by Matthew Hattingh
Johannesburg – We’ve all been victims of it or witnesses to it – a child pulling at their parent’s sleeve or creating a scene in the supermarket, demanding a Dora the Explorer colouring book, Paw Patrol lunchbox or Frozen figurine.
Merchandise linked to blockbuster animated films or television series exercises a powerful magic on kiddies – a force parents battle to beat.
Just ask Brook and Thabisile Mthethwa, who learnt this lesson some years ago when they bought their daughter a black doll, only to discover it left her underwhelmed.
Sure, Khwezi, then aged four, could identify with the doll’s skin tone and features, but something was missing.
The doll had no story, no part in an animated book or TV series; little to spark a child’s imagination.
The experience gave the Mthethwas food for thought.
“We started doing research and thought, there’s a gap,” recalls Brook (45).
“It turned out that no one was doing two characters – a boy and a girl – so we could create a brand.”
And so the couple from Durban commissioned designers and came up with Dudu & Sipho, an animated sister and brother duo everyone will love.
The two are button-cute, but recognisably real. They also have that all-important back story.
Dudu, a studious, responsible girl, and Sipho, her mischievous brother, face adventures and social realities in distinctly South African settings encompassing suburban, township and rural life, explains Thabisile (41).
Although Afrocentric, the formula for the stories and merchandise is deliberately calculated to have universal appeal that the Mthethwas believe will win them a slice of the R4.5 billion South African toy market and eventually make a mark internationally.
So far, things look promising.
Book one, Dudu & Sipho – The First of Many Adventures, in which the kids take a taxi to the Valley of a Thousand Hills to visit Gogo, is out in English and is doing well.
Versions in isiZulu and isiXhosa are due this month, while French and Swahili editions are in the pipeline.
Backpacks, bags, pencil cases, caps and T-shirts bearing the distinctive Dudu & Sipho branding are available online through MyAfricanBuy.com.
The enterprising Mthethwas have been using a combination of social media, word of mouth and below the line marketing to build their brand.
They are working on launching their own online store and have also been busy drumming up face-to-face business.
Last month, they won an SMME Excellence Award at the Durban Essence Festival.
They have manned stalls at other fairs, done activations at shopping centres, and have spent much time approaching preprimary and primary schools, offering Dudu & Sipho products that include the school’s name.
Interest has been encouraging, but the Mthethwas say the key thing is getting an animated series on TV, and Dudu & Sipho dolls onto the shelves at major retailers.
Until now, Brook, an electrical engineer, and Thabisile, who has a background in sales and marketing, have bankrolled the business, but the next steps will need a bigger investment.
“To create and produce the animation is costly – an estimated R19 million, excluding marketing, to produce a 13-part series,” says Brook.
Thabisile says scripts for the series had been developed and they have applied to the KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission and the National Film and Video Foundation for support.
Talks to bring funders on board are progressing, but the Mthethwas are reluctant to name names until things have been concluded.
On the toys, Brook says an initial run of dolls is being manufactured abroad, with part of the consignment expected in time for Christmas.
He says they have spoken to three major retailers “who are waiting for the stock”.
Manufacturing and distribution for the run is being self-financed and requires a further capital injection into the business to expand the toy range, says Brook.
No official industry figures are available for the South African toy market, but John Jordaan, managing director of the country’s leading distributor and importer, Prima Toys, estimates it’s worth about R4.5 billion a year.
This amounts to one-tenth of 1% (0.1%) of the world market, says Jordaan, with the US taking the lion’s share (20% to 30%), followed by Asia and Europe.
Branded toys account for 99% of business for Prima Toys, a wholly owned subsidiary of listed investment company Deneb.
“Fifty years ago [when Prima was established], we didn’t have a single brand,” Jordaan says.
He says that any newcomer will be “up against the world”, with social media from abroad driving local demand, tight margins and suppliers bearing the risk for unsold goods.
Good luck to the animated duo!