Samasource: How African refugees are scoring Silicon Valley Internet jobs

leila women.png On a scorching hot June day in northeastern Kenya, an hour west of the Kenyan-Somali border, Leila Chirayath Janah arrived at the Dabaab refugee settlement in an armed convoy. She was there on a mission: to connect jobless, displaced refugees to the rest of the world through legitimate Internet-based jobs. Leila, 27, is the founder of Samasource, a non-profit organization reminiscent of a tech startup that outsources web-based jobs to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty in third world countries. I met her last month in the tiny office space she rents out in downtown San Francisco. She is tall and well-dressed, and has credentials that include Harvard, Stanford, and a fellowship with TED India. Her obsession with Africa started in her teens — when she was a senior in high school, she left LA to teach English to a class of 60 blind people in rural Ghana; a few years later she created an African Development Studies at Harvard, and a few years after that, she started working on Samasource.
Leila's approach to development is pragmatic; her goal is to equip poor but educated people with tools needed to turn their intelligence and drive into the opportunity to earn income. "Donors love health and education," Leila says. "It's so sexy; everyone loves to be the one to save a life by buying a mosquito net or building a school. But in reality, when you look at what the developing world really needs, it's a connection to markets." Shortly after launching Samasource, she read an Oxfam report that mentioned a Dutch non-profit had set up a computer lab in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. "I thought, how crazy would it be if i can get these refugees to do real work for clients in San Francisco? What if we could prove to the world that these people who have been written off completely as only good for receiving handouts, who are stuck in this camp receiving food rations, can be productive to the global economy?" Before she left for Kenya, Leila hooked up with Lukas Biewald, a former Yahoo! engineer who had created a job crowdsourcing software web site called Crowdflower. Lukas had agreed to help her hook up the refugees with real clients in California through Crowdflower — Leila would train the refugees to do simple work like data entry and Google searches at the camps while Lukas watched their progress remotely. Dadaab's refugee camps are insanely overcrowded. 300,000 displaced people live in a space that is only meant to accommodate 90,000. While some resell goods acquired at the market in town, most of the refugees don't have jobs because they can't get work permits under Kenyan law. Boys are routinely recruited out of their mundane reality by rebel groups that turn them into pirates and child soldiers. The camps are managed by CARE, so Leila coordinated with its reps to have 16 trainees picked out for her Samsource experiment. They had to have a certain level of education and basic knowledge of English. The computers in the lab were imported from China and rigged to withstand the heat, pressure, and dust that permeate the refugee camps. The tasks ranged from simple searches to transcription to virtual assistance to app testing. Leila spent an hour teaching her workers how Samasource would work and setting them up with a special Crowdflower login and an email address. "I taught them how to Google," she tells me. "They totally got it." Two days later, Leila called Lukas to see how her refugee workers were doing. "They're getting the same results as our for-profit clients," Lukas told her. "And in some cases, they're doing even better." One of the refugees Leila trained was a 24-year old Sudanese man named Paul Parach — a former Lost Boy who was seized from his home at age nine and survived by walking through the scorching desert with no food for days before arriving at a refugee camp in Kenya, where he was shot in the leg by a guy from a rival tribe. "You could see in his eyes that he wanted to get out of there," she says. A few weeks after she left Dadaab, Leila got a friend request on Facebook from Paul the refugee. "It was just crazy," she remembers. "This is a guy who, two months ago, had no idea he could be connected to the world this way." After that, he even dug up her cell phone number and started sending her texts with credit he bought using the money he made through Samasource. Leila points out that Paul is now just one connection away from Mark Zuckerberg (Samasource was one of this year's fbFund Rev winners). "Paul now has power and social capital; he's starting to build an online reputation and starting to become visible to the world. It was a totally unanticipated side benefit." Leila's experiment proved that a Somali refugee with a Kenyan public education could do a lot of the same work that educated Americans were doing. She now has 520 workers in six countries who are working with Samasource. They've generated over a quarter million dollars in sales working for clients like Google and the Stanford University Library, and have made more money than they would in years of doing backbreaking 50-cent-a-day labor at the camp. "Some people have accused us of creating a virtual sweatshop," Leila says. "I find that very funny. This is like the ultimate creme de la creme job you can possibly get. If your opportunities are working at a quarry or toiling away on some field, the chance to sit in front of this cool machine and do this work that connects you to the world is so empowering for people, especially people from marginalized groups who have been told their whole lives that they're not worth anything." You can hire a worker or donate to Samasource on their web site, or download the Give Work iPhone app to play a fun solitaire-meets-trivia type of game that helps Samasource-affiliated workers make a few bucks.



