African Superhero Sema Aims to Inspire Kids Worldwide
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Super Sema features all the tropes typical of a superhero story—a greedy villain, a futuristic setting, and a do-good warrior who saves the day. But there are a few key differences: The hero is a 10-year-old girl from a village in Africa, and to defeat the robot villain and his minions, she taps into courage and empathy—not superhuman strength—as well as her understanding of science, technology, and the arts.
The series is the creation of Kukua Education Ltd., a startup in Nairobi that aims to build the first media franchise based on an African animated superhero. On YouTube, the 20 episodes plus extras featuring dance instruction, science experiments, and craft-making have garnered 15 million views—“massive, for a new channel,” says Kukua’s founder and chief executive officer, Lucrezia Bisignani. The company expects to close a second round of venture capital financing in July and is working on Season 2, due to start in December.
Kukua, which means “to grow” in Swahili, says its combination of fun and learning can yield an online and offline franchise that appeals to children anywhere. Riding a global wave of interest in Afro-futuristic stories triggered by Disney’s Black Panther, the all-female team of executives has big plans for Sema: toys, costumes, comic books, virtual- and augmented-reality learning experiences, and perhaps even a Semaland theme park. “We want to be the Mickey Mouse of Africa, but with a strong learning component,” says Vanessa Ford, Kukua’s chief operating officer and executive producer.
Hits such as Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Coco have shown Hollywood that stories featuring diverse characters set outside the U.S. or Europe are bankable, triggering a slew of African animated series. Mama K’s Team 4 by Triggerfish Animation Studios in Cape Town, about four teenage girls fighting evil in a futuristic Lusaka, is scheduled to premier next year on Netflix. Walt Disney Co. has at least three such shows in the works, including Kizazi Moto: Generation Fire, a sci-fi fantasy to stream on Disney+ next year. And YouTube Originals, which is backing Super Sema, will release Supa Strikas: Rookie Season, a series about a fictional pan-African soccer team. “The Africa market is so vibrant right now,” says Nadine Zylstra, who oversees family programming at YouTube Originals. “Hearing these pitches from young African talent, there is definitely the feeling that this is the generation that can use these digital tools to share their voice with the world.”
Black Panther was released just as Kukua was developing Super Sema and seeking financing in 2018, and its success convinced investors of the Kenyan series’ international appeal, helping the company raise $2.5 million. Then, as media giants sought to boost the diversity of their storytelling in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Kukua landed its distribution agreement with YouTube. “There was a whole global awakening and new buzz around diverse properties,” Ford says.
Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan-Mexican actor who played Nakia in Black Panther, owns a stake in the company, serves as executive producer of Super Sema, and has brought her star power to the series by providing the voice of the tree that is Sema’s mother figure. The five-minute episodes weave in Kenyan cultural references such as mandazi—a traditional snack of fried dough—and Swahili sayings like Polepole ndio mwendo (“Slowly, slowly wins the day”). In one episode, the robot villain cuts down the forest to build a castle. Sema thwarts him with a drone and a special substance to replant the trees and trap him, showing off her critical thinking and grit while highlighting for young viewers the dangers of deforestation.
Kukua is incorporated in London, but most of its 11 employees are in Nairobi, where it did the voicing, music, and sound work for the first season of Super Sema. At the company’s offices in a townhouse complex in western Nairobi, the walls are plastered with framed Super Sema stills, storyboards, and photographs of notable women of color such as Kamala Harris and Oprah Winfrey. To keep the content topical and educational, the team holds brainstorming sessions with child behavioral experts, parents, teachers, and environmentalists. “The episodes are informed by values that people would like to see in their own children,” says Clara Njeru, Kukua’s chief product officer.
Although Bisignani is White and was raised in Rome, she traveled widely in Africa when she was young as her parents sought to instill a global mindset in their children. She has since visited most countries on the continent and has long been captivated by its energy and entrepreneurial culture. After graduating from university, she realized media and mobile technology could help narrow the educational gap between Europe and Africa and dispel what she says is the flawed view of the region as impoverished, diseased, and corrupt. “It’s this thriving continent with 1.2 billion people, with a billion new kids being born over the next 30 years,” she says. “It’s incredible, and it’s never portrayed.”
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