‘Iwájú’: Nigeria-based ‘first-of-its-kind’ animated series premieres on Disney+

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After nearly five years of tireless work, the animation team at Kugali Media is finally seeing its comic book series “Iwájú” come to life in a big way – and now audiences around the world can join in.

The animated series is a coming-of-age story set in a futuristic Lagos, Nigeria. The show was picked up by Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2020, which called it a “first-of-its-kind collaboration” with the pan-African entertainment company. All six episodes are now available to stream on Disney+.

Hamid Ibrahim, CEO of Kugali, co-founded the company in 2017 with two friends, Tolu Olowofoyeku and Olufikayo “Ziki” Adeola. He says the team began working on “Iwájú” two years later as part of the company’s mission to share “high quality African stories with the world.”

Embracing the “soul of Lagos”

Ibrahim says Africa is at the heart of every story Kugali tells. But with so many countries and cultures, they strive be intentional with their storytelling.

“We’re telling an African story, but a lot of viewers do not understand African culture,” he said. “Hopefully (by watching) they get to understand it better.”

“Iwájú” is brought to life through Nigerian voice actors Simisola Gbadamosi and Siji Soetan, who play Tola and her best friend Kole. Other characters from the show include voice acting by Dayo Okeniyi, Femi Branch and Weruche Opia.

To accurately depict the “soul of Lagos,” Ibrahim says they relied on Olowofoyeku to be the team’s cultural consultant since he is the only Kugali Media executive based in Lagos full-time.

“I was there to make sure that everything felt authentic and grounded,” Olowofoyeku said. “The fact that the language, the way the characters talk is 100% Nigerian … I’m very happy about that because there is no scene where you will feel it doesn’t really feel Nigerian.”

“It’s not about showing the good side or the bad side, it’s about showing the real thing about it,” Ibrahim said, adding they tried to capture “all the little details” of the city to help audiences better understand the nuances. “It also allows us to teach people about the culture. And the more we teach about the culture, the more some things become normal.”

Pushing the African story forward

While the show premiered on February 28 on Disney+, the streaming service is not yet available in Africa. Instead, “Iwájú” will be airing on the Disney Channel across the continent at specific times, beginning on April 22, according to the company.

As audiences tune in to watch “Iwájú,” Ibrahim says he hopes the family show will speak to viewers of all ages.

“I want (the kids) to pick up the heart. To approach something which seems impossibly difficult and be able to persevere through it and know that there’s going to be setbacks, ups and downs … but to keep pushing through, and you’ll hopefully discover something better,” he said.

“For us at Disney, great storytelling is at the heart of everything that we do … It’s telling authentic stories where our audiences can see themselves and their worlds reflected,” she said at the Lagos premiere, adding Disney felt the Kugali team shared that same philosophy.

Along with the six-episode series, the soundtrack featuring music by Nigerian composer Ré Olunuga and a game called “Disney Iwájú: Rising Chef” are also being released. The game will allow players to “explore authentic African delicacies through (a) fast-paced and accessible cooking game,” according to Disney, “that celebrates the culture and cuisine of Nigeria.”

With “Iwájú” on air, Ibrahim says the Kugali Media team is ready start working on showcasing the next African story.

“This is a first step to creating more and more things,” he said. “I want to see one of our stories told and funded completely (within) Africa and then we bring that to the West.”

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