Africa is home to more than one thousand indigenous local langauges but either by omission or commission, some African parents are no longer teachiing their offsprings their mother tongues. The biggest culprits are Africans in the diaspora. The proud father of three girls, London based Nigerian Chris Chidi Ngoforo, unemployed; decided to do something about it. He created black dolls that can teach children their local and languages of other countries. Less than a year after starting off, Rooti Dolls Creation Ltd is inundated with orders it now has difficulties fulfilling. The company has had orders from Russia, China and many other parts of the world.
Francis Ngwa has been talking to him about his doll company.
Q Where did the idea to produce these dolls come from?
To be honest, I want to use this opportunity to say “thank you” to the almighty God. I believe that nothing happens in our lives without his assitance. All our intelligence and wisdom comes from God, So I must give all the glory and honour to Him because he is the one who inspired us to come up with this idea. Haven’t said that, I have three kids that love playing with dolls but we struggled to find dolls that they can easily connect with. We also want to help them improve their understanding of igbo which is the language of the part of Nigeria where I come from. My wife and I decided to create this range of dolls that look exactly like our children. The dolls therefore will help my children and other parents whose children have problems learning their local language. So I will say I was inspired by God and my kids.
Q Practically, how do kids get to learn to speak their mother tongue through dolls?
From our research, we realized that toys and dolls were one of the things that children had fun with especially here in Europe and even in Africa. All children spend a lot of time with their toys in their room and they learn a lot of daily chores through their dolls. They change their cloths, and comb their hair. We then decided to add some human voices in the dolls so that they could get to learn a local language through them. Each doll comes with a programme that helps children learn up to four different languages of each African country. We have a Nigerian doll called “Nina” that speaks four Nigerian languages; igbo, hausa, Yoruba and Ibibio. We have a second Nigerian doll as well called “Sinbi” that speaks Ijaw and three other languages. We pretty much have a doll for each African country and the aim is to eventually have a doll that will cover the major languages of all African countries. For now, we cover countries like Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ivory coast, Sierra leone, Liberia, Senegal among others. We have done just a few countries and know that they are many other countries we have not covered. A lot of African children do not speak their languages so we hope this dolls will help them do that.
Q From the description that you just gave me, the dolls are multi lingual. Isn’t this a bit complicated for little children since they have four different languages they have to learn from the same doll?
Not at all. To me it is a great advantage for the children. Here in the Uk, we have come across families where the father is from one region and the mother from another and they speak different languages. The parents then get confused about the language they will need to teach their children. With these dolls, the parents can no longer be confused again. All they need to do is pick up a doll and choose from the buttons located at the back of the dolls, which language they want their kids to learn. Once they have decided what language they want their kid to learn, they will then select that particular button. The child can then concentrate on that particular language. Once they do their selection, the child does no longer need to bother themselves with the other three langauges. After they master the words of one of their parents language, if the parents really want it, they can change the buttons and the child learns the second language. That is optional though. So I think having more than one language or learning more than one language is an advantage instead for the children. They get two for the price of one
Chris Chidi Ngoforo. Root Dolls Creator
Q Describe one of your dolls to someone who has never seen them
Rooti dolls are a range of beautiful, well crafted multi cultural, multi lingual fashioned dolls that actually speak and help African children learn the language of their parents. The dolls come in various shapes of black, in different coloured dresses. We have designed dolls that are good and they respect present fashion trends in their dresses. This “Ama” or Ghanian doll has beads flowing from her head. She has beautiful brown eyes. She has enticing eye lids. She has a broad nose like that of any African child. She has full red lips and she is dressed in a trendy Ghanian dress and she has a matching handbag. We have created a doll that looks like the avergae black child. The dolls are beautifully hand crafted.
Q The dolls have been on the market for a couple of months now, what has been the reaction from the public to them?
The respond has been very amazing. Even though we started with the intention of producing a few dolls to target particularAfrican countries, the respond has been amazing right across the continent from South Africa to kenya, etc. We have been invited to many events across the African continent to demonstrate how the dolls work. The press has also liked the idea and we have given quiet a few interviews from the CNN to the BBC to various radio stations across Africa. We have had articles written in a good number of newspapers and magazines. We supply a good number of shops across the Uk and we also supply to shops in South Africa, in Ghana and in Nigeria. Parents and guardians have been writing to thank us for inventing these dolls. We have a facebook page where you can see those responses. To make the dolls affordable, we are selling them at only £40. The cost of the dolls is obviously reduced across Africa but again the prices are set by the distributors. We have no control over that.
Q Let’s talk a bit about the creative process, from conception to when a doll gets off the production line
It takes a lot of time, energy and resources to create one doll. You need to know what problem or need you want your doll to fulfil. You then need to do a lot of research, get a design. For these particular dolls we produce, we needed to spend a lot of time thinking how to implement the language theme into them. We needed to source out speakers of the various languages and commission people to do the voice overs. After all that, you take it to a manufacturer. It involves a lot but it is an interesting and enjoyable process.
To tell you just how consuming the whole process is, we began in 2009 and the first products were only available last year 2012. We did not want to put a half baked product on the market so we took our time.
