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Pan-African entertainment studio Kugali vowed to kick Disney’s butt — and Disney was into it

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The Afro-futuristic Iwájú will explore themes of class and innocence

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a futuristic cityscape, with two figures hovering over; the city is split in half by a river. the female figure on the left side has brown skin with hair in braids and wears a purple dress. this side of the city is grey. The right side is golden and brown and the male figure wears a yellow shirt with a fanny pack strapped over his shoulder. Image: Disney/Kugali

Last December, amidst the fanfare of five new Marvel series and nine new Star Wars shows, Disney announced a collaboration with Pan-African entertainment company Kugali to create an animated science-fiction series for Disney Plus. Set in a future Lagos, Nigeria, Iwájú would explore the ideas of class, innocence, and challenging the status quo.

At this year’s Annecy Festival, the creative leaders at Disney and Kugali came together to talk more about Iwájú and the collaboration between the two companies. Kugali was started by three friends in Nigeria as a podcast aimed at exploring African entertainment. But co-founder Ziki Nelson realized after two seasons of the show that he’d basically covered everything of interest in the African cultural landscape.

“We realized what the community needed wasn’t actually someone to talk about the content,” he explained. “They needed someone to actually create that content.”

It’s rare for Disney Animation to partner this way with another studio, considering how tight its in-house production has become over nearly a century.

“When I first came to Disney, everything was created in house,” said Disney’s Chief Creative Officer and Frozen screenwriter Jennifer Lee. “The animation, the craft, the storytelling, it’s fantastic. Coming into that world, I was blown away. But I noticed a lack of diversity.”

As a woman, Lee said her own position as CCO was a big step, but now she wants to do even more. One of her big initiatives in her relatively new role is to “tell the stories of the word, but by people of the world.” She first stumbled upon Kugali while sipping her morning coffee and reading the news, when a BBC headline caught her eye: “The African comic book Kugali hoping to take on Disney.

“They said they were going to kick Disney’s … you know what,” Lee said. “And I was like, OK! Let’s connect.”

Sure enough, after that BBC interview went viral, both Nelson and production designer Hamid Ibrahim received messages from Disney via LinkedIn.

“First we couldn’t believe it was Disney,” Ibrahim said. “The second thought was OK, I just called out Disney… someone at Disney just mailed us… oh man, they’re coming for me.”

the logo for Iwájú Image: Disney/Kugali

No one was coming for Kugali — at least not in the way Ibrahim feared. But even though the studio was interested in a collaboration, Nelson was skeptical. Other studios had reached out, but none of the messages had panned into something tangible, so Nelson initially believed this was just a dialogue in order for Disney to keep an eye on them.

“From one meeting it turned to two meetings to three meetings to four meetings,” he recounted. “I think that level of investment, you know someone doesn’t meet up with you over multiple periods across time if they’re just looking to waste time.”

According to creative consultant Tolu Olowofoyeku, as the process went on, he and the other two founders realized that Disney was indeed invested in making some collaboration happen. And it wasn’t just Disney trying to project its visions onto Kulagi. In fact, Disney made a conscious effort to make it a true collaboration.

“They taught us how to pitch to them,” Olowofoyeku said. “They didn’t just leave us like, ‘OK, give a pitch, go.’ They taught us, ‘This is how you give a pitch, now go.’”

Lee said the original idea was to have Kugali collaborate on a series of shorts, but she was so impressed by the caliber of storytelling that she wanted to put together a full-length series.

“There were stories with themes I had never put together that way, there were folklore that I never had access to,” she explained. “They came in with these ideas, each one of them was an epic feature in and of itself. We picked the one that could translate into a series the best. It was too exciting. Their storytelling power and strength is just so strong.”

Iwájú is set for a 2022 release on Disney Plus.