Last week in Kenya, I had a glimpse into the future. It is a space that integrates outsourcing demands, IT skills, entrepreneurship, and the formal economy with employment opportunities for the poor, particularly women and youth. 

Welcome to the world of micro-work.  I was visiting a Samasource training center in Nairobi.  Samasource is a social enterprise with a mission to provide productive and dignified computer-based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.

Its model works like this: Samasource acts as an outsourcing agent that focuses on data services such as image tagging and audio or video transcription. Upon receiving a work order from a client, Samasource breaks down the project into micro tasks and then directs these tasks electronically to partners in countries such as Kenya, Haiti and Pakistan where poverty levels are high. There, trained workers complete these tasks. Samasource provides quality assurance before the final product is delivered to the client. 

Samasource screens its partners—local non-profits or small companies—who employ marginalized women and youth.  Partners must fulfill social impact criteria such as paying workers a living wage. They also need to reinvest profits in their businesses, demonstrate the capacity to run a computer lab, and ensure quality work.  Samasource also trains workers at partner sites to ensure proficiency in key skills. 

This model seeks to tap into the global outsourcing market, now estimated to be over $500 billion.  Services such as data entry take up approximately $40 billion of this market annually.  As the world digitizes content and as the Internet expands daily, millions of bits of information need to be reviewed, checked, and archived to ensure accuracy and quality.  Basic tasks such as verifying business listings, video captioning, and translation must be completed.

Micro-work is changing the face of global outsourcing.  Work can be distributed anywhere in the world and completed any time. What is needed is a skilled workforce, an internet connection and a low-cost computing device.  Technology and web applications have become sophisticated enough to break down work into micro-units and facilitate the outsourcing to a dispersed labor force. Such virtual or digital work could have significant opportunities for job creation for young people as well as for integrating them into the formal economy.

This is especially promising in countries like Kenya and Rwanda that are positioning themselves as regional outsourcing hubs, and where youth unemployment is typically three times that of adult unemployment rates.

We need new ideas and models in digital work that can be scaled to meet global outsourcing demands. And, that can reach the vast pool of talented youth in developing countries who are searching for employment opportunities.