How Disney teamed with Kugali on ‘Iwájú’ to bring sci-fi Nigeria to life from Mashable

Disney’s latest animated series, Iwájú, introduces young Tola (voiced by Simisola Gbadamosi), an endearing Nigerian heiress whose insatiable curiosity propels her on a thrilling adventure across a futuristic Lagos. At first glance, Iwájú appears standard Disney fare, complete with vibrant animation, timeless good-versus-evil motifs, and even an adorable animal sidekick.

What sets the series apart is the unprecedented collaboration between Walt Disney Animation Studios and fledgling Pan-African entertainment company Kugali Media. Making the limited series even more remarkable, it would never have come about if Kugali hadn’t trash-talked the media giant on international television. 

“We’ll kick Disney’s ass in Africa.”

In 2019, Kugali Media led a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the graphic novel anthology Kugali, featuring African creators from all over the continent. The resulting book was so popular it landed the Kugali co-founders — CTO Toluwalakin “Tolu” Olowofoyeku, CEO Olufikayo “Ziki” Adeola, and creative director Hamid Ibrahim — an interview with the BBC. When asked if the team had designs on becoming the next Disney, Ibrahim responded, “We’ll kick Disney’s ass in Africa.” 

“Many people thought I was joking, but I was pretty serious,” Ibrahim tells Mashable on a Zoom call with Olowofoyeku and Adeola. “Disney felt very repetitive [at the time]. I wondered why they didn’t explore African stories because Africa has some of the most diverse stories in the world.”

Iwájú is the first time Disney collaborated with African storytellers to create a series set in Africa.

Credit: Disney / Kugali

“It blew up across the world. And also caught Disney’s attention,” Adeola says. “It was somewhat surreal.” Ibrahim chimes in, “I thought they were coming for us when we saw a LinkedIn request from a creative executive at Disney.”

The executive who reached out via LinkedIn was none other than Jennifer Lee, chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios and visionary director behind smash hits like Frozen.  Following successes like Moana and Lilo and Stitch — both films spotlighting leads of color — the studio seemed primed for fresh cultural perspectives. And with the Pan-African sci-fi animated anthology series Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire greenlit, Disney appeared receptive to a concept centered on a young African girl.

Iwájú unfolds in a sci-fi future vision of Lagos, Nigeria. It follows the curious Tola, a headstrong 10-year-old girl hailing from affluent Lagos Island and her best friend Kole (Siji Soetan), a resourceful self-taught tech wizard who lives on the mainland. Joining them on their adventure is Tola’s pet lizard Otin (Weruche Opia), a prototype protection bot invented by Tola’s father Tunde (Dayo Okeniyi). 

“We pitched three stories, but we actually worked with Disney’s own development team who helped train us,” Olowofoyeku explains. “We literally went through the exact same pitching process that someone in-house at Disney would have gone through.”

“Kugali conceptualized Iwájú ,” Adeola continues, “and Disney helped develop it. Once Iwájú became a fully fleshed idea, Disney officially picked it up.” 

Iwájú‘s commentary on the economic disparities in Lagos is surprisingly candid. 

Credit: Disney / Kugali

True to life, Lagos Island is an affluent area connected to the bustling mainland, which is home to a large blue-collar workforce. The team was inspired by Lagos’ real world geography in this futuristic fantasy story. “Even in our first look image, you see two characters standing apart,” Olowofoyeku says, “and you see Lagos’ three bridges between them.”

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Visual metaphors reinforce Iwájú’s theme of inequality. As Ibrahim describes, “I wanted to add another dimension to the juxtaposition. That’s why, in the city, the people who live closer to the ground are not as well off as people who can afford things like flying cars, who live high up.” 

This vertical contrast echoes Tola’s personal journey. Sheltered in privilege, Tola floats through life unaware her best friend Kole inhabits a far harsher mainland Lagos reality, grounded by daily struggle. Yet when Tola explores Kole’s world firsthand, disillusioning truths confront her innocence. As her eyes open, Tola starts questioning this accepted reality. Adeola noted Tola’s character embodies this momentum: “Tola is relatively young and has an innocent and aspirational quality to her character, that’s a huge reason why she’s the vehicle through which we explore another theme: challenging the status quo.”

Nigerian culture thrives within Iwájú‘s high-tech future. 

