SIMA: a culturally relevant mobile game that empowers children to auto-master literacy & numeracy while improving psychosocial well-being.



SIMA is a smartphone and tablet game designed specifically for Syrian refugees that takes children aged 5-10 on a magical adventure and empowers them to learn how to read and write while improving their psychosocial well-being.

SIMA is designed according to 3 key principles (illustrated here):

  1. Based on a rigorous learning path, designed specifically for children from disadvantaged backgrounds: built from scratch based on decades of on-the-ground research on literacy training in developing countries, the latest neuroscience regarding literacy acquisition and years of primary school teaching experience, SIMA’s curriculum is an innovation in and of itself.

  1. Game-based learning for a highly engaging educational experience: SIMA is an adventure game inspired by some of the best games in this space - from Super Mario  Donkey Kong and Angry Birds - paired with Disney-style narrative to bring magic to learning and create an intrinsically rewarding experience.

  1. Culturally-relevant content anchored in local storytelling, myth and folklore: our narrative, characters, music, landscapes, voices and educational content resonate with local learners, making it easier and more compelling for them to learn.

Behind SIMA is a diverse team of mission-driven entrepreneurs, game designers, cognitive psychologists and educational experts who are based across the Middle East, Europe and the USA. We designed SIMA with a user-centered approach, with the input from hundreds of target users in Lebanon and across urban slums and rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

What are the key outcomes and impact of your solution?

The key impact and outcomes of SIMA will be:

  1. Literacy gains: Increased reading and writing skills

  2. Psychosocial well-being improvement: cognitive, emotional, social, physical well-being.

Five Proposed Evaluation Metrics

Our impact Value Chain Model is based on Weiss and Wholey and best practice impact evaluation techniques such as IRIS. The chain is as follows: input-activity-output-outcome-impact.


  • Expenditure: Measured in Dollars using Company Data
  • Distribution of SIMA: Measured in numbers using company and partner data
  • Users on System: Measured in numbers using backend data feed from app
  • Individual progression on system:  measured by database using backend data feed from app
  • Literacy gains & Pyschosocial well-being improvement:  measured by database and survey data using assessment data from SIMA; Psychosocial well-being tests


Tracking Literacy gains directly on SIMA

SIMA offers both formative and summative assessment. In the formative area, we are able to detect each user’s errors and address them with further practice. In summative mode –just like the widely-used Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) – our assessment methodology in reading focuses on speed since speed is essential to comprehension. Each world in SIMA includes a measurement algorithm that assesses letters recognized per minute and later small chunks and words recognized per minute. These assessments are baked into the final level of each world, which learners must complete before progressing to the next. In addition to tracking the speed at which each learner is reading, we’re able to make predictive assessments of reading skill tagged to the EGRA metrics.

Our assessment on the platform allows us to view data either in aggregate or, if consented, at individual level, making it easy to demonstrate quantifiable impact as well as provide a globally-recognized means for evaluation e.g. for future teachers or therapists.  

What actions do you propose to realize your stated goals?

Moving forward, we plan to:

  • Pilot SIMA in self-organized groups to evaluate educational outcome. We are currently running a pilot with our partner organization Humanwire in the Beqqa Valley in Lebanon with children from informal settlements. The Humanwire center provides hardware and facilitates sessions for 30 children to use SIMA 3 times a week for 1 hour. The learnings of the pilot will be used to replicate this model with more children and other partner organizations.

  • Create a “light” consumer-friendly version of SIMA for early distribution. To prototype B2C distribution, we will build a light version of SEMA for the Android store, and distribute it in refugee communities through word of mouth and referral programs targeting parents who have a smartphone.

  • Expand our partner network to distribute SIMA. We will grow our partner network from local and global aid organizations, foundations and other literacy training partners and educational institutions to distribute SIMA in refugee camps.

Describe how the solution will be adapted for, distributed to, and adopted by the intended end user / target population.

We are currently exploring two parallel avenues for distribution: traditional channels through partners and direct-to-consumer channels.

On the partner side, we plan to grow our existing partner network – hardware providers, education programs in refugee camps, local aid organizations, global aid organizations, and foundations to distribute SIMA to Syrian refugee children. We imagine our partner organizations using SIMA as a literacy training resource in addition or complement to their educational programs. We’re currently prototyping this model with Humanwire and have another pilot starting in the next month with Naiim (who are currently experimenting in a refugee camp in Jordan).

In parallel, we are also currently prototyping distributing SIMA directly to consumers (smartphone-owning parents). While this model doesn’t yet have any good precedents in the early education space, our field work gave us unique insight into the behaviors of target parents around which we’ll build our marketing and distribution strategy. Key partners here will include wifi providers as well as network providers. We have already identified a number of key considerations for this distribution channel:

  • Start by building strong feedback loops into product from usage

  • Build a community of ambassadors and influencers, “Star Parents,” with whom we communicate on a weekly basis, and work with them to bring credibility to SIMA in their community and within target educational programs.

  • Leverage existing habits to communicate with parents (WhatsApp) and help engage them in their child’s learning experience

What actions you will take to address any economic, political and cultural challenges that may need to be overcome for success. 

To solve for the cultural gap between most educational apps and our target users, we adopted a Human centred Design Approach to build SIMA, which allowed us to tailor our App and every feature on it, to our users’ needs and culture. SIMA is inspired by local culture, myth and folklore, our narrative, characters, music, landscapes, voices and educational content resonates with local learners, making it easier and more compelling for them to learn.

