Microwork, macro gains

Meeting Leila Janah you might assume many things. With a movie star smile, an easy eloquence and a degree from Harvard, you might expect her to have chosen a glamorous career: a lawyer, a media mogul, or perhaps a celebrity surgeon. But Leila is doing something far less chic and also far more exciting—she is providing paid work to some of the world’s poorest people via the internet.

How is this possible? Leila’s non-profit company, Samasource, outsources simple but time-consuming tasks to people living in some of the poorest areas on the planet. These tasks—things like data capture and verification—are straightforward enough that any literate person can perform them.

The idea of exporting your admin functions to lower-income countries is hardly original. The business process outsourcing (BPO) industry is worth tens of billions of dollars and employs millions of people in countries like India, the Philippines and Kenya.

But the traditional BPO industry is all about scale and concentration—big companies employing large numbers of people in urban areas. How is that of any use to the world’s poorest people, living scattered across the globe in far-flung rural areas?

When she founded Samasource, Leila had three brilliant insights. Firstly, millions of rural poor are not only literate but also in desperate need of steady work rather than pride-sapping handouts.

Secondly, rather than relying on scale or concentration, she realised that large BPO tasks could be divided into many small pieces of work—dubbed “microwork”—creating a kind of digital production line where workers could add value (and earn wages) right from the first task.

Thirdly, and perhaps most brilliantly, she realised that this microwork could be parcelled out to small, independent pockets of workers via the internet, making their location largely irrelevant. This meant that millions of desperate people were only an internet connection away from a sustainable and dignified livelihood.

That’s the catch, right? What rural village has an internet cafe, let alone one with broadband? Samasource is way ahead of you. It provides the know-how that allows local entrepreneurs to set up tiny internet access centres, using cheap equipment, small satellite receivers and solar panels where there is no power grid.

It also makes clever use of spare computing capacity. Local universities, for instance, often have computer centres that are idle during the evenings—the perfect venue for a microwork crew.

The hard numbers
If this sounds like some impractical NGO wet dream, take a look at the hard numbers. Samasource currently provides microwork to more than 800 people around the globe and has made well over $1-million in revenue (85% of which went to the workers). Not bad for a two-year-old company.

As far as Leila is concerned, this is merely the start. Speaking at the Tech4Africa conference last week, she hinted at plans to scale the organisation up to many hundreds of times its current size.

But how much can you really make from data capture? Samasource’s minimum wage is $1 per hour, which sounds like peanuts until you realise that most of its workers used to live on $3 per day or less. Some tasks can earn workers as much as $10 per hour once they have gained the necessary experience.

What’s more, Samasource’s non-profit approach and ethical backing ensures that its centres do not become yet more Third World sweatshops. They source work from ethical companies willing to pay fair value for important work.

And “ethical” doesn’t mean “charitable”. Samasource’s work is of the highest quality. Its customers have called the output “virtually pristine”. As Leila points out, the people doing this work care deeply about doing it well, and it shows in their results.

So, are the world’s three billion poor suddenly going to be saved by the internet? Unlikely. But as long as enough people like Leila are willing to try, there will be less of them to “save” each year.

If you’re still sceptical, just ask the Somalis living in Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Kenya who can now afford to eat thanks to Samasource. It may not be why we invented the internet, but it damn well should be.



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