Meet Kugali – the entertainment company paving the way for a better future through authentic African storytelling…
2022 has been a landmark year for blockbuster African entertainment, with the release of both the historical epic The Woman King and the hotly-anticipated Black Panther sequel, Wakanda Forever. More is on the way in the new year, including the animated series Iwájú, an unprecedented collaboration between Disney and pan-African entertainment studio Kugali.
Unlike The Woman King, Iwájú is more concerned with Africa’s future than its past – and it’ll also be distinct from the Black Panther franchise in how it’s set in Lagos rather than a fictional domain like Wakanda. “We’re interested in reimagining our own narratives and creating the futures that we want to see,” says Kugali CEO Danson Njoka.
“Today, when my niece is watching anything on the TV, that content will predominantly still be white characters. To be able to see a positive representation of ourselves and feel a sense of pride in who we are is one of the things I want to see change.”
Danson grew up in Embu, Kenya, before studying engineering at Boston University in America. “At the time, it was the thing that if you did well academically, you became a doctor, an engineer, maybe a pilot…I like to joke that there was a form you were given with certain boxes,” he laughs.
This period in Danson’s life was accompanied by a number of revelations, including his introduction to the idea of having a racialized identity. “In Kenya, I wasn’t socialised as a Black person, so it was the first time I started to encounter being perceived differently,” he explains. “Someone asked me, ‘Do you wear banana leaves in Kenya?’ and while I laughed it off at the time, I’ve come to realise that it was a tragic reflection of what they thought was happening on the African continent.”
Around the same time, through conversations with his grandmother, Danson also began to learn more about Kenya’s past. He realised that, under capitalism, traditions like hair braiding, painting and dance had largely been lost to time due to their lack of commercial value, and he therefore sought to reconnect with these cultural roots.
“I was already working on a project to document my grandmother’s stories when I came across Kugali who, as it turns out, were very passionate about creating a platform for African storytellers,” he says. “This was a place where I could not only carry on recording the stories of my own people, but also have a significant impact on people like me who didn’t realise that they could pursue creativity as a valid career path.”
“I want the world to know us and I want us to define our own narratives”Danson Njoka, Kugali CEO
Among these people was an artist from Kenya who enrolled on an engineering course but switched to graphic design upon their arrival at university, much to their parents’ initial dismay. Danson and the Kugali team brought them on board when they saw what a talented artist they were, and now they’re helping to work on Iwájú. “This is someone who had to very craftily get into this university program, and now has credits on a world-first collaboration with Disney,” Danson says. “They’re one of the best artists that we have and hopefully one of the very first, so that for me is a truly proud moment.”
Creating an animated series is a lengthy process, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer until we can see what Iwájú has to offer. In the meantime, however, Kugali is still regularly publishing comics, as well as experimenting with augmented reality.
“We were one of the first official lens creators with Snapchat, and we have done several campaigns,” Danson says. “If you go to Wembley Stadium, you can see virtual statues we created of Black British football players on your phone.”
“We also have that in some of our comics,” he adds. “Given how long it can take to produce this content, we want to give people bits of that story they can interact with further by having those characters exist digitally.”
For Danson, the bright futures depicted in Kugali’s comics and cartoons are more than just fiction – they’re a depiction of what the world could become once creators from across the African continent and diaspora come together to share their stories.
“I want the world to know us and I want us to define our own narratives, because that’s where we can start to shift some of the prejudices that still today lead to a very hostile, oppressive world for people of colour,” he says. “The world can be made more colourful, richer, and more exciting. I’m excited to see how the global film and art scene are going to be impacted and changed when we bring our voices, our art and our colours to it.”
By Jamie Morris & Joshua Dixon-Muir