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June 06
2024

ISSUE

Summer 2024

KUGALI AND DISNEY: BRINGING AFRICAN STORIES TO THE WORLD WITH IWÁJÚ

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.

Otin, Kole and Tola with flying drones and cars in a futuristic Lagos. The animation was shared by Disney Animation in Burbank, Kugali in Lagos and London, and Cinesite in Montreal and Vancouver.

Otin, Kole and Tola with flying drones and cars in a futuristic Lagos. The animation was shared by Disney Animation in Burbank, Kugali in Lagos and London, and Cinesite in Montreal and Vancouver.

Production designer Hamid Ibrahim, director/co-screenwriter Olufikayo “Ziki” Adeola and cultural consultant Toluwalakin “Tolu” Olowofoyeku at the Iwájú world premiere in Lagos.

Production designer Hamid Ibrahim, director/co-screenwriter Olufikayo “Ziki” Adeola and cultural consultant Toluwalakin “Tolu” Olowofoyeku at the Iwájú world premiere in Lagos.

When Walt Disney Animation Studios teamed with Kugali Media earlier this year to launch the animated series Iwájú on Disney+, it debuted the first Nigerian animated TV series. In addition, “Iwájú is important for Disney Animation because it is not only our first-ever long-form series, but it’s also the first time we have collaborated with an outside creative company. It’s giving Africans a voice and a means through animation to tell their own stories on the highest platform across the world,” Producer Christina Chen states.

Iwájú is a sci-fi coming-of-age tale set in a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria. The series centers around a young girl named Tola, who is the daughter of a renowned tech inventor; she lives in a mansion on the island in the more affluent part of Lagos. Tola befriends Kole, a young boy, who is a self-taught tech wizard from the poor mainland. Things get compli- cated when Bode, a crime boss who runs a kidnapping ring, decides to make Tola his next target. Otin, an overly protective, little orange robot lizard, helps Tola along the way.

The series “is meant to be purely Nigerian but with a sci-fi twist as the story is set in the future,” says director and co-screenwriter Olufikayo “Ziki” Adeola (aka Ziki Nelson). “The main themes of the story explore inequality, innocence [and] the relationship bonds that hold us and break us.” Unlike Black Panther, which is a purely fictionalized location, Iwájú takes place in a realistic place that has been futurized,” Ziki notes.

The three principals of Kugali – director “Zika” Adeola, production designer Hamid Ibrahim and cultural consultant Toluwalakin “Tolu” Olowofoyeku – take viewers on a vivid journey into a singular world enlivened by visual elements and technological advancements inspired by the spirit of Lagos. The screenplay was co-written by Ziki and Halima Hudson.

The formidable Ms. Happiness, part of Bode’s crew.

The formidable Ms. Happiness, part of Bode’s crew.

How Kugali Media reached this point is a fantastic story in itself. It involves a tiny pan-African upstart firm challenging Disney in a BBC interview and eliciting an unexpected reaction that would propel them to a deal with Disney Animation. It all started with Tolu and Ziki, who had known each other since primary school in Lagos. Ziki comments, “Growing up, I loved all forms of media from music to comic books. I started off watching cartoons based on Marvel and DC characters. Spider-Man was my favorite. As I approached my teens, I discovered anime and that became my favorite form of media, particularly Dragon Ball Z and Naruto.” Later, Ziki moved to London and attended college. His and Tolu’s partner Hamid grew up in Uganda and Kenya and also went to college in Hertfordshire, England. The latter worked in visual effects and was a rigging technical director at MPC for The Predator, Dolittle, Dumbo and The Lion King.

Kugali’s roots lay in a weekly podcast hosted by Ziki and Tolu called “Tao of Otaku,” which started in 2015 and focused on comics, manga, anime and sci-fi. This led to Ziki and Tolu seeking out African comics and anime. They noticed that something was missing from the media they consumed. “We’re from Nigeria, we’re Nigerian. Everything we watch is American and Japanese. Where’s the Nigerian content?” Tolu recalled in the ABC News documentary Iwájú: A Day Ahead, which was released with Iwájú on February 28.

“[I] saw a small group of creators making comics that were inspired by African mythology and folklore. It was a lightbulb moment. ‘Okay! This is new, this is original, and here’s an opportunity.’ What was needed was a company that could be a platform.”

—Olufikayo “Ziki” Adeola, Co-Screenwriter/Director, Kugali Media

The adorable Otin with a screen showing its main command: Protect Tola.

The adorable Otin with a screen showing its main command: Protect Tola.

Ziki attended Lagos Comic Com and “saw a small group of creators making comics that were inspired by African mythology and folklore. It was a lightbulb moment. ‘Okay! This is new, this is original, and here’s an opportunity.’ What was needed was a company that could be a platform,” he said in A Day Ahead. Tolu added, “We decided we’d transition [to] being a publisher. And put [others’] work together with our own work. The quality of the work is world-class. It’s good quality by anybody’s standards anywhere in the world.”

Tola trying out some stylish, very smart glasses.

Tola trying out some stylish, very smart glasses.

The imposing and ruthless crime boss Bode, who runs a kidnapping ring.

The imposing and ruthless crime boss Bode, who runs a kidnapping ring.

unde, a renowned inventor and Tola’s dad, talking with Tola and Kole.

Tunde, a renowned inventor and Tola’s dad, talking with Tola and Kole.

Tola being introduced by Kole to a Lagos street fair’s local delicacies.

Tola being introduced by Kole to a Lagos street fair’s local delicacies.