Q What were the major problems you faced as a new entrepreneur?
We faced quite a number of challenges and the biggest of them was finance. When we had the idea, we needed to source out funding. Getting a manufacturer was also not easy. We had problems convincing manufacturers that there was a need for these dolls. I did quite some travelling in the search for a manufaturer. We went as far as China and Hong kong. Manufacturers were not convinced Africa was a viable market. When we finally could not convince a single manufacturer to produce the dolls, I decided to venture out on my own. We therefore had to get our own brand. We are now in partnership with a factory that produces the dolls for us.
Q What about your capital base? Did you need a lot of money to start-off?
For quality purposes, we decided not to make the dolls in Asia but here in Europe. What that means is we are paying more to get them produced in Europe but we did not want to gamble with the quality.
One of the things that made us produce these dolls is that research showed more than ninety percent of children born here do not speak their mother tongue. The children are completely disengaged with any African language. In Africa, sixty percent of children do not speak their mother tongue while eighty percent of children cannot speak the language of a neigbouring village. So our dolls are worth the price parenst are paying for them. If something is not done to preserve local languages, they will soon get extinct.These dolls will help us preserve our cultural heritage as a people.
As Africans, it is high time we began to celebrate who we are as a people. If you look at China, their ability to dominate the world is not only because of economic progress. Their language Mandarin is now being taught around the world, even here in the UK. Why can’t we export our culture too? We have to be proud of who we are. We have been blessed. One of the ways we have been blessed as a people is our language. It is only in Africa that we have been blessed with thousands of rich, diverse, beautiful languages. We must celebrate them.
Q Why has it taken this long to come up with an idea like this?
I believe that everything happens for a reason. I am a strong believer and God alway says there is a time for everything. There is a reason and a season for anything that happens. This is the right time for these dolls. Some five million children are born every year across Africa. We owe this to our children. I don’t think it is too late. All we can do is join together and do our very best and make this product available for children in Africa, Europe and America. We are offering every African government the oportunity to co-operate with us. We want them to use these dolls as educational tools in nursery and primary schools. They can also use the dolls as social tools to stimulate learning . We are inviting governments, NGOs and other stake holders in the future of African education to partner with us. Let’s make these toys available to as many African children as possible.
Q What are your long term projects?
We have many long term projects. Rooti Dolls might have started off as African dolls but we will eventually move from Africa to other parts of the world. Rooti is from the word “roots” so we are talking of connecting children to their roots. We will eventually start connecting other children to their roots including Asian and European children. We now have a range of dolls that will speak Indian languages. The indian dolls will be called “Nita”. She will speak Hindi, Punjabi,Benjali andTamil languages. We have a chiness doll that will speak Madarin. Cantonese, Japanese and Taiwannes. We have dolls that will speak French, Russian Portuguese, Polish, etc. We are giving children an opportunity to enjoy and explore the different cultures of the world.
Q Isn’t that getting a bit too ambitious? Where do you end then?
To be ambitious is a good thing especially when it is for a good cause. We are doing this because of the type of response we have received from people. We have had responses from around the world. We have received emails asking us if we have produced dolls that speak Welsh. We have recieved inquiries from people in India, Poland and Russia and many other places. They say they love our concept and are we doing some dolls for them? We know there is a need for the dolls then. The world is becoming a small village. Children the world over are faced with language problems. Our dolls can unite kids from different backgrounds if they learn to speak a phrase or sentense of another language.
Q Your biggest research laboratory was your home and your three daughters. How did they pick the concept?
My second daughter can speak a bit of dutch now. She speaks Igbo my mother tongue very very well now. My first and last daughters have also picked up different languages very well from the dolls. They can now speak to their grand pa in igbo. They could not do that before.
Q Let’s talk a little bit about yourself and how you became a doll promoter?
In 2009, I lost my job. I was a sales representative and found it difficult to get another job. I have a bachelors’ degree in history. When I lost my job, I decided not to depend on the government of this country. I needed to look for a way to survive on my own. That is when I thought up the idea for these speaking dolls though back then, I did not think it was going to get this big very quickly. When I had the idea, my wife and I decided to give it a try. My wife was an assistant editor and is also a marketing professional.
Q What advice do you have for other African entrepreneurs who probably also have some bright ideas but just dont know where to start to get them out there
The first thing I will say to them is to believe in themselves. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will. Also, they should believe in their dreams, in their vision. When you belief in yourself and belief in your dreams, it is a matter of time. Then you need to get to work. Dreams don’t drop from the sky, they don’t materiallize overnight. You need to work and work very hard.You also need a well meaning team to work with because you cannot work alone, no man is an island. You can’t claim to know everything. Whatever dream you have and no matter how big it is, make sure it contains God. Look for the obstacles to achieving that dream and see how you get round those problems. Regarding funding, a lot of aspiring enterpreneurs think without money, they can’t do anything. That is a wrong mindset. You can do a lot with little or no money. You need to start off somewhere. Don’t wait until you get all the necessary funding. Start off with what you have and the God of the whole universe will somehow help you along. Someone said that the future belongs to people who believe in the reality of their dreams. When you decide to begin, other doors will surely open.
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