By Charmain Naidoo
December 2018

It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. A year ago, five young mothers, who saw a desperate need in the market for mother-tongue literature, formed just such a community.  In November 2017, chartered accountants, Precious Molete, Kgala Nazo and Tina Akuoko, engineer, Mpho Maje, and marketer and sales guru, Khumo Tapfumaneyi, founded Ethnikids, a book-selling site that specialises in local children’s literature with an emphasis on books written in African languages. 

“We wanted to read to our small children in our mother tongue and found it difficult to easily access books in the African languages,” Tapfumaneyi shared.  “Also, we found that there were few protagonists in the storybooks that looked like us, that our children could identify with.”

The women, all self-starting go-getters, began to research the children’s book field. They sourced books and invited like-minded parents to subscribe to their burgeoning enterprise. Subscribers received a carefully curated box of age appropriate books for just R500. As the subscriber list grew, it became obvious that an online commercial presence was necessary.

“There is an erroneous belief that children’s books do not make for profitable business,” Tapfumaneyi said. “On the contrary, we have found that as the dynamic of our country changes, as we witness a significant growth in the black middle class, this is a huge growth market with untapped potential.”

“More and more black parents want to ensure that their children do not lose the ability to speak their mother tongue,” she continued. “That’s where we come in: we saw a gap in the market, and Ethnikids is filling it.”

Ethnikids has also taken on the role of being a support to young authors. Promotion of local books, especially of independent publishers of children’s literature, is top of their agenda. Independent authors form between 30% and 40% of their business. These (mainly young, mainly women) authors have little access to the markets and struggle to get their books carried in traditional book outlets.

“We need to encourage, support, market and recognise these young authors,” Tapfumaneyi said. “At least 90% of the books Ethnikids stock are local – and almost all of those books are representative of the demographic of our country.”

The five women, all of whom have full time jobs, fulfill the sentiment of their brand logo, ‘Made For Me’.
Their box of books must “feel like a gift for kids” said Tapfumaneyi, adding that they pack and ship the books themselves. While Ethnikids is primarily a commercial online bookstore, the women who run it are also committed to improving literacy.

“Social media has made it possible for us to grow our business – we pride ourselves in being the fastest delivery company in the country,” Tapfumaneyi shared. “We do not have bookstores, but we partner with children’s hair salons as an outlet for our books.”

Ethnikids organises book readings and monthly events around literature and literacy. Tapfumaneyi describes Ethnikids as being “a small, but enthusiastic player in the South African children’s books market.” The mothers believe that their unique selling point is that they have personally read the books before adding them to the online sales list.

Elinor Sisulu, Executive Director of Children’s Literature Foundation, Puku, welcomed Ethnikids into the book selling space.

“We’re excited that Ethnikids has entered this traditionally difficult and risky market, often perceived to be unprofitable,” she shared. “I believe that there are synergies between Puku and Ethnikids. At present, we are exploring areas of how we complement each other to see how we can work together.”

She continued, “Next year, 2019, has been declared the Unesco Year of Indigenous Languages. We want to start a conversation with Ethnikids, as well as a number of other sector participants, to leverage this year as we concentrate on issues like family literacy and indigenous language literature.”