How Silicon Valley Machine Learning Is Transforming Lives in Kenya
Most investors were quick to turn down a tech startup based in Kenya, a country where 42% of the population lives below the poverty line and the largest industries are agriculture and forestry. However, that didn’t deter Leila Janah from launching Samasource, the first non-profit to develop technology training tools and jobs for low-income residents.
In order to impact source jobs, that is, deliberately give work to people in need, Samasource secures large contracts from enterprises like Walmart and Google. The company then breaks down these large-scale digital projects into what they call “microwork,” small tasks their workers are trained to complete.
Samasource currently employs more than 600 employees across India, Kenya, Uganda, and Haiti. For most, it’s their first formal job. Prior to joining Samasource, people earn around $2.20/day in areas where the poverty line is at $3.55/day. Workers receive training from Samaschool, then become employed by Samasource where they are able to earn a living wage, develop skills, and build their resume.
In the 10 years since the company was founded, more than 2,000 people — including workers and their dependents — have benefited, and the average employee’s income has increased by nearly 400%. Juliet Inganji Mutuli, a Samasource employee, says, “I’ve become an independent young woman, doing things for myself without asking for financial assistance from anyone, and that is an amazing feeling. Samasource has made me who I am today, a better person in terms of finances and general livelihood.”
Leila Janah’s goal of increasing the quality of life in poverty-stricken areas creates an intersection between capitalism and non-profit work which is best exemplified in the experience of its employees.
“When I came to Samasource, I had no idea whether I was coming, going, or gone in this life. This was due to the fact that I had no source of income, yet I had bills to pay. Samasource improved my standards of living through the salary/income I earn. I no longer depend on other people for my sustenance. I am a self-reliant person.”
In an effort to contribute to positive change, Walmart has been working with Samasource for the past two years. And the partnership isn’t simply based on charity; Samasource teams produce high-quality work that helps further Walmart’s machine learning initiatives.
Vamsi Madabhushi, a Product Manager at Walmart Labs who works closely with the Samasource team says, “Quality is important to them. You really get the sense they are there for more than just the financial transaction. They are a true partner.”
Walmart’s partnership with Samasource includes evaluating Walmart data to ensure accuracy, and training Walmart systems. When an item can’t be classified by the current model, for example, when a completely new product is introduced like the fidget spinner, Walmart needs Samasource to classify the items manually. Additionally, that data is then picked up by the Walmart model, which learns from the manual classification and can begin classifying on its own.
Since working together, Samasource has covered more than 2.5 million items, and their work has improved Walmart’s item coverage from 91% to 98%.
Darpan Sachdeva, a Data Analyst at Walmart Labs, oversees these partnerships, “The value system is different. It’s not a cutthroat market; there’s a sense of dutifulness and responsibility.”
Even more impressive, Samasource appears to have overcome a common problem in Silicon Valley: over half of the workforce is made up of women. With a lactation room, 90 days of maternity leave, and flexible shifts, Samasource is an example to be followed around the globe.
While Samasource has been able to create an incredible model for business, that’s not to say it goes without its share of conflict. Leila is well aware that paying $9/day for work that serves some of the most profitable companies in the world is controversial. But she believes we have to look at the larger picture. “One thing that’s critical in our line of work is to not pay wages that would distort local labor markets. If we were to pay people substantially more than that, […] that would have a potentially negative impact on the cost of housing, the cost of food in the communities in which our workers thrive.”
Samasource acknowledges its opportunities for growth and is committed to making necessary changes that will fulfill its initial goal — creating a company that transforms lives, and entire communities, starting with the most in need.