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Photo: Black Images Ghana

How This Ghanaian Toymaker is Telling African Stories Through Doll’s Clothing

Founded by Susette Adjoa, Cheza Toys is working with local seamstresses to design and make African-inspired apparel collections for dolls.

Two years ago, when Susette Adjoa requested her family’s seamstress to dress a Barbie doll that she’d bought at a local shop, she didn’t know she’d end up finding a new business venture – and the chance to expand her passion for telling African stories through toys.

A Barbie fan, Adjoa created Cheza Toys, using the Swahili word for play, to give African children a sense of pride. She found, through her interactions with other toy creators, that it was believed little Black girls across the continent and globally were connecting more with white dolls than dolls reflective of themselves. Unhappy about this, Adjoa decided to create toys and design apparel that would allow children to have a better understanding of their roots.

“When little girls see their African mothers, they are their first hero, friend and role model,” Adjoa told OkayAfrica. The apparel and toys depict, promote and teach the children their African heritage.” Having herself been bullied as a little girl and lacking in self-esteem as a child, she began designing the dolls around 2014, with the company really taking off around 2018.


An image of a doll sitting dressed in African print

Susette Adjoa created Cheza Toys to give African children a sense of pride and wants the clothes they wear to do the same.

Photo: Susette Adjoa

The collection of doll’s clothing, called “Atade,” was born out of that request Adjoa made to her family’s seamstress. The seamstress went ahead and made four beautiful outfits that left Adjoa in an excited daze. What started off as a simple appeal in 2020 has now transformed into a business venture.

“Our seamstress is Ghana-based and since she delivered the first four pieces, I never looked back,” says Adjoa. “We have worked together since then. It also allowed her to hire other young people to help with her shop now that she had additional income from the production of our clothing line for fashion dolls.”

Additionally, Adjoa is collaborating with local creatives, especially up-and-coming ones across the region, where she features their designs on her platform. She further explains that most of the clothing made for the collection and other fashion dolls are based on traditional Ghanaian looks, and mostly are from scraps of the fabrics with prices ranging from $20 - $22.

An image of a doll standing, dressed in African print

The collection of doll’s clothing, called “Atade,” was born out of that request Susette Adjoa made to her family’s seamstress.

Photo: Dex Studio Ghana

Apart from Ghana, Adjoa’s toys and apparel are now sought after in countries like Kenya, USA and Brazil, where she is collaborating with a number of small retail shops. As Adjoa explains, her apparel has an international outlook and can be worn by any doll globally.

And there’s more. “We are looking to upscale with more African-featured products and into a full scale story-telling platform, “she says. Adjoa notes that the biggest challenge for the company today is the development of new ideas in line with their business objectives, as they look into expanding into a larger platform with other vehicles such as animation and digital magazines. In addition to that, Adjoa says they are figuring out how to foster and develop working relationships with seamstresses from across the continent.

“These are not challenges we are not able to overcome, but these are things on my mind at the moment,” she says. Finding the right creatives who are willing to invest their time in designing the clothes and dolls and are aligned to her vision is key for Adjoa.

Urian Ross, her business partner and also an avid fashion doll collector, concurs with Adjoa about the issues the company faces: from brainstorming, designing, and searching for seamstresses, to figuring out the logistics. But, he believes, there is nothing they cannot handle as a team. “For me, it's balancing being a fan of fashion dolls and now being in business mode to produce fashion dolls. Going from hobby to business is very interesting. I would say the development process of literally everything is a challenge,” Urian told OkayAfrica.

An image of Susette Adjoa standing with her leg up against a wall.

Susette Adjoa is working with local seamstresses to design and make African-inspired apparel collections for dolls.

Photo: Melvin Smith

Ross, who met Adjoa in Lisbon says they connected instantly after their first encounter and eventually became business partners. He has a collection of dolls that consist mostly of Black dolls with a variety of skin tones, facial features, hair styles and textures in traditional African outfits for both boys and girls using Kente cloth.

“In my day to day work, I am influenced by dolls from different parts of Africa that consist of fashion dolls from Ghana, Kenya, South African and many more, just to name a few.” Urian said. “That African fashion isn't just fashion. Each pattern, each meaning, each thread sewn to make these garments all tell a story. I think that's beautiful and I cannot wait to share all this with the world.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, Ross says he needed a distraction to keep himself sane and busy. He felt it was the perfect time for Barbie to re-enter his life, which eventually led to him working as Chief 'Slay' Officer for Kukua at Cheza Toys.

Every day, Ross keeps himself motivated and he is always inspired by the doll community as well as the fashion industry. “I want to be better than myself,” he says. “I stay grounded and remind myself not to get caught up with distractions, not to compare myself to others, to have fun, grow and know that making mistakes is okay, and it's part of growth.”

Growth is on the cards for Cheza as a company, too. Ross and Adjoa are looking at bringing in male fashion dolls, as they continue to build on the idea of “disruptive playtime.” In light of a recent report indicating that traditional toys and games in Africa and the Middle East are two of the fastest expanding toy markets in the world, Cheza Toys will continue to mix work and play.

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Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

Victorious Bones is Repurposing Trash Into Jewelry in Nairobi

Victorious Bones Craft Group is a collective that is at the forefront of collecting trash and repurposing as jewelry. The group is collecting old and fresh bones, brass, and horns, transforming them into jewelry, bowls, and trinkets.

Walking through Kibera – the largest urban slum in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi — air pollution and waste is the order of the day. Trash flows into the streets and piles up by the railway line, along the roads and side drains. But one local artisan collective has discovered a creative way of managing the slum's waste crisis while tackling the issue of unemployment in the process.

