Lupita Nyong’o was moved to tears the first time she got a look at “Super Sema,” an animated series about a 10-year-old Kenyan girl with superpowers.
The Oscar-winning actor not only joined the voice cast of the series, which bows today on the YouTube Originals platform in conjunction with International Women’s Day, she also became an equity partner in its female-led, Nairobi-based production company Kukua.
“I am grateful that these women are helping to eradicate the scarcity of Black female protagonists in television and am honored to work alongside them,” Nyong’o told Variety.
“How apt,” she adds of the decision to unveil “Super Sema” on the day set aside to mark the accomplishments of women around the world.
“Super Sema’s” adventures will be designed to impact lessons to viewers on science, math, engineering, art and technology themes, in keeping with the STEAM education movement that is a particular focus for girls and young women. The series is produced in English with the goal of appealing to a global audience, including the U.S. Beyond YouTube, Kukua is lining up local TV partners for “Super Sema” in multiple African nations.
Kukua, which means to grow in Swahili, itself reflects the increasingly global village of content production and distribution. The company was founded in 2015 by Lucrezia Bisignani, a native of Italy and former actor who serves as CEO. Vanessa Ford, an alum of Weinstein Co.’s London office, is chief operating officer. The company’s ambitious plan to build an education-centered content firm is backed by venture capital funding from Echo VC, Firstminute Capital and Burda Principal Investments.
“I share Kukua’s goal to empower children through inspiring stories that feature characters in which the children see themselves reflected,” Nyong’o says. Her emotional reaction to “Super Sema” made her realize “how starved we have been as Africans for kid programming that centers us.”
As a co-star of Disney’s “Black Panther” franchise, Nyong’o knows all too well the value of representation in a world ever more dominated by screen time.
“Kukua has done an incredible job of creating an authentic animated world that appeals to the sophisticated, global audience of our times,” she says. The educational mission of “Super Sema” is important, and so is “the chance to celebrate an African superhero and viewpoint.”
Bisignani saw the opportunity for an Africa-focused media company after spending time and traveling around the continent. She moved to Nairobi in 2018. Ford, meanwhile, is based in Portugal. Kukua also has a few staffers in Los Angeles and Italy. Production and vocal work on “Super Sema” was done at Kukua studios in Nairobi, which is a point of pride for the company as it aims to help train local producers and talent.
“This is an entrepreneurial, thriving, super-creative continent and the content that is coming out if it is telling a very different story that the story of Africa we’ve heard in the past,” she says.
Bisignani notes that global demographic trends reinforce her optimism. Africa’s urban population is projected to nearly triple to 1.34 billion by 2050, with two out of every five children being born on the continent by the same year.
“The market is completely underserved,” Bisignani says. “We believe the future of education technology is consumer products led and empowered by entertainment.”
Kukua is in talks with consumer products partners. The company also has developed educational curriculum to accompany “Super Sema” episodes.
Bisignani has ambition to expand “into live experiences and all the way to theme parks,” she says.
Kukua started out crafting educational apps designed for African children. But there is no question that the reach and influence of television is greater and the need for high-quality content is high. Like other African nations, Kenya has seen its media marketplace explode over the past decade along with the penetration of smartphones and other digital devices. Storytelling is crucial to empowering the next generation of African children.
“If you’re a woman of color, to be part of something that tells women and girls that they are enough, that they have the power to be leaders — that is why I resonated with the mission of Kukua so deeply,” Ford says.
Another pillar of Kukua’s work is to present a hopeful vision of the future and a positive narrative of African life in the present day.
“It is our dream from a company perspective that this next generation can take for granted that they will see themselves reflected on the screen,” Ford says.
Nyong’o agrees and is eager to see Kukua help grow the country’s profile as a producer of content through the global reach of YouTube.
“The world has become more instantly connected, and Kenya is no exception,” she says. “In the past we have had a more advanced pallet for entertainment than the capacity of our local industry could produce, but now, with access to the digital world and the conveniences of technology, our creative and technical capacities have caught up to our tastes. As a Kenyan, I could not be prouder of ‘Super Sema’s’ introduction to the world and the opportunities that Kukua provides for our local creative community to produce entertainment that reflects our culture.”
Nyong’o also hopes the rise of Kukua and other African-based media companies will change outdated perceptions in Hollywood about the Africa’s potential as an entertainment marketplace. CAA, which represents the actor, negotiated her deal with Kukua.
“There has been historically a stubborn ignorance and underestimation of the African entertainment market. But that is drastically changing,” she says. “There is a lot more of an opening for a symbiotic exchange than there has been in the past. The more African stories we tell, the more emboldened we as Africans get, and the more global curiosity we create and serve.”