    There… Now that I’ve posted that in jest, no one has to embarrass himself by posting a similar comment in seriousness.

    — MrJM

  2. Just a quick “drive by comment” to say that this is so cool on so many levels. Is it too late to nominate Leila Chirayath Janah for a 2010 Nobel?

  3. The problem with this type of model is that it assumes that globalization is good. What are the socio-cultural implications. It’s pretty clear that these type of organizations advocate a new form of racial subordination by creating a savior complex for “Western” society. Leila is from LA she did not grow up in these communities nor will she ever be able to understand all the cultural nuances of “uplifting” them. When is Leila going to empower the individuals she employs to be able to do the work that she does? The true measure of success will be when these women no longer need Leila.

    1. @Anonymous #4: It seems clear to me that the work that Samasource does contributes to building the systems that will eventually enable women to do the kind of work Leila does.

      As a matter of fact, Samasource also incubates companies – meaning that outside of refugee camps, they work with women and individuals who want to start their own small technology centers in areas like East Africa and rural Pakistan. See “Women’s Digital League” for an example – started by a Pakistani woman that Samasource worked with and trained, and now employs 22 women that find work through Samasource clients and elsewhere.

      It looks like Samasource is just applying the same approach to building livelihoods that we do in the West: screening and training people, then connecting them to jobs that they are qualified for. People in the regions Samasource works in are traditionally cut off from those systems. Now they’re being trained to do jobs that real companies need done – and are getting paid for it (getting paid multiples, by the way, of what other jobs available to them provide). So it’s pretty myopic to say that plugging them in to the global marketplace constitutes racial subordination. It seems to be exactly the opposite…

  4. I second David Carroll’s comment. This is the kinda thing that actually drives peace… people like this drive peace and progress. Not politicians with their noses up each other’s asses.

  5. A surprising amount of the third world is clever and self-educated by necessity- Burma is a good example, there are still people there who speak perfect fluent English with pristine British accents (a holdover from the colonial days). Any one of them could do this- and many are doing this, and more, or occasionally moving sideways and operating on the black market (mostly selling gems smuggled across the border to Thailand- the drug economy is something else).

    I find it hilarious that they are, with rudimentary training, doing jobs most Americans require a college degree to figure out.

    They aren’t American jobs if Americans are unable to compete.

  6. This is just so awesome! I’ve often wondered how I could push work into places that needed it like refugee camps. What’s even better is that because it’s organised, I can be sure that it’s not money that will be spent on buying oppression, something I worried about whenever I’ve tried to commission work from areas with conflict.

    Hooray! Fantastic!!

  7. This sounds good on the face of it, but all too often in my own personal experience with “aid” agencies, they use the labor to enrich themselves and the end recipients rarely see a significant portion of the revenue. So, I simply have one question for this start-up… What percentage of the fee charged for the labor of these workers is directly acquired by the worker? In other words, if the agency charges $100/hour for the labor, how much of that $100 goes to the worker. I will hazard a guess that only something like 5% of the actual fee ends up in workers hands. I would like to be proven wrong.

    1. Samasource is a registered 501(c)(3) and is audited by the IRS and other agencies to ensure that we are not “keeping it all for ourselves.” As employee number 1 who put in many months of unpaid volunteer work on this project I can assure you no one at Samasource is doing this to get rich. The fact is the margins are tiny and the pay is only a few dollars per hour. The vast majority of that money goes directly to workers and our organization relies on donations and grants to provide our free of charge training and to pay for some of our operational expenses.

  8. Ah, the knowledge industry discovers what clothing manufacturers have long known: Desperate people make great cheap labor. They get opportunities beyond prostitution and subsistence farming, shareholders see enhanced revenues, and the uppity American middle class gets a reminder that their jobs and the resulting lifestyle are tenuous things, so they’d better straighten up and fly right.

