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Bringing tech jobs to Third World refugees

A nonprofit is helping small American companies make more money by outsourcing small tasks to workers in Kenyan refugee camps. The pay can triple what the workers were making before.

Thanks to a nonprofit called Samasource, refugees in Kenya are starting to find Internet-based work that can pay them triple what they could earn before.

Workers stuck in the world's largest refugee camp are being given a chance to wield a mouse and keyboard as tools for digging their way out of poverty, and in the process, are helping out a series of small American companies looking to be more profitable.

The workers, many of whom have been in the refugee camp in Kenya for years, are toiling at new jobs--in which they do short, simple projects over the Internet--provided to them by an innovative San Francisco nonprofit serving as an intermediary between companies needing an efficient way to get small tasks done and groups of educated but displaced people with few other employment prospects.

The nonprofit, known as Samasource, has built a business model around the idea that there are some projects too small to make sense for American workers to do, yet perfect in scale and scope for refugees and others in the Third World. For example, one Samasource client, a solar panels repairman, engaged the company to get workers to scour satellite photos of American cities for houses with solar set-ups in order to generate potential sales leads.

And while such a dynamic may make some suspect exploitation of the refugees, a group of independent experts say that it is precisely these kinds of tasks--which can pay at least triple the wages of other jobs, assuming there are any--that can begin to help address the tremendous poverty found in so many countries around the world.

According to Leila Chirayath Janah, the founder of Samasource, the company is focusing on bringing jobs to the refugee camps in Kenya, as well as to impoverished workers in Pakistan, Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon, and India. For now, it is looking for American clients who need work done in one of five Internet-based service areas--often small tasks such as comparing texts or looking for copyright violations in pictures. "It's not displacing opportunities for Americans," said Janah, "but expanding what entrepreneurs can do with a limited budget."

Janah explained that to date, the best possible work available to many people in the refugee camp--which has more than 300,000 people living in highly cramped conditions, often for years--is pounding rock in a quarry for 50 cents a day. By comparison, she said, work done for Samasource clients can pay $1 to $2 an hour.

GiveWork, a new iPhone app from CrowdFlower and Samasource, lets users of Apple's hit device help out the Kenyan refugees. CrowdFlower

On Tuesday, Samasource and a partner, CrowdFlower, released an iPhone application called GiveWork, that aims to make it possible for Americans with time on their hands to assist in making sure that the work being done by the refugees is accurate. The idea, explained Lukas Biewald, CEO of CrowdFlower, is that while many of the refugees doing work through Samasource are educated, there are cultural and language issues that may get in the way of getting each task done perfectly.

And that's where the iPhone app comes in. Biewald said that those using the app can spend some of their spare time doing the same tasks as the refugees, which can help ensure that the final product is accurate.

For example, Biewald said, one task might involve the refugees going through sets of Twitter posts or blog entries about a company, trying to identify which are positive and which are negative. In many cases, the workers in Kenya may be able to make the distinction, but from time to time, there might be something that is difficult for them to categorize. And that's where a helping hand from a user of the iPhone app could be useful.

This application of crowdsourcing to a larger issue is just the latest in a growing number of such approaches being employed in apps for the iPhone and other smart phones. Experts say that such devices allow large numbers of people to apply their excess time to issues or problems larger than their own.

No. 1 goal: Increasing wages

While the GiveWork iPhone app will bring some individual Americans into the equation, the bulk of the effort is being done directly through Samasource by the refugees themselves, many of whom have some education and have been longing for either something to do with their skills, or for the training to learn new ones.

An image of one of the increasing number of computer labs found in refugee camps these days. The labs are used, in part, as places for refugees to work at Internet-based jobs. Samasource

Janah said that thanks to donations from organizations like the Danish Refugee Council, there are a growing number of computer centers with satellite dishes in the camps in Kenya and elsewhere, and that is quickly bringing the Internet into areas where people until now have largely been cut off from the global economy.

She acknowledged that some may view what Samasource and its clients are doing as exploitation of the refugees but said that far from that, it is a valuable merger of a potent workforce and companies that are able to pay people fair wages for tasks that likely wouldn't be economically viable in the U.S.

"The No. 1 goal is increasing wages," said Janah of the more than 10 years of economic development work she's done in poor countries around the world. "People are locked in situations...with zero jobs available to them. Over 500 workers in our system are eager to get any kind of work. It's the exact opposite of exploitation."

Part of it, she added, is that by giving refugees a chance to do Internet-based work, they are both learning valuable new skills and having a chance to connect far beyond the world they know.

And several experts in economic development contacted for this story agreed that the kind of projects Samasource is delivering into the hands of the poverty-stricken can make a big difference in the workers' lives.

"Internet-based markets actually seem quite promising," said Seema Jayachandran, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford. "If people are remaining at the refugee camps for several years, they can put their (education) to use. They don't have as much mobility as many workers, so in that sense, Samasource may have stumbled onto something powerful."

Further, said Jayachandran, while the Internet makes it possible for workers throughout the world to compete for projects, a company like Samasource may help skilled refugees build the kind of reputation that would make them attractive to American companies for future outsourcing projects. "That's the development goal," Jayachandran said, "that these jobs are going to lift the standard of living of the people" doing them.

Another interesting element of this, she said, is that it can help remove some of the onus of helping the impoverished from aid organizations and create an economic incentive on the part of for-profit companies to do so.

That's an idea with which Michael Maltese, the managing director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, concurred.

Samasource "is challenging the dominant perspective," Maltese said, "which is that poor people...are to be seen as recipients of aid. But the approach that Samasource and other organizations are taking, to provide income-generating work, is, in my (opinion), a more exciting way to look at this."

And because, as Maltese explained, the average time someone spends in a Kenyan refugee camp is 17 years, "any effort to train them to access the global economy is positive."

To be sure, there are plenty of other organizations involved in outsourcing to third-world countries, like China and India. And, said James Davis, a University of California at Santa Cruz associate professor in computer science with expertise in economic development, the effects of years of such employment, in many cases, have done wonders to raise workers' standard of living. But most of the organizations engineering such outsourcing are for-profits, and are sending employment to a higher strata than is Samasource.

A sign crediting the Danish Refugee Council with donating computers for a lab in Kenya. Samasource

By contrast, Davis said, Samasource has taken the traditional outsourcing model and asked, "'How far can we push this?'" In other words, he said, Samasource is building a bridge between small first-world companies with extra work and the "very bottom" of the economic ladder.

As a result, Davis said, he is "very excited" about what Samasource is doing.

He said that while other efforts, such as's Mechanical Turk, have come along to distribute very small tasks to those willing to work for minimal amounts, people in places like Kenyan refugee camps are excluded because they don't have American bank accounts.

Davis also said there are precedents that show that what Samasource is trying can work. He pointed both to Txteagle, an effort by entrepreneur Nathan Eagle to get the millions of Kenyans with mobile phones to do small SMS-based tasks for money, and to reCaptcha, the effort to massively distribute to Internet users the task of deciphering jumbled words from scanned books.

But what Samasource is trying, Davis said, is different. The goal there, is "reaching (out) and trying to understand the bottom of the bottom."

Some day, Davis added, bigger organizations will come along and figure out how to bring first-world dollars into the hands of those at the economic bottom rungs. But that is a ways off.

Now, he said, "you need the charitable organizations (like Samasource) to go and source out how everybody is going to benefit all the way down."