SIMA can be used within formal and informal contexts. Parents will be able to download the game on their smartphones and allow children to play and learn for some time each day. Educational programs will also be able to download SIMA on tablets and allow children to use it in their programs. 

Who will take these actions?

Key stakeholders include:

  • Team Kukua - our global team based across the Middle East, Europe and the USA who will continue to build SIMA as well as grow our network of key partners on the ground to pilot SIMA and distribute it.

  • Parents of target children and any parent association or group - they ultimately hold the keys to their children playing with SIMA on their smartphone. They’ll have to download SIMA and facilitate use for their children.

  • Hardware partners - to provide the tablets and phones needed to supply educational centers with pre-loaded hardware.

  • Educational partners - to implement and facilitate programs for children to meet 3 or 4 times a week to learn and play on SIMA.

  • Telco companies - to provide reliable data coverage for users to access key supplemental features and for usage data to be regularly uploaded.

  • And of course, children themselves - who’ll be the ones using SIMA

Target geography

We will initially target two refugee camps – one in Lebanon and one in Jordan, where we have existing partners – to finalize our B2B and B2C prototype, get the educational outcome and engagement data we need to demonstrate efficacy and prototype our distribution plans. Only after we’ve successfully engaged those two communities will we branch out beyond those geographies. We hope to distribute SIMA across the middle east, first in refugee camps in and then in school and afterschool programs for young children. If all goes well, we expect to distribute SIMA in refugee communities throughout Turkey and Europe by the year 2018.[10:52]  Beyond that, we are already distributing SEMA, our English and Swahili version of SIMA designed for the African market in Kenya and Rwanda.

What do you expect are the costs associated with piloting and implementing the solution, and what is your business model?

We are currently exploring a number of different options here and working with local partners to learn from what’s working well in this space now. As we distribute the game to institutional partners, we plan on developing a B2B license model for organizations of any size to be able to access SIMA.

On the consumer side, our lead option would be around the tried and tested in-game purchases, built around micropayments throughout game. This would allow us to ensure every child had access to the core learning experience while also allowing those who wanted to, to engage deeper into the game with bonus content and personalised rewards. These would allow us to subsidize the game’s development for everyone. We’ve already seen a solid precedent for refugees to pay microsums such as €2 for a haircut or a hot shower, and up to €5 for street food, and believe this same behavior could apply to education, as it has with low cost educational models across Africa.

Our estimated budget for this is €45,000, which will primarily be used to grow our partner network and pilot a launch and marketing strategy in one location, covering anticipated costs such as those outlined below. 

a) the prototype / piloting phase (typically 6-12 months) and

SIMA’s Beta Version has already been developed. In addition to the costs of the distribution and business model pilot – €45,000 – we expect some additional costs around supplemental Beta testing of SIMA to demonstrate educational outcome. Specifically, we plan to run a randomized controlled trial in one camp with our partner Naiim. We expect this trial to cost €15,000.

b) the implementation phase (typically 2-5 years).

The cost our our implementation phase will vary greatly depending on the business and distribution model we choose – something we’ll only know after we’ve been able to prototype both the B2B and the B2C model to see which ones yields more users.

SIMA was developed as an open source software by Kukua, which is a B-Corp.

In addition to prototyping our business model on both the B2B and B2C side, we will apply for grant funding over the next 6 months to run our randomized controlled trials. We plan to raise impact capital in 6 months, once we have robust data on educational outcome and engagement and validated early assumptions on our business model.

Sustainability will come from our business and distribution model.

SIMA’s content is easily and cheaply scalable to other cultures and environments. We believe the costs to replicate SIMA to other languages or cultures to be:

  • Music, Voice, Audio: €8,510

  • Edu Content and Curriculum Development: €8,000

  • Storytelling Development: €2,300

  • Graphic evolutions (if needed): €20,000-35,000

To test this, we developed SEMA, SIMA’s equivalent in English and Swahili, in the context of the Global Learning XPRIZE.  It took us only 6 months to build SEMA, proving that it’s possible to adapt SIMA in any other language.


  1. 6-months educational outcome study.  In partnership with a leading authority on literacy training in developing nations, we will develop a randomized controlled trial  to demonstrate literacy gains from SIMA.

  2. Creation and early distribution of a “light” consumer-friendly version of SEMA. To prototype B2C distribution, we will build a light version of SIMA in the next 3 months for the Android store, and distribute it in refugee communities through word of mouth and referral programs.

3. Over the next year, we plan to expand our partner network to distribute SIMA across all Refugee Camps. We will grow our partner network  to local aid organizations, global aid organizations, foundations and other literacy training partners and educational institutions to distribute SIMA to Syrian refugees.

Related solutions


  1. Smartphone Schools: app and network of online mentors prepare Syrian refugee youth to re-enter formal education .

  2. #LearnSyria: autonomous K-12 tablet learning for displaced and refugee children &  Team Rumie (already a partner): Send offline-usable tablets containing a full curriculum designed for autonomous use

  3. Education delivered straight to your mobile phone: Giving refugee students access to academic content via even the most basic mobile phone BBB is a one-stop online exchange of vetted educational content

  4. School in an app: Immersive education through innovative mobile gaming: A new immersive mobile gaming approach to STEM education for refugees

Refugee Hub / Providing displaced youth education wherever they are via mobile phone.


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Solution Summary
App to teach reading, writing and improve psychosocial well-being of children
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By:  Kukua
Challenge: Learn: Refugee Education
How can we improve learning outcomes for refugee and displaced young people under 24?