New dawn for African animated storytelling

Owning the narrative provides us as Africans the opportunity to showcase the best of our continent’s creativity, rich culture and personalised perspectives. Animation technology and film production offer us that opportunity. The future is here.

When Walt Disney Animation Studios approached Pan-African animation company Kugali Media for a one-of-a-kind collaboration. It had one clear goal: get Africans to tell the African story through cutting-edge technology and a platform with infinite possibilities.

Walt Disney, a global giant in animation and film production, was not only keen to cash in on the continent’s booming film industry but also to tap the bubbling potential creative talent. And of course, to jump (or, maybe sprint?) ahead of the competition — Netflix, Showmax and Amazon — all of whom are investing in original content in Africa.

Once conceived, the project, dubbed Iwájú, immediately tapped a deep vein of storytelling. It was a moment worthy of the award-winning author, Ben Okri, who writes that the “mystery of storytelling… is the miracle of a single living seed, which can populate whole acres of human minds”. This moment of conception, it seemed, would offer a veritable universe of “living seeds”.

The countdown to the release of the first sci-fi series on Disney+ in 2023 has now started in earnest. The series will include episodes set in Nigeria, authentically written and directed by African storytellers. And it all started with a “bang”.


That bang was the reverberation caused by a bold declaration during a 2019 interview with the BBC during which the three founders of Kugali Media announced their intention to “kick Disney’s ass”. It may have been a daring statement, but it was not an entirely empty threat.

The company, founded in 2017 by Ugandan animator Hamid Ibrahim and Nigerians Ziki Nelson and Tolu Olowofoyeku, had started to rattle the regional industry by “telling authentic African stories through animation, comic books and Augmented Reality”.

The team was armed with the skills, determination and passion to make something of their driving ambition. Hamid, the creative director, Ziki, the creative writer, and Tolu, an animation virtuoso, had their eyes set on the pinnacle of success: to play in the big league.

The team’s declaration on a world broadcaster caught the attention of Disney’s chief creative officer, Jennifer Lee.

“Their dream was to bring African stories created by African artists to the world, highlighting the diversity of cultures, histories, and voices across the continent. Their talents as storytellers blew us away,” she said.

The timing was perfect. Already, the success of Nollywood, the world’s second-largest film industry, was testimony to Africa’s teeming talent and potential in film production.

In an exclusive interview with the bird story agency, Tolu, who is deeply involved in the Iwájú project, agrees that the moment to tap Africa’s potential film production, especially animation, is now.

“The market is huge,” he said. “There was hardly any animation scene in Africa five years ago. There have always been a small handful of people with the skills, and they made their money through doing animated adverts for companies, but hardly anybody made any animated series for TV or movies for the cinema outside of South Africa.” 

Tolu says there are many creatives sprouting up across the continent. He adds, however, that the fledgling industry can only bloom and rival those in other regions if there is real investment in developing and nurturing the industry’s nascent talent.


Many industry professionals on the continent are self-taught. The promise of Africa’s creatives is personified in such producers as Ridwan Moshood, who taught himself animation using YouTube at a cybercafé in Lagos. He has now carved a niche for himself with his popular Garbage Boy and Trash Can, aired on Cartoon Network.

While it is a very long way from reaching full potential, Tolu is quick to remind one that the industry has already come a significant distance. Baby steps are often the hardest.

“Many of those people can now collaborate with larger companies overseas to create these things, and some people have self-funded entire movies, animated shorts or animated series. The industry is still clearly in its infancy, but at least now there is actually an industry to talk about,” he added.

Tolu also wants African animation to be measured against global benchmarks.

“I never want to create things that people simply give a pass because they think I tried my best by Nigerian standards or something,” Tolu said.

“Shows such as Voltron, Dragonball, Ben10, Naruto and Spiderman did not become worldwide hits because the audience could relate with the culture of the show or the culture of the creators. Nor did people have to reduce their standards in order to enjoy those shows.”

Instead, the Kugali Media team wants to have their work embraced and appreciated globally, just as Afrobeats or Amapiano are on the global music scene.

Tolu also points to the opportunities for African animation in video games.

“They combine the visual and auditory flair of live-action film and TV, the depth and attention to detail of literature and the active mental and physical participation of playing sports into one single form of entertainment. As far as I’m concerned, no other form of entertainment comes close to the best experiences available in video games,” Tolu said, beaming with excitement.


Looking back at his journey, Tolu said he has always loved watching video games and dreamed of creating his own. Looking around the continent and seeing video producers such as Free Lives, based in Cape Town, Cameroon’s Kiro’o Games, and Kuluya, with headquarters in Lagos, he feels a new dawn is finally at hand for Africa storytelling.

Kugali Media’s dedicated, engaged and growing fan base on social media is just as excited.

Faith Nyambura, a Kenyan primary school teacher whose daughter is an avid animation consumer, said she learned about Kugali Media after the Disney collaboration announcement and was happy that the notion that princesses or superheroes are the preserve of certain races would be dunked by an African series.

“I realised that our kids are being left out when it comes to African animation. My daughter loves watching SpongeBob but the Iwájú film will not only inspire our kids but also fight racism. It is an amazing idea and I am sure our children will be captivated,” she said.

Fellow Kenyan Elizabeth Natukunda, a Makerere University student, is excited at Kugali Media’s opportunity to create “real masterpieces”. Having watched highly successful foreign projects, she feels a top-end African animated series would be a big win for the continent.

“I recently watched Squid Game in Korean, not the dubbed English version. It communicated to me even though I didn’t understand the language. I have also watched Anime in its native language and it resonated well with me. I’m excited to see our own artists coming up with such unique stories that show who we are,” she said.

Kugali supporters also come from further afield, including India, while fan art from Nigeria, Mexico and the UK adorns the company’s Instagram page. As far as the fans are concerned, “It’s Showtime!” for Kugali Media.

Source: The Star

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