“We’re creating an entirely new type of company,” says Janah. By providing work to those who’ve never had it, “we’ve been able to transform communities of people.” (See my article in the new June 27 issue of Forbes about Samasource here.)
Janah, 28, came up with the idea for Samasource after eight years of wrestling with development issues –as an African development major at Harvard and a series of jobs that included a year at the World Bank. Ultimately she didn’t think aid was the right answer. “There’s a huge disconnect between what poor people were asking for and what aid agencies are delivering,” she laments. What so many of the people Janah met really wanted was a job that pays decently.
In this video interview below, Janah talks about the failure of development aid to create wealth and why Samasource can make a difference:
Since it was founded, Samasource has teamed up with 16 partner organizations in six countries – outfits that have computers, an Internet connection and willing employees. Samasource takes work orders from a U.S. tech company, breaks them down into simple tasks it has dubbed microwork, and sends it off to a partner in say, the rural Indian state of Jharkhand, where most of the other jobs are low-paid, backbreaking work in the coal mines. Microwork encompasses a broad range of tasks – anything from data entry to image verification and information retrieval. The Samasource partner in Haiti was set up to translate text messages from Creole to English. One project for a Kenyan partner entailed describing images for blind students.
As a nonprofit, Samasource is an interesting animal. It finds itself competing with for-profit companies like Mechanical Turk, a unit of Amazon.com that is a forum for freelance piece work; and Odesk and Crowdflower, which specialize in crowdsourcing freelancers to perform various tasks. But the for-profit folks don’t seem too bothered by the competition.”The number one company we take deals from is Infosys,” says Crowdflower CEO Lukas Biewald. Crowdflower sometimes subcontracts work to Samasource, but gets about 70% of its labor force by giving virtual goods in exchange for microwork to people (usually women) playing Facebook games like FarmVille.
For some clients, Samasource is an easy choice. Dara O’Rourke is the founder of GoodGuide, a website that rates products based on their health and environmental impact. For just under two years, he has been using Samasource employees in Jharkand, India to pull information on ingredients in items like shampoos and lotions from the manufacturers’ websites. He tried using Mechanical Turk but found that the results had high error rates. “Our data requirements are very high. We can’t be off by one chemical name,” says O’Rourke. (Amazon.com did not respond to my request for a comment.) “Samasource is a unique combination of a dedicated team that learns the task and goes out and does it.” It’s also, like the Good Guide, what O’Rourke calls a “for benefit company.” “Samasource aligns with our mission.”
Just like for any startup, there are ongoing challenges. “People don’t perceive us as a tech company, but we have pretty fantastic technology,” says Janah. Samasource’s software measures the time a worker spends doing a task and the quality of the work and creates an efficiency curve for each worker. The nonprofit uses the data to help direct training and pricing of its services. That technology, and the company’s good performance record and service, helped Samasource land some bigger contracts just last week, including one at a well known California-based technology company – but the details are under wraps.