2009 fbFund Winner Samasource Gives Work, Not Aid

By Jessica Lee Comment

samasource_logoToday fbFund REV officially kicked off. And we’re continuing our look into this year’s 2009 fbFund REV winners by turning our attention to Samasource, one of the two nonprofit organizations that were selected as finalists. Unlike the other 18 winners, nonprofits didn’t receive funding due to the way fbFund is structured, but will be participating in this summer’s incubator program. Based in San Francisco, Samasource is a 501c3 nonprofit that helps businesses in the developing world find clients in the U.S. to do work on a variety on tech-based projects, including Facebook application testing. We recently spoke with CEO Leila Chirayath Janah on the impact that Facebook application development is having in underdeveloped markets.

Inside Facebook: What’s the problem statement that Samasource is addressing?

leila-chirayathLeila Chirayath Janah: In our target market, unemployment is 60 percent among university graduates. They were raised on farms; their parents scrimped and saved to send them to school. In Kenya, for example, families spend 277 percent of per capita income on tertiary education, which means families are borrowing and not seeing any financial return after their children graduate. Unemployed young men are the single biggest reason why violence is so prevalent where we work. With no skilled jobs, joining the militia and making money that way is the next best and easiest option. In the developing world, income comes first. It’s what allows people to make investments in health and education and pushes them out of extreme suffering.

How does Samasource create jobs and sustainable living in the developing world?

We work with 13 partners, the majority of which are in East Africa in low-income countries. The average income there is below $900 dollars a year. After going through a thorough Screen and Select process, we offer our partners training in eight highly marketable services (e.g., data entry, Facebook application testing, etc.) that we’ve seen a demand for in Silicon Valley. Because we’re based in the Valley and are connected to this market, we can connect the two ends of demand and supply together. So far we’ve contracted $150,000 dollars of work with both large nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies. One of our clients is Benetech, an amazing nonprofit that has engaged two Samasource partners in Nairobi to do proofreading work.

Where does Facebook come into the picture? How are you leveraging the Facebook Platform to further the Samasource mission?

The idea for our app is to build an interface for developers to get their apps tested, track results, and pay for testing services. There are 57,000 apps on Facebook, and they need to be tested on a regular basis for functionality. We can provide such testing with our network of partners on a regular basis at a low cost. We connect developers to reliable quality testers who understand the Facebook Platform.


What’s the transaction model here, and how do you remain financially sustainable?

Samasource acts as a payment intermediary. Our clients send checks to us and we pass most of it onto our partners. We charge a 10 percent fee just to cover costs.

What is your background in international development?

I spent the last 10 years in international development and management consulting. At Harvard, I studied Africa development and went on to work at the World Bank and other NGOs. I got pretty disillusioned because I couldn’t see the impact fast enough, and I wanted to get out there and get my hands dirty.

In connecting two very different worlds (Africa and Silicon Valley), what’s a myth you hope to dispel?

When people think of Africa, they think of people with their hands out; but really, they are just like us and want opportunities and a leg up. It’s a moral challenge for us to level the playing field of opportunity. Facebook application testing is considered prestigious work in the markets we work in. You’re lucky to get a job where you can work at an office, in front of a computer. If you make $2.50 a day, you’ve made it! 500 people work for Samasource partners; most of them come from low-income backgrounds and are supporting family members. Jobs are mission critical. Money is well leveraged at Samasource; what’s harder to quantify is the dignity we make possible.

How is Samasource different from traditional outsourcing?

It’s silly to use the word outsourcing because it has this connotation of large U.S. companies sending jobs overseas to China and India – and that’s not at all what Samasource does. We handle much smaller projects, between $70 and $100,000. We enable living wages, and that’s no more outsourcing than it is fair trade. There’s also no reason why we can’t work with poor communities in the U.S. I recently went to Mississippi to see if we could extend our model there, training local people to do remote work or bringing women who are stay-at-home mothers into local technology centers. The poor are globally distributed, and there’s a definite possibility to bring our work closer to home.

How did you find the fbFund process this year?

The process was democratic. I think it’s great the fbFund even chose nonprofits at all. By naming us, we get valuable visibility to our cause.

As a nonprofit, how do you feel about the fbFund’s policy toward nonprofit finalists?

fbFund isn’t giving seed capital to nonprofits, which is unfortunate because we need it just as much as anyone else. Dave McClure is committed to nonprofits, but in general it’s an indication of Silicon Valley’s attitude toward the nonprofit industry. Nonprofits can innovative just as much, but it’s for an audience that can’t afford to pay.

Thanks Leila! Any final thoughts?

The most powerful way to alleviate poverty is to give work, not aid. Now developers on Facebook have a way to do that.

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