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Culturally-relevant App to teach reading, writing and math to displaced children.

SEMA LAND is a highly engaging and effective app that teaches illiterate children in East Africa basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Photo of Lucrezia Bisignani
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What problem does your innovation solve?

Prolonged displacement exacerbates the illiteracy crisis in Sub Saharan Africa. Refugee children lack access to culturally relevant, engaging and rigorous content. Missing out on effective literacy training, individual practice time and personalized feedback in their native language, results in children requiring remedial interventions when reintegrated in school. Schools serving displaced children already struggle with scarce resources making it hard for them to catch-up with their peers.

Explain your innovation.

Children can access the SEMA learning experience on their parents’ low-cost smartphones as well as on tablets at school or during informal learning programs. The app guides them to follow Sema, an African female super hero, on her quest to defeat the nightrunners, and restore knowledge to her people, the Ashanti. This quest takes Sema, and the rest of the characters, through a suite of challenges and problems to solve, each of which addresses a specific part of the early literacy or numeracy curriculum. SEMA LAND is based on decades of research into literacy training for children by both Dr. Helen Abadzi, the leading expert on literacy training in low-income communities in developing countries, and our partner Agir Pour L’École, a Paris-based research nonprofit who shared their 10+ years of field study research to identify a highly structured and proven path to literacy training. Our learning methodology is also based on the latest neuroscience research, particularly the work of Dr. Stanislas Dehaene. We intend to be sustainable by 2019 through both a combination of B2B partnerships and direct-to-consumer distribution.

Who benefits?

Our beneficiaries are children with low literacy skills between the ages of 5-10 living in low-income communities such as slums and refugee camps. They tend to be out of school or in school but not meeting Early Grade Reading & Math Standards. Their parents have low-cost smartphones. There are two ways to scale SEMA LAND to reach millions of illiterate children: 1) B2B Partnerships - through Government, NGOS, Private Schools, etc. who can provide children who are in school or out of school with hardware (tablets) for children to learn on SEMA LAND. 2) B2C Direct to Consumer - Parents who own cheap smartphones and allow their children to learn on SEMA LAND at home. Our focus is building strong local communities of parents as well as local partnerships with other players in refugee camps. We are able to measure SEMA LAND’s impact and effectiveness based on the children’s scores of Early Grade Reading Assessment baked into every level of the App.

How is your innovation unique?

SEMA LAND is unique because: - Our Human-centered design culture supports working closely with users, families and local communities. We have built SEMA LAND with 500+ users across 5 different countries and will continue to stay as close as we can to them. - A highly structured curriculum built bespoke for low-income learners based on the latest neuroscience of learning and decades of on the ground research. - An engaging educational experience leveraging gaming’s inherent attributes allowing ample practice time and providing personalized feedback. - Relevant content inspired by local culture, myth and folklore to drive curiosity. - Finally, SEMA LAND is powered by a mission oriented team with deep and relevant knowledge. We spent 3 years researching the illiteracy crisis across rural communities, urban slums and refugee camps and have the skills to work with technology, children and literacy programs, testing best practices worldwide in our target market.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

We are experimenting with different ways to distribute our App as well as identifying the best use cases for all our beneficiaries. Questions on this regard include: How does a user find the App? When do they use the App? How can we make sure each user experience meets the needs of the different contexts in which it is used? (in school / out of school / educational programs, refugee camps, after school clubs etc.) Furthermore, we know from other organizations in the region that broad adoption doesn't necessarily lead to sustainable finances. While we're committed to distributing SEMA LAND across SSA we're also keen to find sustainable sources of revenue, and are still exploring how to do that given local market dynamics.

Tell us more about you.

Kukua is a Benefit Corporation incorporated in the US. We are comprised of a dedicated team of mission-driven entrepreneurs, game designers, cognitive psychologists and educational experts divided amongst an executive team, product team, education team and local testing/implementation team. The number of people involved is around 15.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Prolonged displacement

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

Urban Slums and Refugee Camps in Swahili or English speaking countries in Sub Saharan Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa).

Where will your innovation be implemented?

Our innovation will be implemented first in Nairobi, Kenya within the context of urban slums, such as Kibera and Mathare and one refugee Camp in Kenya. SEMA’s content is also easily and cheaply scalable to other cultures and environments. To test this, we also built SEMA LAND in Arabic language for Syrian refugees.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

We have an operational field team in Nairobi and have built a strong on the ground network. We have close ties with 4-5 schools and centres for street children in slum areas. We’re also growing a community of 2,000 early adopters (our so-called “Star Parents”) who have downloaded the App and with whom we communicate through Whatsapp. We are also working with a network of on the ground partners such as UNHCR, Poa!, BRCK and KICD (government) and early conversations with TELCO's.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

Kukua has over 2 years of experience coordinating a local on the ground team in Nairobi leading prototype testing, and implementation. We work with local communities of children, parents and teachers across slum areas, refugee camps and rural areas. We have lead numerous design thinking workshops, events, and other activities with our network of local partners.

