JOHANNESBURG - A goal-drivenchartered accountant has embarked on an entrepreneurial quest to establish an African Walt Disney World after struggling to find a suitable doll for his five-year-old daughter.
Businessman Meshack Mulaudzi, 31, is the founder of Kaelo Black Beauty, a company that designs, manufactures and distributes Black African dolls to the market. He says Mahle is a Zulu word meaning beautiful, and that the company seeks to use the dolls to instil identity and self-love in children especially in those of African descent.
The company is named after his five-year-old daughter Kaelo. Mulaudzi, who completed his chartered accountancy articles at Sasol, also has a three-year-old son Neo.
He says after spending four years as a lead investment analyst at Sasol Pension Fund where he managed about R45 billion of employees’ money, he started his own investment firm called Black Pearl Investments.
He says he started designing dolls as a hobby project while waiting for his investment license. “I was looking for a black doll for my daughter but I couldn’t find one,” recalls Mulaudzi who is originally from Duthuni village in Venda, Limpopo.
“The ones I could find were either not pretty or were overpriced. That’s when I decided to design one for my daughter.” He says it cost R50000 to design a mould and the factory he found couldn’t produce just one doll so they settled on a minimum order of 50 dolls.
“I realised that my daughter cannot play with all the 50 dolls. That’s when I decided to sell the remaining 49 to recover production costs.”
Mulaudzi used social media to raise awareness about the dolls. He posted the pictures on a secret Facebook page called Brownsense, aimed at black people who want to support black businesses.
“The response was incredible, it was insane. We had over 5000 likes and over 1000 comments in one day. It was a Friday evening.”
However, the following Monday, Mulaudzi, who is a member of the Southern African Vinyls Association, received a lawyer’s letter from his competitor. “It contained a whole list of demands but essentially they were saying, ‘Stop your business’. We roped in our own lawyers and they backed off.”
The outspoken entrepreneur says he realised that he was on to something big. “The response from social media and our competitor wanting us out of business told me that maybe there is something here. We were like, let’s build a proper business around this.”
The mass production of Mahle Dolls, which are 100 percent vinyl, commenced in November last year and he has not looked back ever since.
Mulaudzi says the dolls cost R299 each and that the company has shifted its distribution model from direct to partnerships with major retailers.
“Through God’s grace we have landed a deal with Toys R Us to supply seven of their stores in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape,” he says.
They also have a pop-up store in Midrand at Sandridge Square.
“Soon we will be supplying one of the biggest retailers in the country,” he reveals guardedly, adding in preparation for the company’s global expansion it has registered an Intellectual Property protection for Mahle Doll in the UK, US, and here in South Africa.
“We plan to go global but we also see much potential in the African continent. For that reason, we plan to penetrate deep into the continent.”
Mulaudzi says through direct distributors his dolls have already entered the markets in Tanzania, Botswana, Swaziland, Ghana and Kenya.
He says he wants to teach African children that they are beautiful as they are and that it is okay to be themselves.
Mulaudzi says it’s sad that there is no local company moulding dolls in South Africa. “Any single doll you see here is from outside the country,” he stresses, adding that he had to go to China to look for a company.
He says the Chinese manufacture the dolls’ bodies and attach the hair before shipping them to South Africa naked.
The dolls are dressed up in Mayfield township near Benoni and in Soweto and Daveyton. Mulaudzi employs ladies who sew the dolls’ outfits and accessories such as handbags, earrings and shoes.
“On the clothing side we decided to stay away from culture specific material. We chose African themed material instead.”
The company recently launched Mahle’s school bags to further instil the message of identify and self love in children.
Mulaudzi stresses that in addition to empowering girls, he also believes that boys should not be neglected as most of societal ills can be fixed by fixing boys.
“If we don’t fix the boys all our efforts in grooming our daughters will go to waste and these boys will be a distraction in society which our daughters live in.”
He says it is for this reason that the company has decided to launch a subsidiary, Neo Superhero, named after his son Neo, that makes African-themed toys for boys too.
He says they plan to toys that are not only exciting and fun to play with but that are also educational, thus giving back African pride to young boys in society.
“What we want to do here is that instead of kids growing up with superheroes that are not meaningful, we want to create a superhero that is based on African war heroes such as King Shaka and so on.”
He says the company is also looking at addressing the issue of xenophobia whereby a child from Kenya is able to play with an African war hero from Ghana.
“We are pretty much bringing the continent together. The toy has to be educational and carry a message,” says Mulaudzi, who was raised by a single mother.
In addition to the dolls, backpacks and boys toys, he says they will also manufacture pencil cases and lunch boxes for children.
Mulaudzi says he always knew that he would quit his job one day and start his own business. He says he is in for the long haul because he wants to be involved in the building of his empire.
“In essence we are trying to build another Disney World here. We want to get to a stage where we see our dolls showing up on TV one day.”