  9. Shouldn’t they be rather doing some work, like digging wells or farming? I don’t see how this can help.

  10. When this sort of enterprise can be done on a for profit basis, it will expand expotentially. These camps need micro-banks to tap the desperate damand by the refugees for opportunity. They also need to be armed so they can defend their gains from criminals.

    1. They need to be armed?? Yes, pumping even more firearms into war-torn regions of Africa will certainly be the solution to our problems.

  11. @Anonymous #8: Samasource takes 10-15% of what the workers make to cover administrative costs. And yes, they’re a registered non-profit.

  12. I’ve been working with Afghans by GMail and Google Voice for the past two years, they have incredible computer and design skills, you would never think they’re working from an un-airconditioned office building with open concrete stair tower up the middle, stray cats wandering in and out, refugees camped out in the hallways, and generators pounding away outside each hallway door for electricity.

    We’ve been doing some matching with US clients with some success, although there’s a steep curve for US clients to get past the occasional Arabic script and not-perfect English, until I explain to the clients these Afghan kids speak three languages, carry three cell phones and live in an active war zone!

    Hope they take advantage of this Samasource link I sent.

  13. “Leila’s approach to development is pragmatic; her goal is to equip poor but educated people with tools needed to turn their intelligence and drive into the opportunity to earn income.”

    Imagine what it would be like if more of that went on, but instead helped US citizens. Lots of poor educated people right now.

  14. arkizzle,
    While friendpuppy could set that 501c or other type org up, He would not be able to use similar tools to enable needy people here in the US or many other 1st world nations as the $5 an hour that samasource quotes on their website as the max pay would not provide a living wage in most developed nations. Samasource works mainly because it is a charity org that because it does not expect a profit is able to undercut the prices of the companies that outsourced many of our similar jobs to begin with.

    1. nic0mac,

      Yeah, I was being vaguely snarky. When people do good work for people in need, there is always someone who suggests that they should be helping ‘their own’ people, or investing their time and money in something closer to home.

      Now, maybe friendpuppy’s intentions weren’t so pointed, but my advice was to go do something about it, instead of wishing other’s did.

      1. Arkizzle, One of the problems with helping here at home is that it has become so bureaucratically hard to do something on a level that does good for many. Try to imagine if part of Obama’s stimulus package were to be used in the same way as FDRs works program.
        Could a city like Detroit or Cleavland request the funding to hire 250 people to go in and tear down all those houses that are sitting on abandoned or tax forfeit land so it could revitalize the neighborhood by providing parks or micro business parks devoted to new entrepreneur’s.
        It could never happen because we have a political machine in place that would not benefit from it. While I held out some hope that Obama’s change platform might have changed this I really dont think it will.

        1. I live in the UK, but I’m sure you know what you’re talking about.

          I still think, if you are going to complain about others’ positive efforts, you better be out doing something to make a difference.

          1. Arkizzle, I do actually feel that that this is a positive effort and I would consider donating to it if there were a way that I could feel comfortable knowing that it is a true charity.
            The problem is that there is no way for me to look at this charities financials overseas and when I inspect their website the only financial information I see a bunch of numbers that are stated as approximates but add up to helping 500 people get incomes of $300, that equals $150,000. I would say that that is a good accomplishment, but they also state that workers generated $250,000 in contract income and that there was $80,000 in donations which equals $330,000. when I do the math here that tends to lead me to believe that the administrative costs of this charity are higher then the amount that went to the recipients.
            I do not have a problem with people trying to do good for what they feel is their community and I will even applaud it when it truly helps those who need it, however if they wish to ask for financial help I feel that they need to have their books open for the world to see and allow people to decide if they feel that ratio of help vs. cost is deserving.
            Just my feelings, I’ll shut up now.

  15. “savior complex” ??? what the hell. I am really starting to hate the Post-modern viewpoint. Its always deconstruct, deconstruct, deconstruct… ever heard of constructive deconstruction? No? Me either.

    Lets invent it!

    And what’s wrong with being grateful for real help? what, are we above being though of as a real benefit to the world? This is the kind of rational hamstringing that we are taught in school these days, and it is why our culture and our politcal movements seem to have lost their teeth. Sure, look try to look at problems from multiple angles, but beware loosing the ability to prioritize perspectives. If we do that, then there is nothing else to do but stay in bed.

