Leila Janah was only 17 years old when she took her first trip to Africa. As a high school senior living in southern California, she volunteered to teach English in Ghana as part of a student-volunteer program. She was sent to the village of Akuapem and quickly settled in with students from the area, ranging in age from 11 to 25. Many were blind.
The experience was a study in all that is complicated and unique about Ghana, or any developing world country for that matter. Water and electricity were available only sporadically. People walked everywhere: A trip to the capital required a two-hour ride on a tro tro, a privately owned minivan packed with passengers.
Despite overwhelming obstacles and hardships, Ms. Janah says her students managed to make it to school every day, dressed in white, pressed shirts. “They were extremely motivated students,” she says. “They were hungry for information.”
Hearing Janah speak of her former students some 14 years later, it’s obvious that her time in Ghana remains near and dear. It’s only one of many experiences in her life that ultimately propelled her to create the nonprofit organization Samasource.
Launched in 2008, Samasource provides easy-to-complete work assignments that can be done using a computer (sometimes called “microwork”), such as tagging images, to people who live in countries including Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, India, and Haiti.
Samasource essentially takes apart complicated data-processing projects and breaks them down into smaller, more manageable steps that can be done remotely on PCs. Its business clients include the photo archive Getty Images, the social network LinkedIn, and the software giant Microsoft, among others.
The story of Samasource is really Janah’s story. After high school, she studied African development at Harvard University and as a student conducted fieldwork in Mozambique, Senegal, and Rwanda.