From radio presenting, event compere, comedy, and now movie, with focus on animation, Emeka Erem, aka Ajebo, popular comedian, has proven himself across many creative genres.
In this interview, the comedian, who takes on Tegwolo, a cartoon character that is trending on Youtube with over 1 million subscribers, speaks to Obinna Emelike on the House of Ajebo brand, Tegwolo series, the animation business and his new project debuting on November 1, 2023.
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For those who are meeting you for the first time, who is Emeka Erem?
My name is Emeka Erem, better known as Ajebo. I am a popular comedian and was once a radio presenter.
I started in Enugu when I was at the University of Nigeria Nsukka’s Lion FM. I worked at Rhythm FM, Awka. When I graduated and came back to Lagos, I worked at Naija FM for five years. Somehow, it felt like we are not taking advantage of the media and I just thought this is the time to let the world know what I have been doing.
After COVID, the digital space started to thrive. The character, Tegwolo, after COVID-19 lockdown, boomed a lot. First of all, we hit 1 million subscribers. As I am talking to you now, we are about to hit 2 million subscribers on YouTube. In 2021, we were number one on the top 10 list of Top 10 breakout content creators of the year. In 2022, we are still on the top 10 list. We have won several awards with the Tegwolo series. It won the Humor Award 2021 and 2022. At the Nigerian Comedy Awards put together by Wale Adenuga Productions, we won the Animation Comedy Brand of the Year.
We have been doing great stuff and it is globally recognized. We have audiences across the world because it is YouTube. The Tegwolo series is the most popular cartoon brand in Africa and we are telling the African story. If you watch it, as long as you grew up in Nigeria or in Africa you can relate. It is about a boy growing up on the streets with an African mother. You know how African mothers are with all their rules like not eating in people’s houses. It is about growing up with an African mother and all the mischief that the small boys would do. A lot of people can relate once they watch it, so the whole of Africa accepted it. It is big in Ghana, Sierra Leone, South Africa, the UK, and in the US and there are back-end numbers to show for this.
At House of Ajebo, we are the king of animation comedy in Africa. We decided to talk about it and to show the world. The internet can be very tricky, because it is online, you do not need to come out to show everybody, we do not really blow our trumpets.
A lot of people love Tegwolo and Ajebo but they do not even know that they are the same person. Now, what the Tegwolo brand did for me was, it showed me that children really want to hear the African story because every child can relate. The boy is dressed like a street kid and he speaks pidgin. He is called Tegwolo, Champion of Warri, so he is exporting our culture and we get a lot of feedback from ‘ajebota’ children in the UK, and the US. People say this is the closest touch of home their children have because once their children start to watch it, they start to speak a little pidgin. We want the world to know that House of Ajebo is taking its place in the children’s space right now. We are about to launch a new brand on November 1, 2023. We have taken our place as number one in the animation space in Africa, we want to give something that the next four generations of African children will talk about. We are delving into learning and entertainment.
House of Ajebo is the king of cartoons in Africa, the numbers are there. We do 6 to 10 million views monthly on House of Ajebo, right. We are trying to create a background that will prepare the state for our November 1st launch.
We want people to know, okay this is House of Ajebo, and this is the person that has been doing all these great things.
Animation in Nigeria is capital-intensive, less rewarding. How have you been able to sustain it?
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 became very consistent. In one year, between 2020 and 2021, we moved from 120, 000 subscribers to one million subscribers. Meanwhile, I have been doing it since 2013. My first Tegwolo skit was in 2016, but it was not consistent.
How did you manage to pull the Tegwolo character not being from Warri?
A lot of people praise my pidgin. You know how comedy became popular when everybody wanted to centre their comedy on 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 I must replicate it. I liked Jackie Chan a lot so if he kicks somebody’s stomach in a movie, I kick somebody in school 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 a smart kid but stubborn. My knees were always dirty from being punished. I just like to do what I see in movies. 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 are assumed to be stubborn people. As for his long head, I had a classmate we used to call bicycle seat head. I exaggerated it in the cartoon.
You achieved a lot without making noise about it. Why are you coming out now?
You know, because of social media, any information you post on your page goes out there. As somebody who has experienced media and PR, I did not put enough focus on my achievement. I was building the Tegwolo brand, but now, we are expanding and we are about to launch something new. It is 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. Not just your subscribers, but the views. 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 take Nigeria to the world. All I do is to make sure that every month, at least four episodes must go up on YouTube. So, it is a lot of work, a lot of expenses but the show must go on.
Tegwolo is a cartoon series that was created as a cartoon brand and children started latching on to it. But there is a vacuum somewhere. Children do not have enough 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, and their biases. Do you know that cartoons have now started adopting modern-day family dynamics? Those foreign dynamics are now being infused. We can either keep quiet or do something. I have three daughters now; 4, 2 years and 8 months. So, I am actively involved in what they are watching. I am 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 at that time was Benita Okojie. Kids of these days don’t have anybody they can role model after. That is where we are coming in. We are saying, and we are 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 will manifest when they grow up. 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 is coming in Afrobeats.
How do you create the characters for your cartoon?
I studied Mass Communication for my first and second degrees. 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. I noted somewhere that I am going to crack jokes using animation. That was the beginning of my journey. While I was still in school, I was also opportune to work with AY and I met an animator. That was how we produced our first sets of characters. I was the main character. After a while, we wanted to do something more unique and Tegwolo came in 2016.
Right now, we are expanding to the point where we can be the Disney of Africa. That is what we are trying to do. There are several things that we have put out. We have worked on it.
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. There is no pressure and that is why I said that technology created a disruption. If you had to do it on TV, we probably would have to buy airtime and look for sponsors. But with YouTube, we have the platform already. YouTube has about two billion subscribers. The advert is already waiting for you; just get attention on your brand. That is why we are starting with YouTube. 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 creative. I have always loved to tell stories. I have always loved to tell stories. With my comedy background, I just wanted everything to be comedy. I resigned from radio in 2016 and became a full-time entrepreneur. Right now, my children are inspiring me. If you take your eyes away for a second one advert with adult content might pop up, so I have to monitor them all the time. So, they are my biggest inspiration right now. They are my first audience and I look at them and I say I will give you enough content to keep you going. It’ Is time we let children be children. That is 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. Allowed them to sing about what children should think about and it is a very huge vacuum in the entertainment space. Nobody is talking about it or looking at it. I was one of the fortunate ones in my time because 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. From the beginning, I wanted to be a comedian.
What’s next for House of Ajebo
We are 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. Our children are watching the same thing today and they are shaping their mindset whether we believe it or not. Every cartoon we saw was white guys being superheroes, and somehow he 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 is what we want to do.
Secondly, we have realized that if you go to children’s parties, you hear adult songs and no 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 will reveal more as time goes on.
The songs on your playlist, are they all yours?
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 lockdown but somehow, Tegwolo took over. Tegwolo showed us that children, African kids and the world are interested in our local content. Look at Wakanda, it is not our story. But the plot is African. It is 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 is almost like neocolonialism all over again. So, I always say this, we are out to tell the African story as it should be told.