November 5, 2019
For Amro Abu-Hmaidan, a $100,000 prize award in 2017 enabled him to rethink the way his business created reading content for Arabic-speaking children in the Middle East and beyond.
Hmaidan’s company, Asafeer Education Technologies, was awarded the No Lost Generation (NLG) Tech Summit Prize at the event of the same name in Amman, Jordan. The prize, funded by All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (a partnership of the United States Agency for International Development, World Vision, and the Australian Government), supported the creation of 100 audible, leveled, and illustrated e-books that present engaging STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) topics in Arabic.
A father of two, Hmaidan launched Asafeer in 2015, after his Facebook group on family, education and literacy in the Arab world garnered a quarter-million followers in just a few months. Amro began by creating content as a favor to parents before developing a business model for Asafeer. The now offers children and families free access to reading content, as well as a premium service to schools that includes tracking and analytics, lesson plans, and interactive exercises. The app boasts more than 250,000 active monthly readers, who collectively have read more than two million stories, equating to 250,000 hours of reading.
“After visiting the Azraq camp in Jordan last year, I was surprised to learn that refugee families were already using the app and enjoying it,” Hmaidan says. “Sometimes the impact you have is more than you realize. When you look at just the numbers, you fail to realize there are stories behind those numbers.”
While providing literacy content to out-of-school refugee children was the impetus of the ACR GCD-funded prize, the impact is having a ripple effect for other children in the Middle East and around the world. Asafeer strives to create a habitual love of reading among children across the Middle East, a goal Hmaidan contends is impossible unless children have access to engaging content that sparks their passion and imagination.
“You see a lot of initiatives about staying healthy and fit, but you don’t see enough push toward making reading a habit,” he says. “And if the majority of a region is not reading, then education will not be seen as important.”
Toward engaging content in underserved languages
The challenge is creating both the demand and supply for books in underserved languages, including Arabic. For Amro, the NLG prize funding gave him the freedom to rethink the way he runs his business. Previously, Asafeer would accept content from any author for review, requiring staff to scan more than 1,000 scripts per month. Of those, Asafeer would at most publish three or four.
In that stack of 1,000 scripts, however, was content written by Maria Dadouch, a Syrian woman with a degree in literature from University of California-Los Angeles. Amro saw unique talent in Dadouch, and immediately commissioned her to train other promising authors. More than 20 authors—the majority of whom were women—were trained via Dadouch’s workshops and created the 100 stories for the NLG prize.
“The prize enabled us to think about the problem differently,” Amro says. “Instead of just looking for good people, we created good authors.”
The 100 Adventures in Science & Life ebooks are now available in Arabic and English on the Asafeer app and the Global Digital Library, an initiative of the Global Book Alliance that offers free digital and print-ready books in more than 30 languages—with the goal of offering books in 100 languages by 2020. All books are accessible to children with disabilities and available under creative commons license so other authors can translate the stories or use the images to develop new content.
A key feature of Asafeer’s 100 Adventures project is accessibility, which was integrated into each book at its onset. On the app, every story offers an audio feature, with text read by a carefully-selected set of actors who get into character. In addition to audio, alternate text is another vital accessibility feature, enabling screen reading apps to depict what is in each scene for children with sensory disabilities.
In addition to covering a variety of STEM topics, the books are inclusive and feature many leading female characters, children with disabilities, and people from different countries and cultures. The end of each story also includes infographics with more information about the science content of the story, from the theory of relativity to dung beetles.
“We don’t cover everything, but we aim to get kids interested,” Amro says. “This is why we think these stories are important. Once kids are interested in a topic, they can then go on an exploration journey to understand more about what we produced.”
A future for Asafeer, a model for others
Asafeer’s business model makes available roughly 50 percent of its digital library for free, with the remaining half and additional features like tracking and teaching resources accessible through its premium subscription. Eventually, Amro hopes the premium services will sustain Asafeer enough to make 100 percent of its digital books available for free.
Asafeer is also training more authors. A workshop in the coming months will train new authors on creating content for teens and young adults, adding new talent to its crop of more than 30 authors and 70 illustrators from countries including Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Russia. A carefully-selected group of more than 50 actors also provide voiceover support for the audio recordings of the books, an element Dadouch says has been critical to the project’s success. She’s witnessed firsthand children engaging with stories simply by listening to trained actors dramatize the content via audio.
Asafeer has also expanded their team to create educational animated cartoons focusing on Arabic literacy and are now working on a project to create 1,000 educational videos in the coming year.
“Since I started, I’ve seen a lot of people pushing to improve literacy around the world,” Amro says. “The satisfaction you get from investing in the generation of tomorrow is worthwhile. Any investor worth their money should be investing in education; it’s the most important investment in this region.”
The Asafeer books are among hundreds on the GDL that can be translated or adapted into the more than 30 designated spoken and signed languages eligible for up to $300,000 through ACR GCD’s Begin With Books prize. The competition, which challenges global innovators to create high-quality packages of books for children in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Middle East, is accepting proposals through Nov. 15, 2019.