  16. I’m sure the motivation is a good one, and, obviously, going from a life of starvation and unrest to one where you’re a productive member of the world is a choice we would all make. What I question is the value we give to this global society we so adore:

    “Paul now has power and social capital; he’s starting to build an online reputation and starting to become visible to the world.”

    I find it ironic that, at the same time this is happening, I’m getting more than turned off by this very thing. Everyone is so obsessed with marketing themselves and gaining some kind of status in this virtual world, and to what end? So you can have the most facebook friends, the largest number of people following your tweets, or a huge blog following? It’s an illusionary feeling of fulfillment, a false belief that one’s life is improved by sheer virtual numbers. The quality of these connections is never questioned- only the quantity. Decades from now, when everyone everywhere is plugged into this virtual Darwinism with their 15 minutes of fame, will anyone remember what it’s like to spend two months in nature, or what it’s like to wake up every day focused on one task, your mind uncluttered, rather than constantly being bombarded by blips of communication from all over the globe?

    I don’t romanticize the situation these people are being helped out of. I just don’t see the global economy that they’re being brought into as much better. Better for their short-term needs, not their long-term. Judging people by their connection status and thinking things like “that guy is just one link away from Someone Very Important and Powerful” is, in the end, completely hollow.

    I don’t blame Samasource for their pragmatic approach: here’s how the game works, let’s give others a chance to play. But it’d be nice if someone there realized that the game, itself, is fucked up, and put those wonderful resources to a better use, like employing these people in things that actually help others. Is there really no money to be made in renewable energy, farming, or health, for example?

  17. Das memsen, Recent studies have been showing more that people who use online networking sites actually tend to improve their social skills, and while they are less likely to do traditional community get together they are more likely to be involved when it comes to serving the community. IE.. they may not go to the autumn square dance and hay-ride but if you have a fund raising auction they will be among the largest contributers.

    As for the making money in renewable energy, farming, or health… only if your government subsidized, monsanto or a similar sized corp., or an insurance corp. Granted these answers are my opinion based on policies in the US, other parts of the world will have different ones.

    The whole world is constantly changing and we as world citizens need to stop seeing it from an americans viewpoint. For instance while we see Samasource in the US as a 501 charitable outside the US borders it is a work training company that teaches people to do the jobs others dont want

    1. But that’s my point. People may do something good like donate money, but actually getting your butt off the computer and interacting with other people is a spiritually necessary act we’re quickly losing. It takes energy, it’s scary… a lot of us would rather stay in the comfort of our homes and help remotely, to our ultimate detriment. I realize human culture evolves and there may be new benefits to our new way of thinking, but if you’re simultaneously giving up previous benefits, it’s not really an advancement.

      My point about other, healthier industries is underscored by what you’re saying. We live in a system where things that are good (renewable energy, pesticide-free food) are undervalued… not to mention government subsidies are exactly why corn & soy is so cheap, to the detriment of our health and everything else. If we didn’t have our heads up our asses, however, things that made more money would correspond with things that were better for us, just like teachers would get paid a lot more than day traders and football players.

      Obviously, society couldn’t care less what I think, but it’s still worth pointing out that our values leave a lot to be desired, and this inspiring news story is ultimately eclipsed by a fucked-up paradigm.

      1. Das memsen, In regards to your first point about interacting, you need to remember that those are your personal values and you need to understand that my personal values are not the same as yours, I am a mildly anti-social person I do not like group interaction and never have despite all that my parents and the counselors they hired tried to do to help “heal” me of my condition. I have much better relationships with people when I know that there are limitations on actual F2F meetings. My wife and children understand this and allow me my space and I do things with them that they find spiritually uplifting even though it does nada for me. As for the contributing I almost never give cash, when the school my kids used to attend had an auction I gave several things that I needed then bid on them, I also contributed 5 flash drives that I loaded with free software as well as several YA Ebooks.
        I do agree with you pretty closely on your views about energy and food, not exactly but close enough.
        My biggest problem with this style of charitable org (trying to stay on topic a bit ;) is that in the US this is a charity that provides no value to US citizens and while it does help people in Kenya its services there are the same as a work brokerage/training firm would do. So should they be allowed the 501 status here in the states? My personal feeling is no, a 501 group in the US should be for the benefit of US citizens, A global charity should be placed in a different category and made to prove itself worthy on a global level.
        These are my feelings, if you dont agree thats fine just please don’t boot stomp them too bad.

