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Vanessa Kanyi at her workstation in Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy of Vanessa Kanyi)
Vanessa Kanyi at her workstation in Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy of Vanessa Kanyi)

Focus

Microwork is the new, new buzzword in global outsourcing Add to ...

An hour's drive from Haiti's earthquake-ravaged capital of Port-au-Prince hums a cyber café, decked with dozens of new netbooks, intermittent Internet connectivity and hope.

Within these lemon-painted walls, 47 young workers are learning to translate emergency text messages in Creole, French and English - requests for medical care, food, water and shelter - to help improve response times by aid workers on the ground. Their messages are collected on an SMS feed and distributed to agencies such as the International Red Cross and the United Nations.

These Haitians are being hired as digital workers, not just for the immediate emergency, but for long-term work. The jobs will eventually range from creating digital handicrafts, such as online greeting cards or flower bouquets, to data entry, Google-map analysis and transcriptions.

The concept underpinning the centre is microwork, outsourcing bits of labour to disadvantaged youth, women and refugees in developing countries - from refugee camps in northeastern Kenya to remote pockets of rural Pakistan - and, now, Haiti.

It's the brainchild of Leila Chirayath Janah, a tech-savvy, globetrotting Harvard graduate and former World Bank analyst, who founded Samasource, a San Francisco-based organization, in 2008.

It has connected 1,200 people with work so far - digital jobs that can be done over the Internet, so all that workers need are laptops, connectivity and training. Samasource's motto: "Give work, not aid."

Ms. Janah's journeys have taught her that providing sustainable work is far more effective than charity; that literacy and education rates have soared in much of the developing world even as employment remains low; and that people in even the remotest pockets of the planet are connected via cellphones and laptops.

Recent figures back that up. More than half the people in the developing world are now cellphone subscribers, the United Nations reported. More than a quarter of the world's population were online last year. "And this access to computers - or modern cellphones - means the idea of outsourcing can really make a dent on poverty," she says.

"What's revolutionary is how we've broken down work into its smallest unit … and sent that to some of the poorest people in the world," Ms. Janah says.

Workers are paid per task - a few cents per text-message translation, for example - with payments sent periodically. Others are paid a lump sum once a project is completed.

Samasource is transforming the lives of people such as Maria Umar in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, whose work ranges from transcribing documents to looking up e-mail addresses and combing through spreadsheets, and of Vanessa Lucky Kanyi, in Nairobi, whose Web tasks include making online reservations to doing research, transcribing and scheduling.

Ms. Kanyi, a 22-year-old part-time psychology student at Nairobi University, is fortunate to have a job in a country where the youth unemployment rate is 40 per cent. "It has definitely increased my skills and marketability," she says. "It has also helped me pay for my tuition."

In a twist of globalization, her main employer is a Canadian woman from Vancouver who lives a bustling life in San Francisco. Shaherose Charania works round the clock for a global tech firm, and as a co-founder of an organization for women and technology called Women 2.0. She can't juggle everything, hence the need for Ms. Kanyi. The two have never met; they communicate through e-mail, Skype and Twitter.

"It feels like she's extending my arms and legs," Ms. Charania says of her assistant. "The geography of where she is doesn't matter."

Time zones can cause some weird work hours. Ms. Umar, in Pakistan, usually works until 2 a.m. local time and sometimes until 4 a.m. because she has European and American clients. She leaves Skype on so Samasource can alert her to urgent tasks, which tend to pay at a higher rate.

Less-urgent work requests are completed during both parties' business days.

The microwork resonates with other:. Facebook's foundation, Google and Body Shop are backing her organization with grants, while Stanford University helped to incubate the project.

An iPhone app called GiveWork is also popularizing the concept. Volunteers verify information or answer questions from Samasource workers on their iPhonesas they complete tasks. "It is neat to navigate through these microtasks [on iPhone]that refugees are working on and help them out," writes a volunteer.

The value of the global outsourcing industry - or having third parties do back-office work for large companies - was $112-billion last year, according to market research company IDC Canada. Ms. Janahwould like to see some channelled to people who arguably need work most.

"Our mentality about poverty and message in dealing with it are very much one way - it's about giving handouts, or sponsoring children, and not viewing them as potentially equal partners in development," she said.

Her own education in poverty alleviation began when she was 16. She used a scholarship to volunteer as an English teacher to high-school students in a small town in Ghana for six months. "My students were so bright. They listened to BBC radio in the mornings, stayed after classes to discuss books, and they could tell me what's going on in the world. And it didn't make sense to me that this kind of human capital should be so poor."

At Harvard, she studied African development, and went back to Ghana in summers to do field work. She noticed that people's lives improved through starting their own businesses: a man in Kenya selling earrings made of Tusker beer-bottle caps in a market; refugees in Congo, near the Rwandan border, starting a hair salon in the wreckage of a village covered in lava.

"The spirit of enterprise exists all over the world. People … want agency over their lives and they want to be able to earn enough month to take care of their families."

She entered into management consulting after graduation and went to India for a large outsourcing company, when the micro-outsourcing idea started to percolate.

Samasource is not without challenges. Some critics question the outsourcing of jobs from the United States, whose jobless rate is stuck at 9.7 per cent. But most jobs Samasource distributes pay below minimum U.S. wages. In East Africa, a few dollars a day keeps a family afloat; in the U.S., few would find that work compelling. Samasource is, however, exploring the possibility of helping disadvantaged parts of the U.S.

"Work is at the core of human dignity," Ms. Janah says.

"It's how we define ourselves and our position in the world. So this lack of work represents, in my mind, the biggest threat to global stability," she says.

Follow on Twitter: @taviagrant

 

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