Three lessons from Ahlan Simsim, Sesame Workshop’s GSMA-funded innovation project

The GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Fund aims to promote innovation in the use of mobile technology to address humanitarian challenges. The second round of the Fund focused on; testing new technical solutions; catalysing ideas to improve or transform institutional systems; and/or to enable solutions to empower, assist or protect individuals and communities affected by complex emergencies and forced displacement. This blog post shares three key lessons from our project with Sesame Workshop on Ahlan Simsim; Optimizing the use of mobile phones in Sesame Workshop’s early childhood development program in the Middle East.

In February 2020, Sesame Workshop launched Ahlan Simsim, a localized version of Sesame Street for broadcast across the Middle East and North Africa with a particular focus on children affected by crisis and displacement. Ahlan Simsim aims to address social-emotional needs of children, while challenging gender assumptions and modeling new paradigms for children’s emotional expression. As part of the Ahlan Simsim initiative, Sesame Workshop received a grant from the GSMA Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Fund to add a mobile-enabled component to their work. Through the development of a suite of mobile-based multimedia content, Sesame Workshop planned to extend the existing Ahlan Simsim initiative, targeting parents and caregivers with regularly distributed content via social media and mobile based platforms. During the grant 25 new, mobile-first pieces of content were produced, specifically aimed at this audience. Across each of the new distribution channels this Ahlan Simsim content was viewed more than 38 million times, by an estimated 8 million unique viewers. Monitoring and evaluation surveys found that having viewed the content over a period of time, 93% of caregivers said they now regularly think about the brain development of the child they care for (up from 73%) and 86% caregivers reported that they regularly talk to their children about stress (up from 67%).


  • Mobile videos are an effective way of reaching connected Syrian caregivers because they meet caregivers’ needs for flexibility in how they view and access video content

95% of caregivers in the evaluation agreed that mobile is the right channel to access Ahlan Simsim videos. Watching and sharing videos via mobile is already common among caregivers in their everyday lives and three-quarters of those included in the evaluation reported watching mobile videos daily. Many caregivers reported seeing their phone as an important tool for raising their children. They spoke regularly about the utility mobile connectivity provides them, from being able to quickly search for information to answer to children’s questions, to their mobile device serving as a platform for educating their children through online courses and videos. As such, mobile-enabled Ahlan Simsim content fits well into existing patterns of phone use.

  • Trusted words spoken by ‘trusted messengers’ improved the effectiveness of the videos in getting important messages across to caregivers and promoting behavior change

Effective information programming is most successful when the viewers’ trust in both the source and the content can be established and maintained. In times when opportunities for face-to-face engagement are limited (exacerbated further by COVID social distancing restrictions), and when there is significant spread of misinformation, Ahlan Simsim wished to understand who caregivers saw as the best and most trustworthy messengers of information regarding their child’s development. Using the GSMA grant funding, Ahlan Simsim were able to test three different ‘trusted messengers’ figures in the form of a doctor, a social worker and a caregiver. Results showed that key attributes of an effective messenger included someone who knows the topic enough to speak about it with clarity, confidence, and ease as well as demonstrating a calm, humble, and patient attitude. Results also showed that the pairing of adult ‘trusted messengers’ with Muppets role-play and acting scenes was key to enhance engagement.

  • Reducing barriers to accessing mobile enabled video content is key since many caregivers are conscious about limiting their data consumption

Cost of data as a barrier to consumption of video content on mobile phones must be taken into account, since many caregivers interviewed said they often try to download or stream video content when on Wi-Fi, even if it is sometimes slower, to avoid paying for mobile data. For the less data-cost conscious, being able to stream Ahlan Simsim videos on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or other video hosting platforms was convenient and made it easy to share the content with family and friends. Paid campaigns (on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram)were particularly successful in increasing the reach of Ahlan Simsim content, helping spread the videos to new audiences. Many also said they liked to share the video files with family and friends over WhatsApp. To reach last-mile caregivers, a content sharing strategy that minimises caregivers’ data costs to a maximum will be key. For more data-cost conscious caregivers, or those without a Wi-Fi connection where they reside, receiving Ahlan Simsim videos in small, compressed files via WhatsApp was ideal, since it limited their data consumption and could be re-watched as often as desired.  

The Future

Sesame Workshop continue to scale the parent and caregiver focused components of their work across a number of their programmes/services. This includes in Iraq, where an award from USAID Iraq will support the development of Ahlan Simsim Iraq, a unique three-year program that will create and deliver educational content for Iraqi children and families and build the resilience of youth, particularly those impacted by conflict and violence.

Opportunities to best leverage partnerships with MNOs are being identified, building on scoping undertaken during the grant process, and on experiences to date partnering with MNOs such as Turkcell, in Turkey. Sesame Workshop and Zain Group have partnered to host Ahlan Simsim on the Zain Kids mobile application which is available to users in 12 MENA countries.

Learn more

Read about these lessons and the project in more depth, and all of the outcomes of our funded project with Sesame Workshop by downloading the full case study. Find out about all of our Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Fund grantees by downloading the Mobile for Humanitarian Innovation Fund Portfolio (2017 – 2022) or by visiting our interactive map, with detailed project information.

This initiative is currently funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), and supported by the GSMA and its members.
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