YouTube’s newest hero is a Kenyan girl with academic superpowers

Super Sema, a Kenyan animated superhero series that debuted on YouTube this week, follows the adventures of a 10-year-old girl who lives in a futuristic African world and uses powers fueled by STEAM—science, tech, engineering, the arts, and math—to save her village from a robot villain.

Super Sema is one of nine shows that YouTube announced last month would join its Originals roster as part of a $100 million plan to invest in the future of kids’, family and educational programming.

“I think from the beginning we’ve always thought of the future of education technology to be a full STEAM-based education,” Vanessa Ford, the COO of Kukua, the Nairobi-based company behind Super Sema, tells Quartz. “It’s not just science, technology, engineering, and math, but it’s also the art component, and it’s not as accessible to everyone yet.”

Integrating STEM with the arts

Today, there are calls for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts to be integrated with the arts, giving us STEAM curricula. STEM focuses on scientific concepts, while STEAM investigates these concepts through methods used in the creative process. As a production of an edutainment company that started with apps to teach children to read and write, Super Sema was inclined to take the STEAM approach.

An African hero.

In the show, the titular character Sema and her twin brother use their ingenuity to code apps, create energy from waste, and develop virtual worlds, among other things. The producers hope that by watching Super Sema, children will not just learn about science, tech, engineering, the arts, and mathematics, but get inspired to take what they learn into the real world.

“It’s an evermore tech future and these are the skills that the kids need,” says Lucrezia Bisignani, the CEO of Kukua, which means “to grow” in Swahili. Kukua’s team, which has an all-female leadership, is spread out in Kenya, Italy and the US. Last week, the company announced that Kenyan-Mexican actress and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o had partnered with them to become a shareholder in the company, serve as an executive producer of Super Sema, and voice a major character in a two-part episode.

Apart from STEAM skills, each Super Sema episode teaches a value that is important and relevant to children anywhere in the world, including grit, resilience, determination, and love for people and the environment.

“We also loved the idea of a superhero who finally had the real powers,” Bisignani said. “If Sema flies it’s because she’s built a drone that she can fly on, and that’s how these skills become actual super powers for our protagonist of the show.”

The scarcity of African animations

While the new acquisitions highlight YouTube’s intent to expand its audience for children and families globally, using diverse characters, they also help remove some of the scarcity of African animations on global platforms. In 2019, African animation got a boost when Netflix picked up its first original animated series from the continent, Mama K’s Team 4, produced by South Africa-based Triggerfish Animation Studios and UK-based CAKE. And last year, Disney announced a partnership with the pan-African entertainment company Kugali to create an animated series called Iwájú.

“We have grown up with a lot of content that is based somewhere else and every time you watch something you read something you kind of have to put yourself in that place,” says Clara Njeru, Kukua’s chief product officer and the head of production for Super Sema.

“We want stories to be coming from here to the other world,” she adds, “not have it the other way.”

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