Recently a friend of mine posted on her social media saying she was looking for a black baby doll for her daughter. She was horrified at the lack of selection in the shops (there were only 2 options in 4 full rows of white dolls), and their prices seemed to be a lot higher as well. I was shocked! How, in South Africa especially, is this a reality?
And then I thought back to the time I went looking for a black doll for a child of one of the Rare Bear Project lady’s. I remember how I searched all over and really battled to find one. I felt exhausted, and let-down. But then I handed over the little black doll to Progeny’s daughter and I saw her literal excitement as she held a baby that looked like her. I saw her little face light up and she immediately began to play with her new friend. I knew that I had to do more research into this!
Recently I posted on my Instagram asking for recommendations of local businesses that people recommend, and Toys with Roots was top of the list. I immediately sent Thabo and Mpumi a message to find out more about their business and this great husband-and-wife team. And guys, this is a business like no other. I am SO excited about what they are doing, how they are encouraging self-love and that they are celebrating our beautiful African heritage.
Your names: Thabo & Mpumi Motsabi (Founders)
Business name: Toys with Roots
Tell me a fun/interesting fact about the 2 of you: We were in the same high school but the first time we exchanged words was years later while doing our tertiary studies.
Tell me a bit more about Toys with Roots: Toys with Roots exists to ensure that each African child can have an experience of being intentionally and beautifully celebrated. We believe that our African children need to identify with as well as see themselves and their greatness in the songs they sing, books they read, toys they engage with and media they consume. It is through Play that they can best learn and form important concepts about themselves and their world. We believe that toys aren’t just toys but tools to educate, mould and shape children. We have an online store where we sell these products. We find like minded entrepreneurs and sell their producs in order to ensure that we can provide parents a one stop shop of all the toys and books for African children that they would desire.
Where did the idea for this business come from: When we started in 2015 our daughters then 3 & 7 years would put towels on their hair pretending to have long flowy hair, from the cartoons they watched and toys they played with. We could see that there was a dissatisfaction with their natural hair and this was concerning. What was even sadder was that we couldn’t find much in store which represented what they looked like amongst aisles of products. We later had an opportunity to buy brown dolls from a lady we met who was selling from the boot of her car. We were so excited to see these beautiful dolls that represented our children so respectfully. Being entrepreneurial, we bought a few more to resell because we recognized that there were parents out there who were faced with the same struggle of finding toys that represented their children. Since then we have been on a journey to assist parents to affirm their children and help them recognise the value in their uniqueness.
How long have you guys been running for: We started in March 2015, so we celebrated 5 years this year. Through this journey we have managed to develop our business model and have become a one stop shop for a variety of toys and books for African children.
We have around 8 doll brands, 7 book authors with 5 languages represented. We specialise in brown dolls of different shades, sizes and hair. The dolls all have a story behind them and are created by passionate entrepreneurs from around the continent. Lali is our inhouse fashion doll brand created by Toys with Roots.
We have children’s books that are written in different South African languages, the ones in vernacular are suitable for entry level readers. Within the book range we also have a fashion book which appeals to our tweens market.
Within the range are also puzzles and backpacks.
We created a childrens music album with different South African nursery rhymes “Songs with Lali” which is also available on different digital music platforms.
We have plans to create more products for boys and increase the diversity of products on offer, all with the same intention of celebrating African children.
In addition to these products, we have created a range of dolls for Shoprite Checkers, called Rainbow Kids. This is a project we are very proud of due to its social impact reaching children in parts of the country and the continent which we have not been able to reach.
Which is your personal favourite product in your range: Definitely Songs with Lali musical album! We are a family which sings ALL THE TIME! We make up our own songs as a family just for fun and also to help with learning. The close favourite is the African-Hut because our youngest two always like to play outside in their Ndebele tents.
