Poor, dusty, overcrowded — Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp (population: 300,000) is the last place you'd think to look for Web-savvy workers. But a growing number of camp dwellers are finding jobs in the digital economy thanks to Samasource, a San Francisco-based social enterprise.
Over the past year, Samasource has trained 16 Somali and Sudanese refugees to use the Web at a computer center run by the charity CARE. U.S. firms then hire the recruits to perform simple online tasks such as compiling lists of corporate Web sites and tagging roads on maps. The jobs, too menial for Americans, can pay $2 an hour, quadruple the daily wage for breaking rocks in a nearby quarry. (Samasource hopes to train 60 more refugees in Kenya this year.)
Ex-World Bank staffer Leila Janah (below, training a worker) founded Samasource in 2008 after realizing the talents of many Africans "weren't being tapped simply because they live in poor countries." Refugee-camp residents are especially marginalized, though some have enough education to perform skilled tasks — and to do work for clients including Google and Stanford University Library.
Samasource booked $300,000 worth of work last year. It now helps hundreds of people in Asia as well as Africa. In doing so, it has pioneered something once thought impossible: outsourcing with no losers.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.