Interview With Leila Janah
1. Leila, could you briefly explain your role and responsibilities within Samasource?
I serve as CEO of Samasource, a non-profit social enterprise which I founded in 2008. My overriding mission is to define and promote Socially Responsible Outsourcing as a fair-trade model for services. Samasource was created as the first marketplace for that kind of service.
My role as CEO is to create the programs that select, screen and train the service providers that give work to socially and economically disadvantaged people in impoverished areas of the world.
At the same time, I work to promote their services to clients in the United States, enabling companies in the US to contribute to economic development by buying services from people in places that need the jobs most.
2. Samasource’s mission to “reduce poverty by connecting women, youth, and other marginalized people to dignified, computer-based work” is quite impressive. Could you explain how the process works? What type of jobs do individuals receive?
Our goal is to empower the world’s untapped talent by giving disenfranchised individuals, from refugees in Kenya to women in rural Pakistan, marketable skills and connecting them to the global marketplace for services.
Our core belief is that work and opportunity are the keys to development. Samasource enables that by generating microwork: tasks that can be completed from any location in the world, as long there’s a computer and internet connection. This kind of remote labor adds up to a real livelihood in many places of the world, where a doing simple tasks can generate as much as 10 times the local average wage.
Our model is simple: first, we screen and select service partners who employ local people to provide services, relying on stringent social impact and quality criteria that verify our partners’ technical abilities and commitment to social responsibility. Next, we provide our partners with service-specific training and prepare them to further train their own staff using live sample projects and web-based tools. Finally, we market our partners’ services to paying clients.
We provide our partners with training in eight services: data entry and digitization, image moderation, video captioning, research assistance, website packages, application testing, content upgrading, and virtual assistance. These make-up some of the most highly marketable jobs available via the internet.
Our contracts primarily come out of Silicon Valley, but we find clients everywhere. We work with companies like Benetech, a non-profit that runs a program called bookshare.org and has hired two of our partners to help reach their goal of digitizing 100,000 books for blind readers, startups like Dolores Labs, and academic institutions such as Stanford University Libraries.
3. How many partner organizations do you work with around the world, and how do you screen them to ensure they are right for Samasource?
Right now, we work with 18 partner organizations in 6 countries: Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Ghana, India and Pakistan.
Most of our partners are existing tech centers, ranging from non-profits with computing infrastructure and locally-owned small businesses, to groups of home based workers that simply have access to computers. We also have a program for Samasource-Incubated partners, who go through a more rigorous training schedule. Currently we’re working with 16 existing organizations, and 2 Samasource-Incubated partners.
We start by identifying and selecting partners that meet our social impact criteria. It’s our goal that a larger portion of the revenue currently generated by outsourcing goes to people living in un-developed regions. We want to make sure that outsourcing dollars flow to poor regions and stay there. In order to achieve that, we only work with locally-owned enterprises in high-poverty regions that are committed to improving the welfare of the people in their communities (see more on Socially Responsible Outsourcing at www.sourceoutpoverty.org). Our partners are located in the poorest regions of the world, where skilled workers face unemployment rates of up to 70 percent.
The second half of our screening is a due diligence process which ensures that service partners meet technical quality and fiscal responsibility thresholds. We do this through interviews, site visits, and reference checks. We also confirm that partners have reliable power, computer and internet access with sufficient bandwidth – an important consideration when working with service providers in Africa and South Asia.
4. Given the potential perception that individuals from less-developed regions may not have the necessary qualifications, have you experienced any hesitancy from organizations to employ the individuals that you support? If so, how have you overcome this?
We put all of our partners through a rigorous training program, including a combination of virtual training and site visits for on the ground training, followed by internal projects that service partners sign up for in preparation for real projects. It’s imperative that we generate real confidence in technical ability before we start marketing services to clients.
Probably the most common hesitation we encounter stems from negative associations with the concept of outsourcing. The word “outsourcing” has a connotation of huge numbers of jobs being lost when large U.S. companies send jobs overseas. That’s not what Samasource does. Our projects are small, between $70,000 and $100,000. We are more akin to fair trade as we try to enable living wages.
Furthermore, according to credible economists, every $1.00 of work sent overseas returns $1.12 of value to the U.S. economy. This is because most of what is outsourced is lower-end work, but work that can only be completed in the US for much higher wages than in other places in the world. By sending low-wage jobs to places that need them the most, US companies are able to capitalize on the wage differential to build up their businesses, invest in R&D, and more efficiently provide better services to consumers.
5. What type of impact has Samasource had thus far, and what does the future hold for the organization?
Samasource has generated over $220,000 in sales for our partners in the past year. We’ve provided technical training to over 500 people and connected them to dignified work. According to Maria Umar, founder of the Samasource-Incubated Women’s Digital League of Pakistan, “[For] me and other women in Pakistan, [Samasource] is our own ray of light, our way of escaping the claustrophobic environment surrounding us.”
This year Samasource was one of only two non-profit organizations to win the Facebook Fund REV. We have developed a Facebook platform that allows applications developers to outsource the testing of their products to trained Samasource partners.
Our goal for the next year is to expand to include 50 new Samasource-Incubated Partner sites in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
6. How can individuals and organizations get involved to support your efforts?
The best way to support Samasource is to give work. Non-profits, socially responsible companies, universities, entrepreneurs, or anyone who needs to outsource data tasks can get more information at www.samasource.org/contribute/givework.php.
Another great way to get involved is to donate to one of our programs, which will receive 100 percent of your gift. We are currently running a Refugee Work program in Dabaab, Kenya, a Youth Work Program in Sub–Saharan Africa, and a Work for Women Program in East Africa and Northern Pakistan. To donate to one of these visit www.samasource.org/contribute.
7. Any additional thoughts?
As the proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Samasource is teaching men to fish. The most powerful way to alleviate poverty is to give work, not aid.