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Big Omaha – Leila Janah: Providing ‘digital work’ to people living in poverty

Leila Janah’s desire to help people in the developing world dates back years. As a high school senior, she traveled to Ghana, which fueled her interest in helping bring people out of poverty. Photo by Malone & Company from Silicon Prairie News on Flickr.

 Samasource is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing “digital work” to people living in poverty. Leila Janah, CEO of Samasource, discussed her start as a social entrepreneur and told the story of how Samasource provides opportunity to those in developing nations. 

Her early interest in helping people in poverty

Eleven years ago, Janah was a junior at the California Academy of Math and Science, which she described as “a refuge for nerds from all over West California.” After beating her friend, Kuma, at a science fair in her project on nitrogen fertilizer, she received a $10,000 college scholarship for community service work and non-smoking. “Simply advocating the idea of using big tobacco money to fund some fancy education,” Leila decided to use the money to see poverty first hand by volunteering to teach English in Africa. 

Her time in Ghana

In one of the poorest countries in the world, Janah’s high school trip to Ghana gave her a glimpse of those who weren’t fortunate and not born into a “birth lottery,” but instead doomed for a difficult life. At age 17, she had a massive influx of “sixty partially excited students and only three text books, at one of the poorest countries in the world.”

On poverty and job opportunity in Ghana and Keyna

Janah made a sad case about the slow job growth and opportunity for Africans and those in third world countries. Some of the key facts highlighted by Janah:

“Four billion people live on $3 a day.” 

“In Ghanda and Kenya alone, 1 million young people graduate from secondary institutions and face 70 percent unemployment.”

“In Kenya, 92 percent of people cannot read and write.”

“In Somalia, a young man who becomes a pirate in the Red Sea, will earn 17 percent times the average daily wage, even when you adjust for the risk of failure.”

On outsourcing and its impact in poor countries

Janah says that outsourcing has created several jobs in developing nations and even made Indian and Chinese companies billionaires. The internet is a gateway to providing jobs that pay significantly more than the jobs provided by those within poor communities. “The internet reduces the friction of collaboration across all of these centers and time zones, and with a highly distributed workforce,” Janah says. By leveraging the internet and iterative tasks like data entry, Samasource has been able to provide relatively lucrative jobs to poor countries, while providing an affordable need to corporations in the U.S. 

On Samasource success of helping Paul Parach

Samasource, which derives its name from sama, the word for “equal” in Sanskrit, has helped extend opportunities to those born into poverty by providing higher-paying jobs. Take Paul Parach, who had been forced to separate from his family and take on relentless work that found him abandoned and eventually shot in the leg. Parach eventually found himself in Dadaab, a refugee camp located near Kenya-Somalia border. The refugee camp had computers, with which he taught himself how to use the computer and eventually earned a job with Samasource.