According to Producer Chen, the next year, Ziki and Tolu decided “rebrand and expand their podcast to YouTube and create a website exposing the world to manga, video games, animation and short films from all over Africa. This is when the name Kugali was born. It was derived from a Swahili word ‘kujali’ meaning ‘to care.’” Ziki explains, “The goal of the podcast was to create a space where we could discuss stories inspired by African culture across multiple mediums. The approach was always from the perspective of a fan, but it was also important to create a space where listeners could learn more about the various projects we covered.”

Ziki continues, “For me, it was a way to overcome my colonial mentality. This is where people from countries that once existed as European colonies perceive their culture to be inferior to that of Western culture. Therefore, I wanted to show that African stories had the potential to be as good as stories from anywhere else in the world.”

One aspect of this was publishing the pan-African comic anthology Kugali Anthology in 2017 with the help of Kickstarter. Ziki comments, “Kugali initially focused on comic books. This was down to my own personal connection to comics as a medium. Furthermore, it is possible to make a comic book with just one person as opposed to a movie which requires dozens of people. Therefore, as a small startup, comics made a lot of sense.”

Meanwhile, Hamid had been researching and speaking to several African visual entertainment companies and he had come across “Tao of Otaku.” He became interested and reached out to Ziki to see if they wanted to work together. Hamid brought his animation and visual effects expertise to the firm and started to work part-time for Kugali, joining it full-time in 2018. That year, Kugali Media was officially founded. Ziki comments, “Kugali is a company based online, employing people who work from different parts of the world; it was first registered in London and then Nigeria.”

According to Ziki, “Our goal is to use art and animation to create world-class African stories and new opportunities for African artists.” In terms of African storytelling, “There isn’t a singular approach. Africa is a massive continent with dozens of countries, and within those countries, there are a whole host of various cultures. Our main thing is authenticity. Any story that we tell must be authentic to the culture it represents, and there has to be a feeling that it brings something new to the table that hasn’t been seen before. That means we take our research process very seriously and try to work with creatives from all over the continent and the diaspora.”

Kugali’s timing was good – Disney was looking to produce a wider variety of original content for its new streaming service, Disney+. Iwájú Producer Christina Chen recalls, “Jennifer Lee, Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, saw a BBC article online about this African comic book startup company called Kugali.” It was 2018. “Hamid Ibrahim, one of the founders, talked about wanting to ‘kick Disney’s ass’ in Africa, and Jenn met the challenge with open arms and reached out to them. That fateful quote launched it all and was the beginning of everything.”

At the time, Hamid was sharing a flat with Ziki in London. The two were sitting by the living room, and an executive from Disney Animation reached out. In A Day Ahead, Hamid remembered, “Just imagine you’re sitting there. A young creative, right? You just called out the grandaddy of visual entertainment. You just said you’re going to kick their ass. Then somebody reaches out and says ‘hi’ and wants to talk.” It took a while for Ziki and Hamid to process the event and believe Disney actually called.

“I was skeptical. At the time we had met with a handful of people claiming to be connected to big names in Hollywood, but nothing ever came of these discussions, so I took it with a pinch of salt,” Ziki recalls. Disney met with Kugali and was intrigued. Chen comments, “It was more than appeal and more than the freshness of their ideas and stories. The founders of Kugali are visionaries. They had a vision for the boundless potential of African stories and African storytellers and built a platform with their dedication, brilliance and profound passion. I was, and still am, inspired by them, and I consistently learn from them both professionally and personally. When I first heard of the project and first met them, I knew that this project and this partnership would be unlike anything our studio has ever done and unlike anything I would ever experience again.”

According to Chen, once Iwájú was greenlit, the founders of Kugali teamed up with Disney Animation to bring the series to life. The work was shared by Disney Animation in Burbank, Kugali in Lagos and London, as well as Cinesite in Montreal and Vancouver. Storyboards and visual development were supervised and created in Burbank.

Teaming up with Disney was an education. “Through our collaboration with Disney, we’ve had an opportunity to learn directly from the best in the business,” Ziki comments. “Apart from the sheer inspiration one gets from working with some of the most talented names in the industry, it has also been very informative from a technical perspective. We’ve learned a lot about Disney’s systems and processes which will allow us to improve our operation.”

Iwájú means ‘the future’ in Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s main languages. “The animation style takes its inspiration from the vibrancy of Lagos. The environment has a painterly aspect, meant to be a canvas to bring out the energy of Lagos and create a palette of colors and movement,” Chen adds. “Lagos is an important cultural and financial center in Africa and therefore plays a significant part as a visual and creative gateway to the rest of the world. Due to the rapid evolution of technology and the resulting juxtaposition of class all within this city, it provides an opportunity to use science fiction as a foundation to tell a deeply human story.”

The Kugali team never lacked self-confidence. “I didn’t know if it would be Disney specifically, but I did believe one day we would get to a point where we would be collaborating with a studio of this caliber. Of course, I didn’t expect it would come so soon! This has been the biggest opportunity of my career; my family is proud and so is my country. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Ziki says.

Tola in a flying car, a common near-future mode of transport for the rich in Lagos.

Tola in a flying car, a common near-future mode of transport for the rich in Lagos.

Tunde wearing smart glasses and with his invention Otin on his shoulder.

Tunde wearing smart glasses and with his invention Otin on his shoulder.

An IMAX showing of Iwájú, produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Kugali Media, at the premiere in Lagos on February 27.

An IMAX showing of Iwájú, produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Kugali Media, at the premiere in Lagos on February 27.

Series Composer Ré Olunuga speaking at the Iwájú premiere with “Tolu” Olowofoyeku, “Ziki” Adeola and others.

Series Composer Ré Olunuga speaking at the Iwájú premiere with “Tolu” Olowofoyeku, “Ziki” Adeola and others.



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