Jack Nyawanga, alongside a friend, founded Victorious Bones Craft Group, a collective that is at the forefront of turning trash into treasure. This group is collecting old and fresh bones, brass, and horns, transforming them into jewelry, bowls and trinkets.

Founder of the Victorious Crafts Jack Nyawanga showing jewelry

“We saw an opportunity with bones from the animals," Nyawanga said.

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

According to Nyawanga, Victorious craft was founded to address various challenges that face Kibera, a home he has known since he moved to Nairobi when he was a toddler. Nyawanga, who was 18 when he started the venture in 2006, said residents would eat meat and throw the bones haphazardly. Butcheries and slaughterhouses also had habits of throwing fresh bones in the environment without any considerations. This lead to vultures scavenging the areas besides the flies. The situation was worsening and Nyawanga had to look for a quick solution.

Man making products made from bones

​ Salmon Odongo working on a piece of jewelry. 

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

“Kibera has been known for having a high rate of unemployment mostly amongst the youths and the environment pollution especially air. So, we came about with the idea to address these challenges,” Nyawanga told OkayAfrica. “We saw an opportunity with bones from the animals. We get these bones from the streets. We also buy bones from butcheries, and major slaughter houses within Nairobi and across the country. For the ones on the streets here in Kibera, we pay those who are collecting them for us.”

The group's first piece was an elephant shaped key holder produced from a piece of bone. It was taken to Hilton Hotel International courier shop where it was sold, generating capital for the venture. It also encouraged them to make more items.

“We were now more convinced that our items would sell,” Nyawanga said. “We came back to make more without any capital, just an idea of collecting bones from the streets. we normally come up with ideas, we try the ideas on the market and we see if they sell. If they don’t sell we rethink our strategy.”

making jewelry

​Odongo putting the finishing touches on a piece of jewelry.  

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

The Victorious Bones journey has had ups and downs. Immediately after launching the venture, Nyawanga’s friend severed ties with him due to a lack of profits. Also, it was difficult for Nyawanga to secure new markets for his products, get the right tools to ease the production process and meet the demand of the market.

However, Nyawanga saw some relief when the Kenyan government — through the ministry of youth — came to his rescue with a loan of $300. In addition, the ministry, through its trade fairs and exhibitions, provided a platform for Victorious Bones to showcase their products enabling them to acquire new markets and clients. The International and local non-governmental organizations working in Kibera, too, joined hands with the collective to train their members on managing their skills, income and how they can contribute to their community.

making jewelry from bones

“Our creative ideas for our design come from the society we live in, nature, and the trending issues besides our clients,” Nyawanga said.

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

“We have trained, so far, 86 members of our community since inception. The young people today are also owning their own workshops recycling bones and making jewelry,” Nyawanga said. “We have also trained 60 refugees in the Dadaab refugee camp courtesy of the Swedish government. Today there is bone recycling in Dadaab refugee camp, one of the biggest refugee camps in the world. We recruit, then teach them the skills needed before they can become our worthy competitors.”

Salmon Odongo displaying products made from bones

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

The venture also boasts of 12 creative designers and they are looking at scaling the number to 30. Initially, there were 16 but four could not bear the brunt of Covid-19. He further explained that apart from the jewelry, the collective do interiors where they decorate people’s homes using bones, horns, wood and metal. They also produce bottle openers and key holders.

“Our creative ideas for our design come from the society we live in, nature, and the trending issues besides our clients. We gather these ideas from different areas,” Nyawanga said.

holding elephant tusk

The group is collecting old and fresh bones, brass, and horns, transforming them into jewelry, bowls and trinkets.

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

The group has been teaching the community on environment conservation using various channels such as social media, radio, television and print media. This has resulted in awareness being carried out across the country. In fact, the collective receives a bunch of phone calls from the slaughterhouses and butcheries across Kenya to come and collect the bones. In Kibera, the group uses Pamoja FM, a community radio to sensitize the residents on the importance of disposing of bones well.

“You will not find any slaughterhouse throwing bones anyhow in the environment around Kenya,” Nyawanga said. “And it is because of us. ”

The prices of jewelry range from $5 to $15 with custom made jewelry costing $200 and above. It can take up to two days to make a design and designs are made every day.

However, Nyawanga says that they are more into making a difference than into making huge profits.

Brian Otieno, a designer and musician, joined the collective in early 2021. Despite coming as a trainee on brass and bone recycling, Otieno has never looked back.

earrings

The prices of jewelry range from $5 to $15 with custom made jewelry costing $200 and above.

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

“I just came and since Jack-the founder is a designer and musician, we connected so fast. Jack and the team started nurturing me on how to recycle the bones. I was given some samples of the jewelry and I made them successfully,” Otieno told OkayAfrica. “Before I joined Victorious Craft, I was staying with my brother. But right now I am able to pay my own rent. I pay school fees to my brother."

bracelet

It can take up to two days to make a design and designs are made every day.

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica

Lilian Atieno, a designer who's been with the group since 2006, says Victorious Craft has changed the outlook of Kibera and has trained many youth in Kibera. She also notices a notable difference in the neighborhood.

“Initially, you wouldn’t be able to come to Kibera, as a visitor because the youths would have mugged you. People would eat meat and throw bones haphazardly, some bones would prick you,” Atieno said. "Today you can walk in Kibera without hiccups. The environment is great.”

Victorious Bones

“You will not find any slaughterhouse throwing bones anyhow in the environment around Kenya,” Nyawanga said. “And it is because of us.”

Photo Credit: Jonah Onyango for OkayAfrica


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