He is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Rooti Dolls, a UK start-up company, which gives black children the opportunity to play with dolls specifically designed to foster ethnic pride and slow the loss of traditional African cultures and languages. Rooti Dolls is a totally awesome line of black fashion dolls that speak four different native African languages which is geared towards providing young children with a cultural, educative experience in their playtime. Chris Chidi Ngoforo the founder, talks to Konnect Africa about his entrepreneurial journey…you know we just love our entrepreneurs!!!
KA: I want to know everything there is to know about you: What is your ethnicity? Are your parents still alive?
Chris: I am from the Royal Family of H.R.H Eze Jonas Ekemezie Ngoforo Uche, the traditional ruler of Ndiuche Izuogu autonomous community in Arondizuogu, which is in Ideato North LGA in Orlu Senatorial zone in Imo State. To the glory of the Almighty God, my parents are still alive and healthy.
KA: So you are royalty! [Smiles] Have you always lived in London?
Chris: We have been living in London for over nine years now.
KA: Education: Where did you school, what did you study?
Chris: I did my Nigerian tertiary education in University of Jos Nigeria, where I graduated with a BA in History.
KA: Job history: Ever worked for an organization? Why did you quit?
Chris: I worked as Sales and Marketing professional for a number of organizations before I decided to branch out to start my own company – Rooti Creations UK Ltd.
KA: So you decided to become an entrepreneur: Tell us about your entrepreneurial journey; the highs and lows.
Chris: Well, as is common to all entrepreneurs, the road is always riddled with surprises, some good and some not so good. I think the moment one decides to launch out onto something great, challenges will be inevitable especially in the area of funding. Also being able to find companies to work with in the development of the brand was not easy as most of them here never really believed in the viability or necessity of a multicultural fashion doll speaking African languages. Generally, starting a business in this part of the world when the economic indexes are seemingly not that encouraging, could be a scare on its own. But someone said ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the reality of their dreams’.
KA: I am curious. Why dolls? You are as masculine as they come, so why did you start to think about girly dolls?
Chris: I think being a father of gorgeous girls really inspired me in that direction. My kids love collecting dolls a lot but have always complained about how the dolls in the market are nothing similar to the way black children really look. Coupled with the fact that we have been seeking for ways to encourage them to have an interest and improve in their Igbo speaking. Besides all that, through further research we discovered that over 90% of children born in the Diaspora and about 60% in Africa don’t speak their mother tongues or worse still the languages of the other ethnic tribes of the same countries. There are over 3000 languages of the world on the extinction list with about 80% of these languages from Africa. What these discoveries mean is that in a few decades down the road, we run the danger of losing one of our major God given rich heritages. Our research made us understand that the reason for this is not because our children don’t want to learn their mother tongues, but more because there are not many essential tools that can easily be both educational and fun at the same time, like Rooti dolls. The danger of this is the rapid rise in the demise of African ethnic languages as the children become disengaged from their cultural heritage. So we are privileged to be in position to offer these dolls which can serve as an essential tool for social – cultural orientation and community integration starting with children in the early ages.
KA: Start-up capital? Did you borrow or bootstrap?
Chris: It’s a combination of both. These days even borrowing has become very difficult. So when done cautiously bootstrapping can be a very effective way of getting off the 9 to 5 rung and making your dream come to pass.
KA: Manufacturers? How did you connect with them, and enable them bring life to your ideas?
Chris: We begun with intensive research; from the concept analysis, to project evaluation, profiling manufacturers, etc. The good thing is that the world has become such a global village so there is really no obstacle anymore. If you can take the time to research into your industry or market, you will realise that there is so much information already available. We made use of the Business section of the British National Library and some consultations with experts in the industry. But the key words are persistence and determination. Expect to get your yeses but after some considerable NOs, which honestly shouldn’t be a deterrent. Once we identified WHAT we wanted, researched into HOW we can have it done and sourced WHO to work with, the rest became story.
KA: Employees; I know most start-up entrepreneurs do everything themselves, but surely you have expanded to include an employee or two?
Chris: Yes we have a couple of a staff besides us; we also outsource some aspects of the external services we need like accounting; PR etc.
KA: Rooti Dolls: what informed the name of your brand?
