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Of all the projects announced on Disney's Investor Day in October of 2020, Iwaju, the new animated project currently in production with African media company Kugali Media might be the most fascinating. Along with The Princess and the Frog's Tiana and Moana, the new project from the fledgling company known for creating indie African comics is among the first long-form animated series Disney Animation has ever done and the first headed to the Disney Plus streaming service. Additionally, Iwaju will be the first original long-form animated series ever produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios in its 97-year history.
Kugali's founders, Toluwalakin "Tolu" Olowofoyeku (Chief Technology Officer), Ziki Nelson (Chief Executive Officer), and newest member Hamid Ibrahim (Creative Director), currently operates as an independent African comic book, AR animation, and entertainment company. Before now, the company has never created an animated feature or short. So how did this relatively unknown Nigerian and Ugandan creative team land a collaboration deal with the biggest animation studio in the world? Short answer: a little luck, a little patience, a lot of confidence, and an incredible amount of hard work. SYFY WIRE spoke with the team to bring you their incredible story.
The first iteration of Kugali was actually a podcast started back in 2015 called the Tao of Otaku, a blend of Chinese and Japanese phrases that loosely translates to "the way of the geek." Every week childhood friends Tolu, Ziki, and Demi Agoro (no longer with the team) would hop on Skype from three different countries (Nigeria, England, and America) and geek out over everything from manga and anime to comics and sci-fi movies.
Curating content for the show led the guys to look for high-quality comics and animation within Africa. "So we started with comics and manga," Tolu explains, "then expanded to video games, animation, short films, anything we could find that people were doing in that space." By the end of 2016, Tolu and Ziki decided to rebrand and expand the podcast to YouTube and a website where they could expose the world to art, comics, gaming, and animation being created all over the continent of Africa. That's when Kugali, a name derived from the Swahili word "Kujali" (meaning 'to care'), was born.
The company grew quickly, and by 2018, the team began to narrow their focus, creating their own comics like Iku, Oro, Mumu, and Juju and other original content. The team not only started publishing their work but also began to develop new talent in the process. When Hamid joined that same year, with his visual effects experience and animation (he worked on Disney's photoreal reboot of The Lion King), Kugali officially promoted itself as an entertainment and animation company. "I was thinking; they are very talented and hardworking, they have some of the best stories, how come no one can see that?" Hamid says. "I wanted to help fix that problem."
Their next big move was to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the first Kugali anthology. The project, featuring sci-fi and fantasy stories from creators all over the continent, was a massive success, making well over £20K from Kickstarter alone. The popularity from the success of their campaign gave them the push they needed to expand the company in other areas, including creating a mobile app for their comics-making them more accessible. As well as dive into the AR digital space. (Kugali currently is one of the Offical Lens Creators for Snap).
The campaign's success was also timely. Fans worldwide were still excited about Marvel's Black Panther, an American story about the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. Kugali garnered plenty of press about their success as a small African comic book company that created fantastic fantasy and superhero stories on their own—featuring African superheroes created by African artists and writers from all over the continent.
The tipping point to their success was a now-famous interview with the BBC, "I do honestly believe that we will go far in this business." Hamid says confidently, "So, in the interview, I told them I'm pretty sure we are going to be able to kick Disney's ass in Africa." Hamid says. "I figured they wouldn't use it." he continues. "So of course the headline was literally 'We're going to kick Disney's Ass,'" Tolu says.
It's not every day that Disney gets challenged by an African imprint in the mainstream press, and Disney Animation Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee noticed. "Jennifer was instantly intrigued when hearing Tolu, Ziki, and Hamid in the [BBC] interview, loved that they threw down the gauntlet, their ambition. We have never collaborated with outside creative partners in this way. Still, right away, the Kugali team understood the hyper-collaborative, iterative nature of how we make projects at Disney Animation and had a vision for a series that felt incredibly exciting to us". Says Jessica Julius, who heads up the Development department at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
However, learning from experience, the team was skeptical at first, "We weren't getting too excited because we didn't know if it would lead to anything. But when they said they wanted to meet, that changed." Ziki says. After a series of Zoom calls in early 2019, Disney Animation revealed that they were looking to tell stories that appealed to a more diverse and broader audience with original content on a new streaming service coming out called Disney plus. "Having watched our piece on BBC, and looking at our work, they saw us as an ideal company to collaborate with," Ziki continues.
Iwaju is neither a Disney-sanctioned story nor a project that the Kugali team initially pitched the animation studio. "We worked in tandem with the Disney Animation development team to birth Iwaju," Ziki explains. "We had already committed to collaborating and then developed the concept together."
For those curious about what exactly Iwaju's concept is, like most Disney projects in development, the team is tight-lipped about the actual storyline. At the time of this writing, SYFY WIRE can confirm that Iwaju is an animated fantasy series placed in and around the real-life city of Lagos, Nigeria and is headed for Disney's streaming service sometime in 2022." "We hid a lot of clues in that first look image shared on Investor Day. People who have lived or have been to Lagos will definitely see what I'm talking about." Tolu says.
The team is also quick to explain that although they understand why many people would like to compare their project to other Disney projects like the recently announced World of Wakanda series, there are significant differences. Wakanda is based on an older, imagined, [Western] concept of Africa, and Marvel found ways to bring that fantasy into the real world." Ziki agrees. "Whereas with Iwaju, we took a real African city and found ways to color it with our imagination. It's very deeply rooted in contemporary Lagos life". Ziki says. "I didn't realize until I saw comments on social media in response to the Disney announcement how much people were going to draw parallels to Black Panther or Afrofuturism. To us, it's not that at all," Tolu says. "Ziki and I grew up in Lagos. And Ziki wrote the story about aspects of Lagos he's always found very amusing, and he simply wanted to tell this story set in the future," Tolu explains.
Although the team did have concerns over creative control at first, Hamid is also quick to emphasize that audiences will be getting a real African story and that Disney has not adjusted much of their storyline. "I am very impressed with [Disney Animation's] openness to letting us tell authentic stories and take the time to learn from us and trust us," Hamid says.
"Honestly? I saw some people's tweets about the announcement, and I wanted to fight because so many got it all wrong. People said things like, 'Oh, Disney's going to mess up the story or steal it.' I was actually getting upset.'" Tolu continues. "Disney Animation has let us be ourselves and let us be true to ourselves." he says. "They've been incredibly supportive." Hamid agrees.
Working in conjunction with Disney animation on Iwaju, the Kugali team's day-to-day roles have shifted somewhat; Hamid serves ads the project's production designer; Ziki wrote the story. Tolu is the consulting producer and creative consultant on the team. The team from Walt Disney Animation is genuinely pleased with the arrangement as well, "We really can't wait to help bring their story and vision to Disney Plus around the world," Julius says.
Disney Animation's working relationship with Kugali is very different from how the corporation has worked with directors in the past. Most of the studios' filmmakers are brought in-house and stay with the company for years, working with other directors until they direct their own projects. However, Kugali is working remotely with a certain amount of autonomy and creative freedom. An arrangement that, if successful, could open the doors for other post-pandemic collaborations around the world.