Why do you think diversity is so important, especially in South Africa: South Africa is characterised by deep seated pain and complexes of inferiority and supremacy, which are not going to be eradicated in a generation. These beliefs are passed on through generations, sometimes unknowingly. It is through exposure to the “other” in our society that learning can begin to take place and some of these beliefs we may hold can be tested and replaced. It may be a difficult process to face the friction that may take place as values clash but it is through this friction, we believe, that dialogues can start and that we can actually begin educating each other and making positive choices. These choices may take the form of having a representative toybox, learning new languages, joining in experiences which are unfamiliar…
Diversity is a strength because it allows for the above to take place. It adds colour, texture and opens us up to new learnings and experiences. We believe that it is our differences in background, perspective, skills, abilities, the way we view the world that make us valuable contributors whether it be in the boardroom or in the classroom.
Exposure to diversity in children’s toy boxes enable them to understand that different doesn’t mean less than or greater than. It just means different. The diversity in their toy box can help them role play the world around them more creatively and in the long run assist them to be more understanding of those around them. It is important in order to erase these perceptions which have existed for so long, so that we can have an inclusive South Africa. #representationmatters Through black children seeing people like them in powerful roles in media, in books, in boardrooms, they can begin to aspire to also be great.
Why is #BlackLivesMatter a movement that we need to all take notice of: We believe in Ubuntu, that I am because you are. We are not independent of each other, therefore when you hurt I hurt. Said differently, as the human race, we are different parts of the same body. If one part of the body is hurt, e.g. the toe, the whole body stops and pays attention to the pain of the toe and takes steps as one to heal the toe. The impact of the pain on the toe affects the functioning of the entire body. Right now black people are hurting. This is not a new pain, we need to be clear about this. All around the world black people are fighting for recogniton of worth and it’s important that people around the world, the human race, ask themselves how they can help heal this wound. Here is a link to our blog on the subject.
Where can people purchase your products from: Our online store, Our Lali and Baby Thando range is also available at selected Toys R Us stores and our Rainbow Kids range is available exclusively at Shoprite/Checkers stores nationally.
Why do you think your products are so well-loved: We believe that a large part of it is the desire for parents to give their children what they didn’t have – toys which equip and strengthen them to be self aware and love their black skin, not aspiring to be anything different. There is an awakening amongst black people happening in South Africa and around the world and parents want to ensure that they affirm their children’s instric worth so that they are strong enough to navigate the harsh and discriminatory world. Lastly because they are just so pretty 🙂
Why do you encourage people to purchase your products for their kids: Toys have a Psychological voice and this video shows how toys and the media can negatively affect how children view themselves. So we encourage parents to choose products that celebrate who their children are. We also believe that for parents who are not black, our products have a place because their peers at school and others they interact with may be black so theses toys (with some parent guidance) can help them learn how to treat others who may be different to them.
How did lockdown affect your business: Very negatively. We were unable to trade for two months and many people are focusing on buying essential products so toy sales have taken a back seat. We are confident though that as birthdays come along, people from all races will choose Toys with Roots to do their shopping.
Quote you live by: “Whether You Think You Can Or Think You Can’t, You’re Right.” – Henry Ford “If you ask me what I came to do, I came to live out loud!” – Emile Zola
Anything else you want to add: As a black woman entering the corporate world, there were many battles I had to fight within and a feeling of being less than my white counterparts always followed me. This was untrue of course but I do believe that there were beliefs I held which I know many others hold today. I don’t want this to be the reality for my children. I want them to enter into rooms confidently and not feeling as though their race discounts them from sitting at the table. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” Ps 139
As I finish writing this blog, and truly taking in everything that has been written by Thabo and Mpumi, I am in tears. I know that South Africa can come together as a nation. And I absolutely LOVE what Toys with Roots is doing. I have seen first-hand the joy it brings a little girl to see a doll that looks like her – or perhaps one that looks like her friend in her class. We need to start having open and honest conversations, as well as learning from those around us. We need to be supportive, kind, and caring. We need to be like the dolls above and make the world a brighter place.
Please support this beautiful business! I would love to see more of their dolls all over the place – at my friends’ houses, at playdates, out with the ladies living in KyaSands, and carried around shopping centres with pride. I know that I am going to be purchasing some for gifts going forward, as well as the playschool in KyaSands, and I truly hope that you will do the same.
Sending love and happiness always x