Chris: Our Brand name ROOTI is coined from the word ROOTS which is the lower part of a tree; or that which connects something to its foundation or source. One of our key corporate objectives is to offer products that empower and serve as a connection for children and young adults with their ROOTS. Hence the brand name ROOTI DOLLS, The Amazing dolls of our Rooti. Rooti is a name that is associated with originality or genuineness.
KA: What is so special about a Rooti doll?
Chris: No other dolls can speak key phrases in African indigenous languages except a ROOTI DOLL. We are the first and only company in the globe that offer these kinds of innovative educational dolls which can help children and young adults to learn some key phrases in various African ethnic languages; besides, as we have discovered, most black dolls in the market are just white dolls painted black. So they were not made with the black child in mind. Rooti dolls were not made just to offer children comfort and fun – it was created as a response to the rapid demise of African ethnic languages. So we know that the dolls will be purchased by government bodies, agencies, NGOs, and schools, in an effort to preserve our rich African languages.
KA: How did you decide on the individual names for each Rooti Doll tribe?
Chris: We usually conduct a research and some surveys which help us to determine what names are suitable for what country doll. For example Ama is a meaningful Ghanaian name and so are Nina, Keza and Shiroh.
KA: Are you actively involved in designing and clothing the dolls?
Chris: I am actively involved in most aspects of the product design and development; but we plan to contract out things like cloth designs etc. We have a plan to work with a number of notable African fashion designers whom we will give the opportunity to showcase their designs through the dolls. [Great idea!]
KA: Right now your dolls are available in the UK alone; what are your plans to expand distribution?
Chris: Yes, we are currently distributing to stores in the UK, Canada, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and will be in Nigeria shortly. We are about to open the distributorship window for Nigerian distributors. Interested distributors should contact our sales dept.
KA: What informs your marketing strategies?
Chris: Our marketing strategies are measured by the country, season and other factors as what apply in some countries and trade seasons may not necessarily be applicable in other countries and trade seasons. But generally, we use a lot of market data and surveys to determine the best approach to a particular market and season. And since marketing plays a very crucial role in our business we explore as many useful channels as possible for brand awareness. Fortunately due to the uniqueness and significance of our brand coupled with our commitment to high quality products and excellent customer services, doing this has been almost effortless especially given the fact that our Rooti dolls brand have been endorsed and featured by major media houses like BBC, CNN, SABC, ETV, VOX AFRICA TV, CANAL 9, LASEXTA TV, etc, besides loads of articles and accolades from the likes of The Guardian UK, USA Post, China Post, India Times, Afronews, The new African Woman French, Destiny Magazine, Vogue UK, and many others.
KA: Do you have a business mentor or perhaps a book you read that helped you make the right decisions?
Chris: I study closely the likes of Richard Brandson, Peter Jones, and do a lot of listening to self development speakers like Les Brown and Anthony Robbins.
KA: Where do you see Rooti Dolls in say, 10-15 years?
Chris: We envision our brand becoming very strong globally. With our team of passionate experts and state of the arts manufacturing facilities in Europe and Hong Kong, coupled with a formidable alliance of key suppliers in the industry, we see Rooti dolls rising to become one of the major market leaders in the global toy market in the near future. We hope to see our dolls in the hand of every child and young adult globally.
KA: I think being an entrepreneur is more time consuming than being an employee. How do you eke out some ‘downtime?’
Chris: Here we have a ‘work hard, play hard culture’ where we put in all that is demanded without compromising so much of our family time because family is everything. Though the first few months were the most demanding and sacrificing; but I guess it will eventually pay off. Hard work always does.
KA: Hit us with a CEO quote.
Chris: ‘ALWAYS AIM FOR THE STARS, YOU WILL ATLEAST LAND ON THE MOON!’
KA: Inspire an African youth with one sentence.
Chris: Ask not ‘what will my country do for me’; ask ‘what can I do for my country’; for in answering this you will discover the greatness that lies within you; knowing that ‘if you can THINK it, you can ACHIEVE it’. [Words to ponder on…]
So many lessons to learn; I came away with this: “But the key words are persistence and determination. Expect to get your yeses but after some considerable NOs, which honestly shouldn’t be a deterrent. Once we identified WHAT we wanted, researched into HOW we can have it done and sourced WHO to work with, the rest became story.”
Interested in purchasing or a distributorship? Visit www.rootidolls.com.