Can micro-tasks for the world's poor help lift people out of poverty?

Samasource, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, connects people in some of the world's most impoverished corners with computer work meant to lift them out of poverty.

Samasource, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, connects people in some of the world's most impoverished corners with computer work meant to lift them out of poverty. Launched in 2008, Samasource sends micro-tasks from well-known businesses to people who live on just a few dollars a day.

I spoke last week with Samasource founder and CEO Leila Janah to find out this means for the future of outsourcing.

Talk about the Samasource mission.

We take data contracts from companies like Google and LinkedIn and Ask.com. We have technology systems that break down that work into micro-tasks that anybody who has a bit of training and access to a computer and the Internet can do. We farm out those micro-tasks to some of the poorest people in the world -- in parts of Kenya and India and Haiti, in Pakistan and Uganda. The people who do the work are working from local partner centers. These are partner organizations, about 50 percent nonprofit and 50 percent for-profit, that all have in common a social mission. They maintain computers and Internet access. The partners allow us to add more workers without adding a lot of administrative overhead. We have 16 partners and we've dispersed more than $600,000 to workers.

Our mission is to eliminate poverty. To do that effectively, poor people need to directly increase their income in a measurable way -- not through the trickle-down effect. In parallel, we need to build up the capacity of small-scale entrepreneurs who can start up businesses and get the wheels of the economy turning. The biggest impediment to economic growth in poor countries is that the bottom layer of entrepreneurs -- those who own mom and pop shops and corner stores -- needs to get plugged more directly into the global economy

Samasource takes lower level entrepreneurs and gives them access to a business model that plugs them directly into the supply chains of large technology enterprises in the U.S. and Europe. That facilitates a direct flow of wealth from rich countries to poor countries, but in reward for work as opposed to handouts. That happened previously, but through many, many layers of middlemen. We've facilitated a direct engagement between a small-scale entrepreneur in a place like Kenya and a company like LinkedIn.

Who are the workers?

There's a young man in Kenya named Steve Muthee who I met in 2008. He'd graduated from college in Kenya, but the country had high unemployment. He decided to become an entrepreneur. He took out a loan, got four computers and started digitizing old court records. He hired university students. They were using the money to fund their education. When I met Steve, he had these four computers in a tiny corner of the central business district in Nairobi. It was a really decrepit space. Steve said, If you could find me the contracts, I could grow this business. I came back here, started Samasource and found our very first contract digitizing books.

Steve has grown his business from four people to more than 50 people in a year and a half. Some of his workers have the most inspiring stories. I met a young guy named Benson who can get a college degree because he spends four hours a day doing this digitization work. Samasource gives people not only work, but this sense of dignity that comes from being part of the new economy. We've helped more than 900 workers like Benson and more than 25 entrepreneurs like Steve.

How much money are people making from Samasource work?

It varies a lot by region. We commit to paying a living wage. We determine our wages through the Fair Wage Guide. Our partners are required to report wages of workers and we make sure they're above that floor. Generally, that's not a problem because this work is so much higher paid than anything they could be doing locally. Artisan craft makers are making 50 cents an hour in many cases. With Samasource they're able to make, at the base level, 70 cents to $1 an hour in parts of India. In parts of Kenya, they're able to make several dollars an hour.

But getting fixated on dollar amounts is problematic. That work would never get done here. It hasn't been done here for a long time. It's just hard to compare. People don't understand what $1 or $2 means in terms of purchasing power where our workers live. We've faced some backlash because there's a perception that we're taking jobs away from America, but it's just not accurate.

How so?

When I buy a fair trade handbag made by artisans in rural India through a job creation program for women, I don't think: I'm outsourcing the production of this handbag to Indian people. I think: I'm providing economic opportunity for someone who is poor. But because of the nature of digital work, there's a perception that it should be going to people in wealthier countries or it is work that is ours as Americans. That perception needs to shift.

We're doing the most basic tasks within the outsourcing space. We're doing the bottom rung of the work that even the big outsourcing firms in India and China and the Philippines don't want to do because the margin is pretty low. This basic task completion is so routine, it doesn't leverage the skill set of a person educated in America. When we think about rebuilding the American economy, the pillars of that growth need to leverage the education level of Americans, which is substantially above the education level of someone in rural India or rural Africa.

How does Samasource use technology?

Our main technology is a web software tool we've built that breaks down data projects into micro-tasks and then allocates those micro-tasks to workers. It allows entrepreneurs like Steve to manage their centers through our technology. Steve is able to pull down tasks for his work team. All the workers at his center log in and do work and Steve can manage the quality on his own. Our managers here in San Francisco do quality assurance on the work once it has been done by his workers. As the workers do tasks, they earn points. The points translate into payments.

We're experimenting with giving workers educational tasks. They do 50 basic data entry tasks, then as a break they'll watch a TED Talk or do a short English-language quiz or do another educational task. Over two years, they could get a good knowledge of a particular subject. It's important to make this rote work more interesting and more beneficial for our workers.

What's next for Samasource?

The big question for us right now is how we take this model to scale -- how we move from the workers we help now to many more workers in the future. Our goal is to hit 10,000 by 2012, which is a really ambitious goal. To do that, we need to figure out how we can replicate the partner models. How do we create more Steves? How do we standardize the business format, so we can adopt lots of them in one place and have them start a center off of the Samasource platform?

This year, we're going to launch a lab in Kenya -- our first experiment at replicating a business like Steve's in our own way. We're doing all sorts of things to reduce the cost of the center. That's going to be our standard business format that we replicate -- almost like a franchise -- across one geography to start.

Photo: Leila Janah

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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