Dolls are dressed in local attire at a workshop in the Surulere district in Lagos owned by Taofick Okoya, who set up shop after spotting a gap in the market when he couldnt find a black doll in Nigeria for his niece. Photo: Reuters.

Lagos - With Nigeria’s economy booming and the country boasting the most black children in the world, Taofick Okoya was dismayed some years ago when he could not find a black doll for his niece.

The 43-year-old spotted a gap in the market and with little competition from foreign firms such as Mattel, the maker of Barbie, he set up his own business. He outsourced manufacturing of doll parts to China, assembled them onshore and added a twist: traditional Nigerian costumes.

Seven years later, Okoya sells between 6 000 and 9 000 of his “Queens of Africa” and “Naija Princesses” a month, and reckons he has between 10 percent and 15 percent of a small but fast-growing market.

“I like it,” said 5-year-old Ifunanya Odiah, struggling to contain her excitement as she inspected 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.

“When it comes to sectors like spirits or beer, or even cement, all the international players are already there,” Andy Gboka, a London-based analyst at Exotix Partners, said. “Other sectors, such as toys or less-developed industries, provide a huge potential for local companies.”

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”.

The longer companies such as Mattel wait, however, the more time Okoya has to build his business and shape tastes.

At a small factory in Lagos’s Surulere area, 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.

The dolls sell for between 3 500 naira (R235) and 500 naira each, with a profit margin of about a third.

Okoya is increasingly shipping to the US and Europe. He plans to create dolls from other African ethnic groups, and is in talks with Game in South Africa to sell to 70 shops across Africa. – Angela Ukomadu and Tim Cocks from Reuters