Leila Janah helps people in the developing world find work – near home

Samasource breaks down complicated data-processing projects into small steps that can be done remotely on PCs in countries like Ghana, Uganda, and Haiti.

Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People/Samasource
JOB CREATOR: Leila Janah, founder of the nonprofit group Samasource, is seen in her office in San Francisco in September 2014.

Leila Janah was only 17 years old when she took her first trip to Africa. As a high school senior living in southern California, she volunteered to teach English in Ghana as part of a student-volunteer program. She was sent to the village of Akuapem and quickly settled in with students from the area, ranging in age from 11 to 25. Many were blind.

The experience was a study in all that is complicated and unique about Ghana, or any developing world country for that matter. Water and electricity were available only sporadically. People walked everywhere: A trip to the capital required a two-hour ride on a tro tro, a privately owned minivan packed with passengers.

Despite overwhelming obstacles and hardships, Ms. Janah says her students managed to make it to school every day, dressed in white, pressed shirts. “They were extremely motivated students,” she says. “They were hungry for information.”

Hearing Janah speak of her former students some 14 years later, it’s obvious that her time in Ghana remains near and dear. It’s only one of many experiences in her life that ultimately propelled her to create the nonprofit organization Samasource.

Launched in 2008, Samasource provides easy-to-complete work assignments that can be done using a computer (sometimes called “microwork”), such as tagging images, to people who live in countries including Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, India, and Haiti.

Samasource essentially takes apart complicated data-processing projects and breaks them down into smaller, more manageable steps that can be done remotely on PCs. Its business clients include the photo archive Getty Images, the social network LinkedIn, and the software giant Microsoft, among others.

The story of Samasource is really Janah’s story. After high school, she studied African development at Harvard University and as a student conducted fieldwork in Mozambique, Senegal, and Rwanda.

Her first job after college was managing a call center in Mumbai. During a casual conversation with an employee, he mentioned that he traveled by rickshaw from his home in Dharavi, the largest slum in the world, to work every day.

That’s when the idea for Samasource began to evolve. “I thought, ‘What if we could locate the call center in the slums?’ ” she recalls thinking.

Janah quit her job, returned to the United States, and began to develop her idea. In 2008, she secured one of her first contracts to transcribe books from PDF into editable text for a booksharing company.

In the beginning it was just Janah and a partner in Nairobi, Kenya, whom she had met while conducting fieldwork years earlier. He owned an Internet cafe with a bevy of PCs and was looking to start up another business. Janah convinced him to give her idea a try.

“I’d send the file to Steve in the evening, and he’d send it back in the morning,” she says of her partner in Nairobi. “By the end of 2008 we completed $30,000 in sales revenue.”

By 2009 Samasource was selected to be part of the FacebookFund (fbFund), a $10 million seed fund that supports developers and entrepreneurs. The move helped Janah to further develop her ideas through mentorships, and the exposure led to more investors jumping on board. Today the nonprofit effort is supported by philanthropic groups such as The Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Samasource now provides nine work centers in five countries. Some centers are set up in repurposed shipping containers; others are in already existing buildings. All of the work centers are located near Samasource employees for easy accessibility.

The type of work varies, depending on the needs of clients. Getty Images, one of the world’s largest stock photo agencies, relies on Samasource employees to tag photos that the company’s automated system cannot identify because of blurred images or other issues.

Images that require manual tags are downloaded into the Samahub – a proprietary software system – and sent to a work site in northern Ghana, for example. Employees then research and tag the images. After a quality-assurance test, the photos are delivered back to Getty Images.

Contracts with companies such as Getty Images have provided work for some 6,000 people, according to Samasource. That translates to approximately 25,000 people helped when their dependents are included. By 2012, the company had paid nearly $2 million in wages to employees around the world, according to its annual report.

Those numbers reinforce the mission of Samasource, Janah says.

“What poor people need [is] dignified work and a chance to make a living,” she says.

Samasource has put in place a number of measures to ensure that workers are paid a fair wage. Employers who manage Samasource call centers must use the Fair Wage Guide to determine worker pay. Samasource staff members in the US also conduct worker surveys about local working conditions via Facebook.

Headquartered in San Francisco and now in its fifth year, Samasource is expanding its reach. It recently launched Samahope, a website that allows people to donate funds to medical doctors so that they can provide surgeries to women living in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Samasource is also putting resources toward SamaUSA. Unlike those in the original Samasource program, students enrolled in SamaUSA already have some work skills. This US-based program is geared toward helping workers expand their job skills and explore new lines of work, primarily online.

The classes are conducted at community colleges and include résumé-writing workshops and training on computer programs and applications such as WordPress and Google Docs. Students also learn how to navigate online job boards such as oDesk and Elance and gain experience honing their online pitches and interviews.

Since 2013 SamaUSA has launched eight 10-week courses. Most have been held in California, and one session recently wrapped up in New York. While technical know-how is critical to any student’s success, the classes also require students to step out of their comfort zone, be willing to take risks, and possess an entrepreneurial spirit in order to succeed.

That doesn’t come naturally to some people, concedes instructor Dan Alcorn. But over time his students begin to see that they have what it takes to forge a new and exciting career.

“It’s transformational,” he says. “It’s incredible to watch.”

Kristen Logan, a single mother of three children who went through the course this past spring at Merced Community College in California’s Central Valley, would agree.

“The education that Sama gave us in the class helped me to pretty much get my business started,” she says.

Prior to enrolling in SamaUSA, Ms. Logan worked as an administrative assistant at a local hospital for five years. She lost her job in October 2013. A few months later, she was accepted into the SamaUSA program, and just two days after completing the 10-week course she landed a new job.

Now she provides administrative support for a New York-based cosmetics company. Acting as an online office manager, she fields calls from people who want to sign up for makeup-application workshops, writes class curricula, and carries out a host of other duties, all from her home in California.

Gaining a steady source of income was a big need that motivated Logan. But Sama-USA also gave her the confidence to refuse settling for the status quo, she says.

“Each class, I learned something new. Each time I felt like I was getting closer and closer to where I am today,” she says. “This whole thing has been a dream for me, and Sama[USA] made that happen.”

• To learn more about Samasource, visit  http://samasource.org.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are groups selected by Universal Giving that use technology to lift people out of poverty:

One Mobile Projector per Trainer helps educate the world’s poorest billion people with low-cost technology. Take action: Volunteer as a development assistant.

Develop Africa establishes meaningful, sustainable development through capacity building and transformational education. Take action: Provide computer training that prepares youths for jobs.

• Cultural Canvas Thailand promotes social change through artistic outreach and volunteering. Take action: Volunteer to help Burmese migrants gain language and computer skills.

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