Innovation Maturity

  • Existing Prototype or Pilot: I have tested a part of my solution with users and am iterating.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered for-profit company (including social enterprises).

Organization Location

Kukua is a Bcorp registered in the USA. Members of the executive team formally reside between Rome, Nairobi and London.


Website: Pitch Deck: Facebook Page:

How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

Key learnings while running B2C experiments to distribute our App directly to parents in low-income communities were: - Children often use parent’s phones to play games > we created a 13mb version of our App to run on smartphones. - Most parents use WhatsApp > we engaged with them through this channel to gather feedback and start building our community of early adopters. - Data costs to download the App is a barrier > we partnered with Poa! to provide free wifi on our Sema Stations.

Who will implement this Idea?

Team Kukua has a strong local team based in Nairobi comprised of a Field Manager leading product testing and coordinating all on the ground activities and a Community manager who leads design thinking workshops with our “Star Parents” . Our team is growing and to lead our distribution efforts we are looking for a Growth Hacker role to lead the B2C strategy distributing directly to parents and a B2B account manager to expand our network of on the ground distribution partners with schools, government, NGOs and large aid organizations.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

Our average user either started pre-school late, or has been out of school for prolonged periods. This is due to family or financial instability (lack of a consistent income). Support at home is also scarce given most parents are mostly illiterate and cannot assist with homework. Equipping schools with digital quality content is dependent on classroom digitalization ( private and public schools owning hardware). While there are many initiatives we can already leverage, we immagine classroom digitalization at scale to take a few years. While most parents own smartphones and pay for daily data to use Facebook and WhatsApp, and this will increase exponentially in the coming years - many parents still face issues on affordability of phones and data, low connectivity, and power/charging.

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

In the short term, we rely on grants to build and scale the product. In the long term: we are exploring two sources of revenue: 1) Success-based funding - such as social impact bonds leveraging the granularity and frequency of the educational outcome data we have 2)Licensing - The stickiness of our characters and the digital world we have built around SEMA LAND open the door to licensing agreements and product sales based on SEMA LAND. We are already exploring building an animated TV series (inspired by Ubongo in Tanzania and Tinga Tinga Tales in Kenya) to commercialize that value.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

By 2019 we aim to reach children in Kenya through the Goverment tablet initiative (1.2M tablets currently being deployed in private and public schools); large aid organizations targeting 60,000 out of school children living in refugee camps or low income communities; and finally through the fast proliferation of low-cost smartphones in the region partnering with large TELCO’s (potentially reaching millions of parents with smartphones allowing their children to learn on their phones).

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

Our goal is to increase results of Early Reading Grade Standards. In Kenya Early Grade Reading Assessments (EGRA) results are 15 correct words/min by Grade 2. We expect initial EGRA results of children using our App to increase to 30 corrects words/min by the end of Grade 1. SEMA LAND runs offline but any time a device is connected millions of data points automatically upload to our analytics platform, including scores from the EGRA tests which have been built into every level of the App.

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Q4 2017 (Kenya) - Early B2C distribution experiments and partnerships to refine strategy and set KPI’s - Early B2B landscape research and identification of initial distribution partners 2018 (Kenya) - Kickoff B2C & B2B distribution - Monitor and evaluate impact - Data driven product iterations 2019 - Scale distribution model to Tanzania & Rwanda. - Add machine learning/voice recognition element (which we are building) to Sema Land to allow individual reading practice

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Between $100,000 and $500,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • Under 5 paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are seeking registration in order to implement in additional countries.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • More than 2 years

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Business Development / Partnerships Support
  • Business Model Support
  • Program/Service Design


Join the conversation:

Photo of Dave Hughes

Hi Lucrezia, this is a great idea! My name is David Hughes and I am the Project Director for the Bendigo Inventor Awards.

Now in our 7th year, the Bendigo Inventor awards have as our focus inventions that address needs in the Emergency Services and Disaster Management space, and we offer a AUD$10,000 prize for the winning entry. The Bendigo Inventor Awards has also created an environment for inventors to obtain support for their ideas by bringing together a coalition of partners with the knowledge, skills and networks to accelerate the progression of ideas from concept through to commercialisation. Major Program Partners include Engineers Australia who are providing technical feedback, KPMG who are offering advice on commercial viability and the path to commercialisation and Red Cross, who are providing their perspective on the relevance of many inventions to disaster relief efforts. Our judging panel also contains representatives from Emergency Management Victoria, who are able to provide similar feedback on the applicability of inventions to the emergency services.

I believe your idea would be a fantastic entry into the awards. Applying is easy and can be done through our website Simply select the category that your invention applies to – ‘Concept’ or ‘Product and Prototype’, and answer some questions about your invention. All judges are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so your idea is protected. Entries close 5pm Friday 29th September 2017 AEST.

I very much look forward to seeing your invention go on to great success, and hope we are able to assist you in enabling that to happen. If you have any questions at all, please do not hesitate to get in touch on the phone number above, or via my email at

David Hughes
Project Director
Bendigo Inventor Awards

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