By Peace Hyde
Nigerian filmmaker and animator Niyi Akinmolayan is using the most creative way to explain the pandemic to young Africans.
Niyi Akinmolayan was home in Lagos, Nigeria, after the state issued a lockdown for businesses and schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought global economies to the brink of destruction. He had his two children, aged five and three, both at home, who did not understand why they could no longer go to school, an activity they thoroughly enjoyed.
“The three-year-old was okay but I needed to explain to my five-year-old why she could not go to school and I found it tough trying to do this. How do you explain to a child that there is a virus when they cannot see it and also how do you tell them to constantly wash their hands?”
Beleaguered with this dilemma, Akinmolayan remembered his passion for animation.
“I started out as an animator in 2003, but it was a small industry then so I moved on to feature films instead and by 2010, I released my first feature film. I’ve gone on to make films over the years including the highest-grossing Nollywood film The Wedding Party 2 as well as a couple of films on Netflix.”
Akinmolayan founded the animation arm of his company, Anthill Studios, where he serves as both CEO and Creative Director, about six years ago. Prior to that time, most people were using animation for advertising and montages for TV shows, however, he wanted to use animation as a new way of telling authentic stories.
Anthill Studios originally sought to fill the void of a dedicated post production company for Nollywood but has, over the years, ventured into everything from content production, music videos and motion design. Due to the lack of investment for animation content in Nollywood, Akinmolayan has focused more on the commercial viability of filmmaking in Nollywood, where he also wears the hat of film director, to cover the bills.
“But last year, we did something that was quite big and went viral and it was an animation called Malaika, which was a 17-minute short film loosely based on Queen Amina and that was what led to this new animation. So, I set up a team where we can tell really creative African stories with animation. Because there is the issue with funding, we only do short experimental projects to test the audiences.”
One of those projects was a short two-minute explainer video about what the coronavirus was, which immediately went viral. The content was mostly targeted at adults and was done in four languages namely English, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo.
“But when it hit me was when the schools locked down. I had to find a way to get the message to my children. It felt like I was doing a lot and it wasn’t sinking in. So I started thinking about it differently and said ‘think about this big virus out there and if it gets mummy and daddy you are not going to see mummy and daddy for a long time; no more chocolate, no more icecream and the only way we can beat this virus is to wash our hands every day’. And it was a joke at the time but I started thinking how else are other parents explaining this to their kids?”
With that Eureka moment, Akinmolayan reached out to all the animators in his company and arranged for them to pick up the workstations in the studio and take them home and begin proving to people the potential of the great work they had been doing in animation for the past six years. They worked remotely for four weeks on the project.
“Initially, we just wanted to make one explainer video so I put it out for free on multiple platforms like Africa Magic, Ebony Life TV and also social media platforms. In 48 hours, we had over 400,000 views. The animation is in four languages and has been made available for people to download and if they want to rework it in any language, they can do it.
“But what it has achieved so far is that it has been shared everywhere including churches and schools and I am proud of it. I have received so much feedback from parents saying that they are running out of soap because their kids cannot stop washing their hands,” he says.
The goal is for other NGOs and government institutions to take up the animation content as part of their coronavirus education strategy for children. He hopes the content will also help parents to engage with their children and explain complex things about the current pandemic.