Samasource: 'Microwork' for the developing world

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MARCO WERMAN: During this time of recession, the outsourcing of jobs abroad is not the most popular cause in the world. But one San Francisco entrepreneur is doing just that with a nonprofit called "Samasource." The goal of "Samasource" is to help people in poor countries acquire computer skills. They're then matched with small businesses here. Leila Janah is that entrepreneur and she's on the line now from San Francisco. What kind of work exactly are your trainees doing?

LEILA JANAH: Well, they're doing work in five service areas from very basic work, what we call micro work, which are small web-based tasks that take one or two minutes apiece to do, and are worth a couple of cents to a company in the US, all the way up to higher level work, including transcription of audio and video files and even online research and virtual assistants for US entrepreneurs.

WERMAN: So if the work is worth a couple of cents to companies here in the US, what do your trainees and people who essentially graduate from your program, what do they get out of it?

JANAH: Well, they get an income anywhere between $1.20 an hour, all the way up $10 or $12 an hour for higher level work. That might not seem like a lot to Americans who are listening to this program but in a place like a refugee camp, $1 an hour for work in an air conditioned computer lab is possibly the best job that you could ever come upon. You know, the kinds of other jobs that people have access to in camps are manual labor type jobs that pay, if they're lucky, $1 a day. We've heard reports of people getting paid 50 cents a day for doing things like working in quarries. So by contrast, computer based work that builds their skills is pretty valuable.

WERMAN: So we actually have one of your graduates on the line from Lusaka, the capital of the southern African nation of Zambia. Antoine Ngeleke, thank you for joining us. How are you?
ANTOINE NGELEKE: I'm fine, and how are you?
WERMAN: Fine, thank you. Tell us what you've been working on most recently?

NGELEKE: I just came in very recently, and what I've been doing right now is scanning web pages, finding out about the addresses of the business for those web pages, and if they really do exist.

WERMAN: We should point out that you're originally from Democratic Republic of Congo, and hence your experience in refugee camps. Tell us how it's changed your life? I understand that you've only recently started doing this, but maybe if you could give us a before and after shot.

NGELEKE: Okay, it's really something I wish it's came on before, maybe by the time I was still in the camp, because, you know, my background is, I really like computers and I've been working with them for some years right now. Although you know how it is in Africa. We have problems coming across this high tech, but anyway, I'm one of the few people who had chance to at least have a sponsorship through, and right now, I'm doing my degree, I'm doing my last year. And I was so impressed to come across this, because it's something I was really dreaming about, and I thought maybe one day I would just find a good job. So if I can say, it's really something I was dreaming about, and I hope I will go on and on, because as she said at the beginning, it's really a challenging thing right now. Right now, it's even hard for university graduates to get jobs, and with this to at least help us, and the other people out there, get jobs that just work from home.

WERMAN: Leila, so unemployment here in the US is rising. How does Samasource actually help Americans?

JANAH: We've helped a lot of lower income entrepreneurs in the US build basic websites and complete these sorts of tasks on a budget that they would have never been able to work with, had we been using American laborers making minimum wage here. The challenge is that this work comes in at a certain price and companies are willing to pay a certain amount for it. And most Americans that we talk to are just not interested in working for that amount. So the term outsourcing is kind of a funny one. If you bought a fair trade handbag in a local shop in San Francisco that was made by women in a cooperative in India, no one would argue that you're outsourcing the production of that handbag to these poor women, right? But because we are working in IT services, there's a very specific connotation that outsourcing has, and it's this idea that there's a worker in America who's getting displaced by a worker abroad, and that's simply not true for this sort of work.

WERMAN: Antoine Ngeleke, I imagine you wouldn't disagree with Leila, but I'm also wondering whether you could foresee starting your own homegrown company in Zambia some day that would provide the same services you're providing to Samasource. Or do you see for the long term that Samasource is kind of the critical link, the leverage, as Leila said earlier, between you as a service provider and Samasource's clients.

NGELEKE: I think I wouldn't talk about Zambia, but Congo, my home country, because, you know, there is a lot to do that side. And I feel like after I finish my education here in Zambia, I would need to go and contribute to the development of my country. My dream is to really do things like Samasource is doing, to empower not only refugees, because as you know, there are people living at home on standards lower than refugee standard.. So I would like to at least use my skills that I've gained to also help others be connected to this global village.

WERMAN: Well, Antoine Ngeleke in Lusaka, Zambia, and Leila Janah, founder of the nonprofit Samasource in San Francisco, thank you very much for joining us.

NGELEKE: You are welcome.

JANAH: Thank you.