Renowned comedian Emeka Erem, popularly known as Ajebo, has set his sights on a grand venture that goes beyond the realm of stand-up comedy.
The mastermind behind the beloved ‘Tegwolo’ Warri-boy comic cartoon character is gearing up to revolutionize Africa’s entertainment scene by announcing plans to build a colossal theme park, drawing inspiration from the magic of Disney.
While Ajebo has been a fixture in the entertainment industry for years, his latest endeavor signals a bold leap into uncharted territories. In an exclusive interview with IFEOMA ONONYE of New Telegraph Newspaper, the comedian shared his vision of creating a mega theme park that promises to be a game-changer for the continent.
Producing cartoon or Animation in Nigeria is capital-intensive and less financially rewarding. How have you been able to sustain it? How do you break even?
I started House of Ajebo in 2013. I broke even in 2021. So, for those years, I was just making the skits for the love of it. The day I have money, I will make and post. It trended about a year after I posted the first video. It was after the lockdown that it started to pick up. I had even started giving up on it. I didn’t have the money to do it. After the lockdown, it was like this is the only thing I can do from home.
There were no shows. And then, we started afresh and we became very consistent. In one year, between 2020 and 2021, we moved from 120, 000 subscribers to one million subscribers. Meanwhile, I had been doing it since 2013. As a matter of fact, my first Tegwolo skit was in 2016 but it was not consistent.
How did you manage to pull the ‘Teg- wolo’ character even though you are not from Warri?
A lot of people see me and commend my pidgin English. You know how comedy became popular when everybody wanted to centre their comedy around Warri. Everybody wanted to speak Warri Pidgin. But first of all, Tegwolo is my story. I was stubborn as a child. I was a prayer point for my mother. I was a third child but I was that child that anything I watched on TV, I must replicate it. And I liked Jackie Chan a lot.
So, if he kicks somebody’s stomach in a movie, I kick somebody in school in the next day. The fact that I did not jump off as Superman from a building is because I didn’t see a high building to jump off from. I was very stubborn. I was a smart kid but I was stubborn. My knees were always dirty from being punished. I just like to do what I see in movies. So most of the things you see ‘Tegwolo’ do are my personal stories.
But to sell it at the time, it was easier to model it after a Warri character because they were seen as stubborn people. As for his long head, I had a classmate we used to call bicycle seat head. Of course, I exaggerated it in the cartoon.
You achieved a lot without making noise about it. Why are you coming out now?
As somebody who has experienced media and PR, I did not put enough focus on my achievement. I was busy building the ‘Tegwolo Brand but now, we are expanding and we are about to launch something new. It’s like we are going higher.
How many views do you garner and how does it translate to money?
I have a subscriber base of 1.9 million but what converts to money is actually watching the videos, the views. Not just your subscribers , but the views. We do like 6 to 10 million views monthly on House of Ajebo. You can have fewer subscribers but have people who just want to watch and go. What happened was, over the years, we snowballed into a proper animation company.
So, I have a team of animators, who go outside of Nigeria to learn more about it. All I do is make sure that every month, at least four episodes must go up on You- Tube. So, it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of expenses but then, the s h o w m u s t go on. But what has h a p p e n e d now is, that ‘ Te g w o l o ‘ was created as a cartoon brand. It’s a cartoon series but children s t a r t e d latching on it.
So, now, we are saying there is a vacuum s o m e w h e r e . Children do not have enough of African content. Don’t forget, he who pays the piper dictates the tune. If somebody is creating cartoons from abroad, they will do it according to their own mindset, their culture, their biases. Do you know that cartoons have now started adopting modern-day family dynamics? Those foreign dynamics are now being infused in children content.
Like adding same sex couple content?
Like that. I didn’t want to mention it that way. We can either keep quiet or do something. I have three daughters now; 4, 2 years and 8 months. So, I’m actively involved in what they are watching. I’m like, okay, let me create something for this generation that they can grow with that is healthy and is informative.
When we were growing up, the only child star that I remember that time was Benita Okojie. Kids of these days, there is nobody that they can model after. That is where we are coming in. We are saying, and we’re not even trying to be religious. We are singing values, kindness, and happiness. You are beautiful the way you are, giving, respect, and love for family. It is what you expose to these children at this time that they grow up to manifest.
So, it was kind of a push for me to produce something that my children can relate with. And they are my first audience. We are addressing a lot of issues that can dent the destinies of children, using music. And most importantly, it’s coming in Afrobeats.
