Three factors came into play in the formulation of the idea of Swahili Dolls, a company that makes and markets African dolls. Founder Olivia Mengich, now 29, had been studying in South Africa and surrounded by the legacy of apartheid that still loomed. She had delved into the teachings of the Black Pride movement, and activist Steve Biko, and was growing an interest in entrepreneurship.
Still, it was a circuitous route getting there. She graduated from Monash University with a degree in human geography and criminology and came back to Kenya in 2010 looking for work in the NGO world. When that didn’t go as planned, she started looking into other avenues, eventually landing a position at a bank. Around this time that she also developed an interest in entrepreneurship. “I wanted to get into a fast food franchising,” she says, “but I didn’t have any experience in business so it was difficult to get funding.”
Olivia enrolled for an MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in South Africa and worked in the sales department at Oracle before moving on to KCB where, at 25, she was made an acting brand manager.
But the fire for entrepreneurship was still burning in her, and she toyed with the prospect of starting a designated driver service. In 2014, inspired by her experiences in marketing, she left KCB to set-up Ivertise Africa, a stock photography company that provides users with photographs that depict the African experience more accurately.
While still running Ivertise Africa, Olivia took a job at Jumia to learn more about e-commerce. She also enrolled for certificates in digital marketing from Red & Yellow School and Stellenbosch University and joined the Marketing Society of Kenya. “One day I was watching CNN and they were featuring Hijarbie – which is a play of words denoting a hijab wearing Barbie (doll) - and I thought, ‘what a simple way to empower girls!’”
LIGHT BULB MOMENT
That was her light bulb moment. It all came together – the passion for black consciousness and African women’s issues and the yearning for entrepreneurship. She did her research and discovered that there was a gap in the East African market for black fashion dolls. Thus Swahili Princess was born.
Swahili Princess is a counter to the traditional Disney Princess marketed to girls all over the world. “These are the perceptions I want to change” Olivia explains, “but at the same time I want to promote the diversity in black people as well. I have had people ask me why the dolls are not voluptuous and why they are currently lighter toned. The first reason is that there is no one way to ‘look like’ a black woman – we have different skin tones, body structures and hair textures. She is a ‘Swahili’ Princess so she can be representative of all East Africa girls.”
The other reason had more to do with the cost-effectiveness; “The West is the largest market for dolls, so there’s a high demand and supply of white dolls. If we (as black people) create the demand, the supply increases and costs lower. In the beginning, we had to start with what made business sense.” Her upcoming collection will feature darker toned princesses. “It is important that both dark skin and light skin are shown as beautiful,” she says.
Olivia has been surprised by the response that the doll has gotten in its first year of sale. “I thought this would be a side hustle but within the first hour of posting them online, the response was overwhelming.” In November 2016, Toy World began stocking Swahili Princess, and then Carrefour.
The production process is quite engaging as well. “I was lucky to find a manufacturer who consults with me through the process,” she says. “However, a bulk of the work occurs when the dolls arrive from China – we do the tailoring, braid the hair, check that the parts are in order and then we dress and package them.” Working with retailers and a distributor has however given her the space to concentrate on conceptualising subsequent collections, amidst handling several marketing consultancy gigs.
Olivia is looking forward to more success. “I want to do more. I recently got a new investor/ shareholder and we are working on story books and animations to make the dolls more meaningful. We want to get into the wider East African market. But more importantly, we want young girls, years from now, to say that Swahili Princess created a lasting positive influence in how they perceive themselves and their beauty.”