Impact Sourcing (what I was doing in Zambia)

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to explain what I was doing in Zambia – both while I was there and since I’ve been back in NZ. Unfortunately, “working for an impact sourcing company” just doesn’t have the same intuitive ring to it as “working at a school/hospital/orphanage/wildlife sanctuary”.

“Impact Sourcing is the socially responsible arm of the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and Information Technology Outsourcing industry. Impact sourcing intentionally employs people who have limited opportunity for sustainable employment—often in low-income areas.” (Rockefeller Foundation)

For anyone who doesn’t immediately recognise the ‘outsourcing’ industry, yes, it’s basically businesses lowering their costs by sending work to other parts of the world where you can pay people lower wages than at home. Cue images of sweatshops and incomprehensible call centre operators.

Impact sourcing, however, is none of these. While it operates on the same basic premise, it has an explicit social mission of providing valuable employment and skills to those at the bottom of the global economic pyramid. As the definition above mentions, impact sourcing largely involves BPO and ITO work such as data entry, web research, transcription, and customer support.

It’s a rapidly growing industry, too. The mammoth BPO and ITO industry is expected to be valued at $574 billion in 2015; impact sourcing is projected to have an almost 30 percent CAGR and account for 11% of this market, up from 4% in 2010 (Rockefeller Foundation). Like regular outsourcing, it remains most concentrated in south/south-east Asia, but is also rapidly growing in sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Ghana, and Kenya in particular).

There are a number of different models amongst the Impact Sourcing Service Providers (ISSPs): industry pioneer DDD combines employment with tertiary education, Samasource is non-profit and has a focus on women, and Cloud Factory uses its unique technology to break tasks down into tiny micro tasks. I worked for Impact Enterprises, a new entrant to the industry that focuses on partnering with startups.

After having mainly worked with non-profits over the last few years it was refreshing to work with a company that was turning a profit. I have, however, always been torn in my views about social enterprise: can it truly deliver social goods on a grand scale or is it just a capitalist wolf in sheep’s clothing?

While I still haven’t fully made up my mind, I’m pretty positive on the potential of impact sourcing. ISSPs aren’t just highlighting a nice spin-off benefit of their work while pursuing a profiteering, damaging, business-as-usual. They may epitomise aspects of the neoliberal economic project, but ISSPs don’t directly damage our environment and could employ thousands upon thousands of un- and under-employed in the global South while helping them develop 21st century skill-sets.

The lack of valuable employment, particularly for youth, women and minorities (all of whom are also increasingly educated), is without a doubt one of the greatest challenges facing developing economies. ISSPs can help address this through targeted hiring of the most disadvantaged (DDD in particular). While most clients are currently northern companies, there is also huge potential for South-South impact sourcing, particularly with regards to the digitisation of government records in Africa.

However, despite these positives, a question mark will always remain regarding their clients and the role they plan in an unjust international economy. While one hopes they would try to live up to their branding as ‘social enterprises’ when choosing their business partners, it cannot be taken for granted.

There’s a growing body of literature out there on impact sourcing, but key starting points are Impact Hub  (a network for ISSPs and businesses interested in impact sourcing) and Rockefeller Foundation’s “Digital Jobs Africa” initiative (see the links to the reports by Accenture and Avasant).

Internal review and training session at Impact Enterprises.

Internal review and training session at Impact Enterprises, Chipata, Zambia, 2014.

Stuff I liked

I’ve decided to take a leaf out of Chris Blattman’s excellent blog by doing a brief, regular roundup of some of the stuff I read / saw / watched / listened to during past week or so (and liked). See how Chris does it here.

This week I liked…

I’d love to hear what thoughts you have on these articles or issues, as well as what stuff you liked this week.

The anti-climatic Zambia post

Before leaving for Zambia I was super excited for all the amazing blog posts I would be inspired to write while I was working there. Now having been back in New Zealand for over a week, with no blog posts written, one might expect an enthralling, tell-all essay to cover what was been an incredible trip. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

All I can muster is a series of bullet-pointed thoughts that were at the forefront of my mind during different parts of my trip:

  • Poor people aren’t all lazy, but neither are they all hard workers. I met some both the laziest people I’ve ever seen and the hardest working people I’ve ever seen while in Zambia – they were all ‘poor’ and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future, almost entirely because of the environment they lived in.
  • It’s so easy to take for granted the computer literacy we have developed from growing up with them all our lives. Even if ambitious attempts to bring digital tech to the hundreds of millions of world’s poor succeed, the lack of intuitive computer (not cell phone) skills amongst most of the developing world’s youth means the benefits flowing from rapidly advancing computer technology will continue to be source of global inequality for at least another generation.
  • There are a myriad different kinds of poverty. The needs of and challenges facing people living on <US$1.25 vary wildly from doing so in a rural village, to those in a minor city, and to those in a large city. I think most anti-poverty campaigns could do a better job of appreciating this.
  • Land cruisers may have become a lightning rod for criticism of large, out-of-touch development NGOs, but after seeing the quality of roads in parts of Zambia (despite massive and ongoing road building efforts) and the difficulty of access to many communities where NGOs work, it’s clear they’d often be (at times literally) wallowing in the mud without them.
  • Perspective is a tricky issue, and it’s difficult to be able to properly and simultaneously grasp the big and small picture. I met a lot of people (including myself at times) who would use global or national statistics to paint pictures of unrealistic optimism, and a lot of people who would despairingly just throw their hands in the air at the seemingly stagnant and hopeless situation in their locale.

Hopefully I’ll be able to draw more on my time in Zambia in the future, but this is it for now. I also hope that getting this post on the board gives me some momentum to write more regularly.

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