How creators of Disney’s ‘Iwájú’ made the Lagos-based animated series

They had met at Whitesands School, the private secondary school for boys in Lekki, and became friends, making scrappy mangas and comics on notebooks.

On the podcast, they held court on digital design and storytelling in Africa. They interviewed the latest visual effects stars, illustrators, animation magazine founders, and digital design creatives. Averaging thousands of downloads, at its peak the podcast topped charts in the UK and Israel.

Then they met Hamid Ibrahim, a hotshot visual effect designer from Uganda, whose dreams were too big he had run through tons of potential partners. For context, later in a 2018 BBC interview, he bragged that he would “kick Disney’s ass in Africa.”

The three gentlemen all with equally big dreams decided to start Kugali Media. They immediately got to work, building a pan-African storytelling animation company. They produced a handful of free comics and digital artworks from funds they crowd-sourced from Kickstarter. Then the BBC found them. And then one Jennifer Lee, the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios watched the interview of a young designer claiming to kick her multimillion-dollar studio’s ass in Africa. She became a fan. “From the moment I saw it, I knew they were making it happen,” she said.

At Kugali, they quickly realised it was better to work with Disney than to compete, so they sent in a pitch.

In partnership with Kugali Media on February 28, 2024, Disney rolled out Iwájú, a six-part sci-fi series set in Lagos on its streaming platform Disney Plus.

With the series, Disney has also launched other Iwájú branded merch, the video game Iwájú Rising Chef, a documentary Iwájú: A Story from Africa, and Kugali Ink, a publishing imprint backed by Disney Publishing.

Disney Plus is not in Nigeria but beginning April 22, the series will air for Nigerian viewers on the Disney channel on DSTV.

It will run for April 22 to 26, then have a special marathon on April 27, a repeat broadcast from April 29 to May 4, another marathon on May 5, and finally, on Africa Day, May 25.

The project is the first time Disney has collaborated with an external animation studio.

We are happy that Disney Animation empowered us to be able to make this project,” Tolu Olowofoyekun, who worked on Iwájú as cultural consultant, but is a co-founder of Kugali, its head of publishing and president, told Pulse Nigeria.

The arrival of Iwájú immediately catapults the trio from relatively unknown founders of a media startup to celebrities in a rising Afro-animation ecosystem. Already, they’ve held meetings with Bob Iger, who has been chairman of Disney since 2005. “To be honest, the thing that struck me was the fact that he was human like me,” Ziki said.

When you hear of these larger-than-life characters, there’s always something mythical about them. But just talking to him, and interacting with him, he felt like a human being like me,” he added.

The cast of Iwájú includes Shaffy Bello, Ireti Doyle, Dayo Okeniyi, Simisola Gbadamosi, Kehinde Bankole, Femi Branch, Siji Soetan, and Weruche Opia (I May Destroy You). The team had gone for a fully Nigerian cast because they didn’t want to join the canon of Hollywood projects with so-called Nigerian accents that sound unrecognisable to Nigerians.

I remember during the recording, I had to make the voice actors keep it as Nigerian as possible if I found them code-switching,” Tolu said. “I wanted to make sure they sounded Nigeria…because I have seen other shows where the characters are supposed to be Nigerians but they don’t sound like us, and some of these shows are made by Nigerians, but the moment they are trying to target the western audience, they try to pander to that audience by making the characters sound western,” he added.

Ziki, who had briefly worked at the Guardian Nigeria was the writer and director of the series. He had found the conventions of journalism too limiting for the kind of speculative work he wanted to do. “I wanted to write about flying cars. That was what spoke to my spirit a lot more,” he said. So he fled the Guardian’s Oshodi newsroom and the country for the UK.

Iwájú at its core is as much a coming-of-age story as it is a political series. It follows the young sheltered daughter of a wealthy tech entrepreneur as she navigates the harsh realities of life away from her gated community into the inner cities of Lagos, awash with kidnapping and corruption and the powers that steer the engine.

I wanted to make a story that was authentic to the spirit of Lagos,” Ziki said. “Although it was very important to showcase the beauty of Lagos, I don’t think you can authentically do Lagos without also showcasing some of the harsher realities. In Lagos, you have the Mainland/Island divide that sort of shows the geography that is supporting the class divide in the society,” he added.

For Hamid who worked as production designer on Iwájú but is Kugali’s CEO, animation as a format offered an opportunity to present the pace of Lagos in a way that is both excellent and also exaggerated.

It’s a love letter to Lagos, Nigeria,” he said of the series. “We really wanted to make this as authentic as possible as a Lagos story, but take it to the future,” he added.

It was also why the team chose a futuristic sci-fi setting with flying cars to beat traffic. It allows them to push the boundaries with animation.

Lagos itself is kind of dialed up to 11 as a place. Sci-fi even allows you to push it more,” Hamid said.

With Iwájú and the power of Disney behind it, Nollywood has finally been thrown into a new era of animated storytelling, a format that the industry has been slow to adapt. But even with this, many creators in the Afro-animation space are skeptical that local funding attitudes toward animated projects will change.

I think that Nollywood is more ready than it’s ever been, but it’s going to be a long-term project. This is the beginning of the journey of a thousand miles,” Ziki said.

Christine Service, the general manager for The Walt Disney Company Africa, offers more optimism. “The more we work here and the more we work with the creative team on this continent, the more we understand about the excellence in storytelling and filmmaking that exists here,” she said.

But away from all the fanfare, all the big interviews, the Disney spark, and the fancy Imax premiere last night, the team at Kugali Media remains apprehensive that things have turned around completely for them. Does Kugali’s president feel like the company has entered its year of plenty? Would they finally delete that Kickstarter profile once and for all? “We have not gotten to a level where we feel we have arrived. We are still a startup and we are still hungry,” Tolu said.

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