  18. I’m from the Philippines and I tried freelancing in,, and I’m not actively looking anymore because of the cut throat competition there. The extremely low prices bid by professional freelancers dont make it worthwhile.

    I wonder how they would fare in a bidding war if they were to join the freelance sites abroad. To be fair they should avoid the sob story of “I’m a refugee so please hire me!” This will encourage the person who needs a job done to be totally objective and to choose a freelancer based only on price and skills.

    Their skills would probably less than normal but their prices are probably rock bottom because their standard of living is pretty wretched and ANY small change that they earn means a lot to them.

  19. If anyone happens to stumble upon this ancient story (Blog posts don’t last as long as they used to) there’s some guys in South Africa who’ve very recently begun piloting similar concepts for job creation using mobile phones. (See:

    Africa now has over 400 million mobile phone subscribers and from what I can see, the mobile internet seems the future for the continent. Mobile phones also seem way more practical than setting up these computer labs in harsh conditions.

    Anyway, its all quite inspiring stuff.

  20. I love the cracks about these refugees doing things that American college grads can’t figure out.

    Nobody here in the U.S. seems to want to hire anyone who is just out of school (especially if the degree-issuing university is public and not highly selective), so how can anyone say that college grads can’t figure work like this out? They sure haven’t tried them!

    This is just another case of employers assuming that because older workers can’t perform well with new technology, and young workers need to be trained, that the whole process should simply be outsourced.

    With this in mind, I would also bet that the refugees receive a whole bunch of training and hand-holding, where American workers would be thrown in a cube and expected to fend for themselves, being viewed as “sleeve tuggers” for asking questions (and ultimately fired).

    I don’t want to spend my whole life in retail or the low-end service sector wasting my college degree, nor do I want to spend my whole life ripping people off with it (ie. slimy financial services). These are the only two types of jobs people seem to hire new grads for now days — we’re quickly destroying the middle ground!

    I’m not saying that people in third-world countries don’t deserve opportunities, but geez — stop kicking your own!

    1. this isnt about people doing things americans cant figure out its about them doing things so cheaply that americans wont do them, after reading this article I tried doing a similar thing, I signed up with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk which is a similar service thats open to all, I did about 2 hours worth of work and then waited 2 weeks to get all of the work approved, net income was $1.85. Maybe I could make more as I learned the system better and if I got recommended to the best jobs but even then I dout I could get up to 1/2 of minimum wage.

  21. “I find it hilarious that they are, with rudimentary training, doing jobs most Americans require a college degree to figure out.”

    I think you mistyped “that most Americans require a college degree to be considered for.”

    U.S. employees can’t accept a salary below a certain amount and still afford to live in the U.S. so rather than competing on the price of our services, we compete more on the basis of superior qualifications.

    When a company can’t really pay a receptionist less than $30K a year and still expect that receptionist to be able to pay his rent to live in the company’s region, the company focuses instead on hiring the most (over)qualified receptionist they can find for their $30K. So companies end up hiring college grads just to answer phones.

    “They aren’t American jobs if Americans are unable to compete.”

    Because Americans live in the expensive U.S., we can’t compete with third-world outsourcers on price. They’ll always be able to charge less than us. At least, until U.S. cities start crumbling into shantytowns full of data miners.

  22. Haha to the comment that asked how much of the $100/hour went to the individual. I doubt it’s even $5/hour. Yes, this has the potential to “steal western jobs”. Or more likely, simply pressure western wages lower.

    But the main worry is that it can distort the local economy. What percentage of africans are getting these plum jobs? How to they get them, by sucking up to an aid worker?

    Also, aid workers are not always saintly single-interest do-gooders, but often have a complex personal relationship with their chosen project (and choose they do). Sometimes it’s a cycnical choice about money (there are crooks out there), or career, but it’s often for the lifestyle, which BTW, can be very pleasant, even by western standards. Villa with a pool, domestic servants, etc. And of course a poor population who are very compliant where money is concerned.

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