How did you start creating comic cartoon characters?
I studied Mass Communication for my first and second degrees. From the beginning, I wanted to be a comedian. In my second year, I was already doing stand-up comedy but I wanted to be unique. That was the era when Basketmouth started doing skits. I told myself that I wanted to be able to do this. So, I noted it somewhere that I’m going to crack jokes using animation. In my own time, when everybody wanted to be Papa doctor or Papa lawyer, I said I wanted to be a comedian and I got the support of my parents.
That was the beginning of my journey. While I was still in school, I was also opportune to work up close with AY Makun and I met an animator. That was how we produced our first sets of characters. I was the main character. But then, after a while, we wanted to do something more unique and ‘Tegwolo’ character came in 2016. But right now, where we are expanding to the point where we can be the Disney of Africa. That’s what we’re trying to do.
As an animator, are you restricting yourself to YouTube?
We are not limiting ourselves but for now, we are on YouTube. It is better to do it on YouTube. No pressure. That’s why I said that technology created a disruption. If you had to do it on TV, we probably have to buy airtime and look for sponsors. But with YouTube, we have the platform already. YouTube has about two billion active subscribers.
The advert is already waiting for you. Just get attention on your brand. So, that’s why we are starting with YouTube. When the time is right, you will see our movie. At the right time, with the right partnerships, with the right collaborations, you will see us on other platforms.
Where do you draw inspiration for your skits?
I have always been a creative. I have always loved to tell stories. And basically, with my comedy background, I just wanted everything to be comedy. I resigned from radio in 2016 and became a full-time entrepreneur. So, right now, my children are inspiring me. If you take your eyes away for a second, one advert with adult content might just pop up. So, I have to monitor them all the time.
So, they are my biggest inspiration right now. They are my first audi- ence and I look at them and I say I will give you enough content to keep you going. It’s time we let children be children. That’s my slogan, because we are forcing a ‘Buga’ on our children. These are adult songs with no disrespect to the song.
These are songs that are for adults. Allow them to sing about what children should think about You know, and it’s a very huge vacuum in the entertainment space. Nobody is looking, talking about it. Nobody is looking at it. I was one of the fortunate ones in my time.
Tell us about your fatherhood journey…
So, I think that is something that has changed my life forever. I have three girls. Three adorable daughters. I work from home. So, I am like a stay-at-home dad, so they have access to me all the time. I spend a lot of time with them. They want to be with me at all times. They want to argue when they come to me. Fatherhood has saddled me with a serious responsibility. I don’t exactly go out to a lot of places that I want to go normally. I had very good parents who invested in me.
So, somehow, I have that connection with them right now and I’m intentional about every phase of their growth. I spend a lot of time with them. If they learn a new word, I know. That is how close I am with my girls. I am so close to them and you know they say I’m a great dad.
What’s next for House of Ajebo Right now?
We’re going into the children’s educational learning and entertainment. We have realized that we don’t have a lot of made-in-Nigeria or made-in-Africa content for children when it comes to learning. When we were little, we had Superman, Spider-Man and all that and our children are watching the same thing and they are shaping their mind- set whether we believe it or not. Every cartoon we saw was white guys being superheroes.
So, somehow, it gave us the impression that if we want to be great, we have to want to speak like them. We want our children to be comfortable in their skin, in their accent and learn values as Nigerians. Let them see us and admire us and want to be like us. That’s what. Secondly, we’ve realized that if you go to children’s parties, you hear adult songs. When last did you go to a children’s party and from the beginning to the end, they were playing child-friendly songs?
We are bridging that gap. We have created a library of over 200 songs that you can do a full children’s party for hours and play what children should be listening to. We’ll reveal more as time goes on.
Are the songs on your playlist, all written by you?
Yes, they are all part of the Ajebo collection. After the lockdown, while we were doing Tegwolo, we were creating nursery rhymes and key theme songs. We created those songs after the lock- down but somehow, Tegwolo took over. So, we let Tegwolo play out its time well. Tegwolo showed us that children, African kids and the world is interested in our local content. Look at Wakanda. It’s not our story but the plot is African.
It’s one of the highest-grossing movies of all time Look at Woman King. The world wants to see the African effect. But we who have the story are not doing anything about it. It’s almost like neo- colonialism all over again. So, I always say this; we are out to tell the African story as it should be told.