Samasource CEO on bridging the digital divide and creating a global meritocracy

While aid programs in developing countries are ubiquitous, precious few empower the people they’re trying to help on a sustainable, ongoing basis. One that bucks this trend is Samasource, a non-profit based in San Francisco that distributes digital work from large US multinationals in manageable chunks to poor but educated workers in developing countries such as Kenya, Uganda, India, Pakistan and Haiti.

Samasource workers do basic digital work required by US companies that American workers wouldn’t necessarily be willing to do. For example, Google Maps has local business information that changes when a company moves, expands or shut down. Verifying the facts through Samasource can be done with a simple check on the company’s website, a task that may earn a Kenyan worker around 5c. “It’s not a lot of money”, says CEO Leila Janah, “but in a day, a worker could make a few dollars – which is several hundred percent above their existing income level.” With the willingness to work for this comparatively low income, US companies are taking notice. To date, Samasource has received over $1.5 million worth of work from high profile companies such as Google, LinkedIn and Intuit. And the list is growing.

Janah is the driving force and CEO of Samasource, a Harvard graduate who moved to Ghana from Los Angeles at the age of sixteen to teach English to partially sighted high school students. While there, Janah says she discovered a contradiction to the common belief held in much of the developed world – that poor people have a different work ethic.

“The students I worked with seemed more motivated and articulate than kids I knew back home, and they all said how hard it was for them to find work in their home country,” she says. “It made me realise that the majority of the world doesn’t live in a meritocracy: the four billion people who live on less than $3 a day aren’t poor because they lack talent or motivation, but because they lost the birth lottery.”

The Culture of Handouts

Upon her return to Los Angeles, Janah was greeted with multiple boxes worth of handwritten letters from her former students, all asking for some form of financial aid. It made her realize that when people have a formal education and want to use their skills productively, often the chance simply isn’t there. Instead, where there are limited ways to earn money, the best use of time is to ask relatively rich foreigners for handouts – or resort to crime.

To Janah, working on a consulting project at an Indian call centre years later gave her an epiphany. By using the same model of business process outsourcing, she could empower the skilled poor by allowing them to sell their services to richer countries.

At the centre of Samasource is a social goal: while it involves tapping into the bottom of the wealth pyramid, it should be a two way street. Samasource (not coincidentally the word “sama” is a Sanskrit word for “same”) is not just about selling poor people’s skills to richer countries, but also about changing the perception of people who are less fortunate from “less thans” to equals – members of the global economy who are capable of making sellable products and services.

The computer as the new sewing machine

Janah calls it the “digital assembly line”, a digital version of the manufacturing assembly line from the early 20th Century. The problem is physical assembly lines require capital infrastructure: physical equipment to get the products built, and roads and ports to ship them out again. Then there is the issue of economies of scale – to make financial sense, the factories have to get lots of people working in one place. Poor workers in rural areas don’t have access to factories that are only in the larger cities.

The internet removes this problem. It means disintermediation; a large pool of virtual labour that removes the need for a middleman and allows wealth to be distributed directly to the employee. Virtual work can also be done on a per task basis, and it doesn’t need to scale for it to be efficient. Workers can be flexible and work from their own villages or rural areas. In this way, the internet is not just an information superhighway, but a work superhighway.

Samasource takes advantage of latent computer capacity at work centres. Places like university computer labs that aren’t used at night, or existing computer training facilities can be put to good use. Ongoing challenges include how to ensure the quality is consistently good. Janah says they don’t forget that they’re essentially a service company, and so they take care to maintain an accessible QA and account management team in San Francisco who interface with clients. Another challenge is working out where to go next when existing computing resources in local communities are used up – in which case new computers will be provided. But with the cost of computers continuing to fall (the cheapest laptop is now available for $65), technology is working in their favour. Still, funding is required on an ongoing basis – the eternal headache of any non profit and certainly not unique to Samasource.

By even the strictest standards, Janah’s mission of making a difference by empowering poor communities is proving a success. She recounts an anecdote of working for the World Bank at college, when on her first day, she walked into the bank’s headquarters and read their vision statement on the wall that read, “Our dream is a world free of poverty”. On the opposite side of the room, she noticed a staff bulletin board ironically advertising a lunchtime seminar on “how to finance your second home”. For Janah, it is memories like this that have driven her out of her comfort zone into a powerful position where she can redress the disparity of access to opportunity which is at the heart of global poverty.



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