Credit: Disney / Kugali

Iwájú, which loosely translated from Yoruba means “the future,” infuses sci-fi elements into authentic Nigerian daily life. “I think the biggest mall in the world is the traffic in Lagos. You can even buy a pet!” Olowofoyeku explains, “You’re driving, and some guy is running right next to your car, holding a dog. You guys can agree on a price and transact while moving.” This hilarious customer experience inspired one of Tola’s first encounters with aerial merchant drones when she reaches the city. 

Another example of future-casting in present-day Nigeria was the choice to make Otin an agama lizard. “We wanted Tola to have a robot pet. The Agama lizard is ubiquitous in Nigeria,” Olowfoyeku recalls. “I grew up seeing them everywhere.”

Although three Kugali founders collaborated on the original story, Adeloa who is Nigerian but now lives in England, is Iwájú‘s director and screenwriter. At the same time, Ibrahim, originally from Uganda but currently also residing in the UK, is the series’ production designer, and Olowofoyeku, who still lives in Lagos, served as a cultural consultant. 

To bring the vibrant series to life, the Kugali team sourced artists spanning Africa and Europe, including a group from Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, and Nigeria. It operated as a unit with gifted Disney animators and producers who helped shepherd the first-timers through the animation process. This collaboration proved invaluable.

“First of all, everybody at Disney Animation is abnormally nice,” Olowofoyeku describes. “It took me a very long time to realize they were not pretending.” The veteran Disney artists made a deep impression, sharing their expertise built over decades in the industry. 

“Some of their artists have been doing this for 20 years, while some of our artists are in their 20s.” Olowofoyeku continues. “So the experience they have, they are so mind-blowingly good at what they do.” 

Working with Disney VFX supervisor Marlon West was a dream for Kugali.

Hamid Ibrahim, Marlon West, Olufikayo Ziki Adeola, and Tolu Olowofoyekul attend the Gala screening of ‘Iwájú’ at Rich Mix Cinema on Feb. 24 in London.
Credit: Kate Green / Getty Images

For Ibrahim, it was a surreal full-circle moment working on the creation of Iwájú with one of his lifelong heroes: Disney VFX supervisor Marlon West. “Marlon worked on the original Lion King film, which was a huge inspiration to me growing up.” Ibrahim recalls. However, working on a project of this scope, with Disney veterans and Kugali’s worldwide team of neophytes of varying skill levels wasn’t always a walk in the park.

“Collaboration is difficult even within Kugali,” Adeola explains. “That dynamic is multiplied in a collaboration between three different companies: Disney, Cinesite (who shared animation responsibilities with Disney), and Kugali.” 

Navigating cultural, language, time zone differences, and the demands of creating a futuristic African landscape through a Western company also proved problematic. “At one point,I found myself challenging the person whose work inspired me. I really learned a lot,” Ibrahim says. 

The pandemic also posed an unexpected challenge for Disney as COVID-19 necessitated a fully remote collaboration across continents with new partners. However, as a company already accustomed to remote work, Kugali was well-equipped for this shift. 

“The pandemic happening was horrible, but the silver lining was it allowed us to prove ourselves and our way of working,” Ibrahim says. Having built their business on a distributed model spanning Africa, Europe, and the U.S., the tables turned when Kugali was able to provide advice to Disney as they adjusted to virtual production workflows.

“Our experience working remotely on a smaller scale allowed us to prove ourselves,” Adeola points out. “I think Disney came to understand there’s a lot of validity to our way of doing things.” Rather than derailing the landmark collaboration, the challenges strengthened ties between Disney and African talent.

“The heartbeat of my hometown resonates through every scene, and I am thrilled for the world to experience this unique fusion of tradition and futurism.”

Ultimately, Iwájú is a coming-of-age adventure, a vibrant love letter to Lagos, and a bold announcement of African talent to the animation world. 

“Crafting the narrative of Iwájú‘ has been a journey,” Adeola says. “Collaborating with my Kugali co-founders and the visionary artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios has been nothing short of magical. The heartbeat of my hometown resonates through every scene, and I am thrilled for the world to experience this unique fusion of tradition and futurism.”

How to watch: Iwájú is now streaming on Disney+.

Also debuting Feb. 28 on Disney+ is Iwájú”: A Day Ahead, a documentary special filmed across three continents that shares the story of the founders of Kugali.

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