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Socially responsible outsourcing -- Samasource -- a social lending alternative

In our coverage of Kiva, Microplace, and LendforPeace, we have explored the amazing power of these internet platforms to connect lenders to poor entrepreneurs from around the world and make an impact in small, but meaningful ways.

It is worth looking beyond microcredit. Samasource is a start up non-profit that connects companies in need of simple technology tasks with trained workers in poor countries.  Like Kiva, Samasource has field partners on the ground, but instead of local NGOs, it seeks socially responsible local businesses who embrace three things: transparency, community, and progressive labor relations.

From CEO Leila Chirayeth:

Samasource helps talented but marginalized people empower themselves through internet-based work. Our San Francisco team screens and selects high-quality small businesses and nonprofit training centers in the poorest parts of the world, provides them with training and project management tools, and helps US clients outsource work to them. Our clients reduce costs, receive high quality work, and support dignified employment for some of the world's poorest people.

I'm excited to see an alternative, internet-based platform to social lending that still embraces the market as the ultimate driver of growth. The effectiveness of providing loans to the poor to reduce poverty is still uncertain (see David Roodman of the Center for Global Development for a thoughtful consideration of this topic on his blog). Intuitively, there is reason to believe that most poor people are not actually destined to become successful entrepreneurs. In the United States, I would not expect most of the Americans asking for small business loans are going to succeed -- so why would I hold micro-entrepreneurs in Africa to a different standard? The truth is that most people function and work within some sort of structure -- and for most people, that structure is a company.

Samasource supports that structure. By helping the local businesses (run by entrepreneurs, of course) find outsourcing work, Samasource creates jobs for workers who can become trained to perform needed tasks for others. And the model is sustainable over time -- not just for the individual who receives the training, but for the community that now has a viable job center. Companies can turn to Samasource for support with tasks similar to those seen on Mechanical Turk: data entry, application testing, audio transcription.

Again, Ms. Chirayeth:

Sama means equal in Sanskrit. We are a social business helping bright but marginalized people in poor regions find dignified jobs by expanding their access to markets.

You can support Samasource's mission to give work, not aid  here. If you work for a company that needs data cleaning or other basic tech services, consider using Samasource -- you get a good rate and you're supporting the development of sustainable and dignified jobs.

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Reader Comments (7)

Very cool. I've not heard of anything like it. I wonder how many clients they've had so far. A much better way of supporting growth than simply aid. Give work, not aid. Love it!

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertif

It is a great tagline -- and I see that Samasource is soliciting feedback on a new one: "Give Work: Leveraging technology to create jobs for the next billion." Not quite as catchy.

July 2, 2009 | Registered CommenterMelody


I am also very excited about this model. I think you are right on in bringing to light that not all poor are gifted with the entrepreneurial spirit and therefore a starting a business might not always be the best solution. However, I do wonder about how deep Samasource can reach. I question if it can make a real dent for the poorest population segment if they generally have no education (I am not sure how data entry or much less audio transcription is possible for the illiterate) and live and operate in the informal sector? Does the training you mentioned include literacy training for the newly employed if they need it? And if so that adds another level of excitement to this great model! Thank you for sharing!

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

If there are paying jobs that require literacy then suddenly there's much more motivation to become literate. Whatever educational infrastructure/aid a village with a Samasource work center has could focus their efforts on making the locals employeable through this new opportunity. At least intuitively that makes sense to me. I don't know much about Africa.

I'd like to have a sense of the size of the outsourcing market for low-level computer tasks. Billions per year? What's the growth trajectory like? This would give insight into the kind of impact the Samasource model could have. It's a simplistic, minimal case approach though. Obviously as people get comfortable with the low-level tasks they begin to learn higher level skills. This could be a very promising avenue for Africans to incrementally catch up with white collar workers in the developed world.

July 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

anonymous 1 -- The literacy training question is a great point. teaching both data entry AND basic literacy skills would be quite a heavy lift and you're right that the first can't work without the second. It appears that now Samasource is focusing on providing employment for people who do have some basic education and training. This gets to the point of anonymous 2 -- if Samasource can help create local jobs, then locals will be more likely to make the educational investments necessary to get them.

July 4, 2009 | Registered CommenterMelody

I guess what SamaSource is trying to do is noble.. Give work and not aid. Not many people know what goes down in Africa... For instance, I've developed software in Africa for about 4 years and I've been to great places (both offline and online) where I've acquired great knowledge and built skill in development practices.
Africa is a terribly gifted continent... it's just the lack of good leadership to transform the mostly naturally in stock in the continent.

For instance, my company currently trains people world over (US inclusive) for free... we provide the skills and they in turn can choose to be a part of us or they can do their own thing.
The point is that the illiteracy isn't the only thing that's all over this continent. In many cases the literate have a lot to think about and tend to forget the misery around them (I think they buffer their thoughts)...

I hope that if a company can come offer skills to these folks (like UgandaSoft does) then they will be lucky because the loyalty (to company and cause) is so great! You, in many cases, don't want to have many employees run off at the slightest opportunity.

***Some great pointers***
To investors (VCs and angels) the Continent is getting wired up! A marine fiber optic cable system is being laid out so the effect will be lower costs of telecommunications (& Internet) which in effect reduce the costs incurred in business.
And trust me when I say that I've seen the potential in this place especially with software engineers and computer scientists. One university in Uganda, for instance, churns out over 800 competent students annually... imagine starting up a company out of that!!???

The mobile telecom industry too is growing rapidly... but most phones, sadly, are between 1 and 2 generations (1G or 2G)... 3G is still growing.. this doesn't rule out the potential in the mobile applications industry... The mobile applications industry too has evolved to contain market places that support robust applications; examples include Apple's appstore, Nokia's Ovi market, the Android market place and so much more....
The effect of mobile applications is trickling down into Africa...
However.. there's still work to be done... lower costs (to an African) of 3G phones could increase the market for apps already available..

I guess I don't have much to write about.. I'll be developing a blog soon at this site

Victor Miclovich
Lead developer, Python & Android applications

July 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commentervictor miclovich

I like the concept fo samasource. I think businesses could use some relief like this to help them get back on their feet and start advertising their products and services again even through these tough times.

July 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermlgreen8753
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