left them with Peter Magubane’s book, Vanishing Cultures of South Africa as reference material. Getting the skin tones, the hair and the curves just right was a challenge, but they did it.”
The shipment arrived and she was ready for business. What she hadn’t counted on, however, was a poor response from retailers who felt there was no demand for them. Kgomo’s only route to market was via word-of-mouth, the mothers at her child’s playschool, and her own mother’s gift store.
“I had no real marketing strategy, which meant I sold around ten dolls a month,” she says.
Going online changed everything
Fast forward to early 2015, when a call from a friend changed everything. In March, with the help of Mpumi Motsabi, who became a reseller, she relaunched Ntombentle Dolls and discovered that this time round, the market was ready for her beautiful, full-bodied dolls with eyes that open and close, and short, natural African hair.
But she also did things differently. “We established a digital footprint for the business, creating a presence on social media networks like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Customers also contact me on WhatsApp and via email.
Creating an ecommerce-enabled website was the clincher that changed the business’s future. Coupled with digital word-of-mouth, the online store has boosted sales in a way Kgomo had never imagined. Great media coverage has also helped to drive sales.
Interviews with personalities like Siki Mgabadeli and Khuli Roberts generated interest and sales almost overnight. Marketing the dolls at expos and neighbourhood markets all around the country has been a big plus, too. Her concern now is making sure she has enough stock to fulfil the growing demand.
Staying in the game
Having funded the business herself, with the support of her husband, the one thing she has learnt over the past decade is the value of patience.
“Success does not happen overnight, and you have to be aware of how receptive your audience might be to your product. I believed in the dolls, but I had to wait for the market to be ready. That’s why passion for what you are doing is critical.”
Networking in the real world and online has been invaluable. “To new entrepreneurs, I say get out there and tell people what you are doing. You will be amazed at the number of contacts who can set up the right introductions.”
What she finds most inspiring today, is how attitudes towards African dolls have changed. “Skinny, ‘Barbie’-type dolls are not representative of our young girls,” she says. “As adults, we can choose to wear weaves, but our children should grow up with a love for their thick African hair.
It’s great to see parents are more aware than ever of how we need to teach our children to love themselves by providing them with positive images that represent the various ethnic, cultural and racial groups in South Africa. And this is not just about catering to the black market – many South Africans of all races are eager to expose their children to different races and cultures from when they are little.”
Looking ahead, Kgomo is keen to have the dolls manufactured locally and is keeping an eye out for a suitable company. The fabrics used to clothe the dolls in traditional outfits are sourced in South Africa, and local women are contracted to do the intricate beadwork required for the accessories worn by the Zulu and Ndebele dolls.
She is in the process of developing a new range that will be launched soon, including a doll for boys and an Indian doll. Comic books featuring heroes with whom South African children can identify with are also in the pipeline.