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How an African Animation Studio Brought its Educational Cartoon to a Global Audience

A few years ago, Adamu Waziri had a problem: no one was creating any locally produced animated children's shows in Africa, which led to the region's current urban realities being woefully underrepresented. So he set out to make one.

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As with most kids the world over, Adamu Waziri had grown up watching Disney cartoons. He had one problem, though: whenever Disney would show Africa, it was never the Africa that he knew. It was always singing animals, safari — no sign of people living a normal urban life.

“I don’t know anything about safaris,” says the Nigerian-born Waziri. “I’ve been to one safari in my whole life.”

The noticeable lack of locally produced African cartoon series at the time had already been weighing on Waziri’s mind, and this huge disconnect between TV and reality served as the second push that spurred him to develop his own show: Bino and Fino, an educational animated series that follows the adventures of a pair of middle-class children growing up in urban Africa.

“The concept behind Bino and Fino solidified around maybe 2006, 2007,” he explains. “Back then we didn’t have any cartoons that were locally made here in Nigeria. Most of the cartoons we watched were pretty much imported; there was nothing really showing our side of things.

“That’s the good thing about Bino and Fino — we always try to infuse what we see around us into the series. That’s our selling point, in a sense. Everything from the designs of the buildings and what the characters wear to even the characters’ mannerisms are all based on what we see and hear everyday.”

An Uphill Battle

Waziri already had some of the infrastructure ready to help turn his dream of a modern, educational, and non-safari animated series for children into reality. His company, E-Black Visual Concepts Links (EVCL), had experience in 3D architectural visualization. The decision to focus on an animated series was just the first step in what turned out to be an uphill battle of sorts.

Waziri says that EVCL’s first big challenge was finding the right people to do the job and finding the money to actually pay them to do the job. The animation sector in Africa was quite small at the time, and securing funding was made even harder by animation’s long gestation period.

“It takes about a year or so to produce any content of worth,” he explains. “On top of that, no one’s done it here before at that point in time. No one’s really done a series. Short stuff like commercials, yes, but producing about six hours of content? That’s like three or four movies back to back, so no one’s really done that here at the time.”

There was also the issue of selling the actual product. As Waziri explains on the official Bino and Fino blog, getting a show on TV in Nigeria is a bit of a catch-22: “It’s tough to get sponsorship if you haven’t been on air and have a fanbase that sponsors see, but you can’t get on air without sponsorship to reach an audience!”

The First DVD

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Waziri ended up investing a lot of his own money into EVCL just so the company could start working on Bino and Fino. After over one and a half years, EVCL released the first Bino and Fino DVD in 2012.

The DVD, which contained three seven-minute-long episodes, was met with critical acclaim. Bino and Fino was getting noticed not just in Africa but all around the world. Online coverage from CNN, The Huffington Post, and more introduced EVCL’s precocious characters to a global audience.

“Bino and Fino’s audience is actually bigger outside of Africa for now because we use the internet to get market penetration,” Waziri explains. “We’re not on TV here yet, so our brand is more recognized outside of Africa mainly because of the internet.”

Marketing wasn’t the only aspect of the business that EVCL took online. During the making of the first DVD, EVCL didn’t have access to a central online server or even a local NAS system. All of the information and assets were being ported around in USB sticks.

Today, the EVCL team is spread out across three cities, so using their old process was out of the question. To manage his growing pan-African team, Waziri turned to WORK[etc].

Working on the Cloud

“I’ve always looked for solutions, something that will help us do what we’re doing,” Waziri says. “We went through a number of different software but I didn’t like the modality of use at the time. What I liked about WORK[etc] was that it was cloud-based and its integrated features. It let us do specific things that we needed.”

According to Waziri, EVCL uses WORK[etc] for everything from B2B and B2C sales to support and project management. The biggest use they’ve gotten out of the system so far, though, is in managing the animation team partly virtually.

The main EVCL studio is located in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, with a few remote team members working out of the Lagos and Kenya. As project lead, Waziri uses WORK[etc] to allocate tasks to his animators. The animators, meanwhile, can discuss the project and even participate in creative reviews without leaving the WORK[etc] environment.

“Somebody in Lagos can make a design, upload it, copy everybody in on the discussions, we provide critiques and feedback, and boom — it’s all there in the system,” he explains.

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“WORK[etc] also acts like a knowledge base. When somebody new joins the team, they can go, ‘How did you guys go about designing specific things? What’s the design language?’ and I can just go, ‘Take a look at this discussion thread on WORK[etc]. Read it and you’ll understand.’

“Another scenario is for instance, somebody needs to do a scene,” Waziri continues. “For that they’ll need a character rig, they’ll need a sound file which the voice actor has recorded, and then maybe reference pictures for the scene, etc. We can upload all of these to WORK[etc]. We have one guy in Kenya, actually, so if he needs something from the guys in Lagos, he can simply check if it’s already in WORK[etc].”

The Second DVD

The success of the first Bino and Fino DVD has helped EVCL establish itself as one of the leaders in the African animation sector. Waziri and his team aren’t resting on their laurels, though. He likens the long lead time for an animated series to steering an oil tanker: you have to plan a couple of miles ahead before you execute a turn.

“There’s still a lot of work to do so I can’t rest yet,” he says. “What I can say is that for sure, we made the right decision to attack the sector just because of the benefits it brings. The issue is whether or not you can survive and be sustainable as a business doing it. I wouldn’t say we’re quite there yet, but we’re definitely on that road right now.”

Thanks to the global audience they gathered and new technologies that let them work faster, EVCL has upped the ante for their second DVD release.

Where the first DVD took over 18 months to complete, EVCL is now finishing about an episode a month with a total of over 20 episodes. They are, however, still ruthlessly working to make their processes and workflows even more efficient. Their target? A steady clip of two episodes a month with the same team.

Besides working on the second DVD, EVCL has also started branching out into licensed Bino and Fino merchandise. They are currently working with a couple of UK companies for the manufacturing and logistics of their limited edition Bino and Fino dolls.

Lessons Learned

With one successful DVD under its belt and another coming out this August, it looks like it’s smooth sailing from here on out for EVCL. Waziri, however, acknowledges that the company wouldn’t be where it is now if it weren’t for some hard-earned lessons they learned during the course of the first DVD’s production.

“We had to do DVD one to kind of understand what we need to do for DVD two,” he says. “We were being more like animators and not being more like businessmen. We thought that when we finished everyone was just going to want to watch our show. Not true. You really need to establish your market even before you finish your product.”

It’s the one lesson that Waziri wishes he had known during Bino and Fino’s infancy. The internet and social media played a large part in getting Bino and Fino noticed worldwide, but he feels that there were still a few opportunities that wouldn’t have been missed had EVCL started building its audience early.

“If it clicks, it clicks — no doubt,” says Waziri. “But someone has to see it first before it clicks, and there’s too much noise nowadays. Too many emails, WhatsApp chats, Facebook notifications — for people to stay focused, especially parents which is our demographic, you really need to push hard.”

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