Samasource: How African refugees are scoring Silicon Valley Internet jobs

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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.