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Nigerian Animators Look to Put African Brand on World Stage

When Adamu Waziri was in London late last year, overseeing the logistics for the first shipment of plush dolls based on his animated series “Bino & Fino,” he was determined to make sure things went off without a hitch. The holiday season was just weeks away, and the Nigerian animator had already learned about supply-chain perils first-hand. Recalling his struggles when the series launched in 2011, he let out an exasperated sigh. “It nearly killed us a few years ago,” he says.

That year, Waziri began selling DVDs of “Bino & Fino,” an educational series in the mold of “Dora the Explorer,” on his e-commerce site. But he didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to ship orders across Nigeria, a vast country with poor roads and an unreliable postal system. The effort almost bankrupted the company.

The experience highlighted the challenges facing Waziri and his team of self-taught animators, the creators of a cartoon that’s produced entirely in Nigeria but perhaps better known in Germany, Sweden, Japan and the U.S., where young audiences watch the DVDs and stream the series. The exec remains determined to do “what the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon, Hasbro and Cartoon Network are doing … (and) create our own brands that we can sell to the world.”

A pioneer in the local industry, Waziri’s EVCL animation house is one of a handful of Nigerian studios attempting to develop brands that are, as he puts it, “immediately identifiable as coming from Africa.” The small, energetic community of animators is equally intent on penetrating Africa’s largest market: Nigeria is a country of more than 170 million people, half of them under 18.

“The only way you finance this content is through partnering with brands.”
Michael Akindele

The challenges in Nigeria are daunting. Production costs are high for companies on shoestring budgets, and the studios that are developing IP can generally afford just a handful of full-time animators — enough to create an attractive product, but not necessarily at a breakneck pace.

“In terms of doing a full animated series, it’s something we can do, flawlessly,” says Ola Oyo of Lagos-based Spore-dust Media, which has five in-house animators. “We just need to have additional manpower.”

In order to finance development of its flagship property, animated series “Chicken Core,” Sporedust has been creating mobile games and ads for corporate clients. At EVCL, international DVD sales have provided a steady flow of foreign exchange that the company repatriates back into Nigeria.

But visibility remains a problem in a country with rampant piracy, while pay TV channels are crammed with U.S. imports. Worse, Nigerian broadcasters expect content creators to pay for airtime — an expensive proposition. Waziri notes that one reason his characters are virtually unknown in their home country is that they’ve never appeared on local networks. (Episodes of the show can be downloaded from the company’s website; some 20,000 DVDs have been sold worldwide, while YouTube views have hit roughly half a million.)

“The only way you finance this kind of content is by partnering with brands,” says Michael Akindele, producer of the animated series “The O Twins.”

Akindele forged partnerships with leading local brands including Indomie instant noodles, First Bank of Nigeria and Sweet Kiwi frozen yogurt to finance production of the show’s first season. That leverage allowed him to negotiate deals with free-to-air and pay TV networks in Nigeria and across Africa.

Akindele also recognized a strength of the local industry: After exploring the cost of foreign animators, he realized he could slash his budget by more than 80% by utilizing Nigerian talent.

Being able to provide first-class animation at a premium has helped other countries, such as India, South Korea and the Philippines, to develop their own industries. Still, Waziri stresses that he wants foreign producers to look at Nigeria as a producer of intellectual property rather than as a cheap source of labor.

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