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Nonprofit teaches high-tech skills in the developing world

Digital Divide Data, a nonprofit, trains disadvantaged workers in the developing world. The program is offered in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya.

January 02, 2012|By John Boudreau
  • Yon Meakchan leads his village's cow to a stream for a wash after tending to his family's rice field at their home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Yon is a participant in Digital Divide Data's training program, converting publications into electronic form.
Yon Meakchan leads his village's cow to a stream for a wash after tending… (LiPo Ching, San Jose Mercury…)

Reporting from Phnom Penh, Cambodia — When Yon Meakchan isn't converting publications into electronic form for customers such as Stanford University, he pedals his bicycle 10 miles south from his office to the rural edges of this city of 2 million people to help his family, pulling weeds in rice paddies, tending to banana trees and wading into a murky river to bathe oxen.

"Poor people work very hard," said Yon, the eldest of eight children who grew up in a bamboo and thatched-roof house. "If they want to buy nice clothes or a motorbike, they can't. But the rich people can buy nice clothes. They can buy motorbikes. I want to be that rich person."

Yon, 22, now has a shot at a life beyond poverty thanks to Digital Divide Data, a 10-year-old nonprofit with roots in Silicon Valley that trains disadvantaged workers in the developing world for entry-level technology jobs. In the developing world — Digital Divide has operations in Laos and Kenya as well as Cambodia — a small amount of training can be the difference between grinding poverty and a comfortable life.

Although the organization pulled in about $2.3 million in revenue last year, its core mission is to train and educate those like Yon, who works six-hour shifts while also attending a university.

During the five-year training program, he and other employees earn $85 a month, a good salary for part-time employment in Cambodia's impoverished economy. They also get a college scholarship worth at least 65% of costs, healthcare insurance and extensive English lessons.

Graduates leave well on their way to a better life. They earn two to three times the $150 average monthly salary of Cambodian university graduates, the organization says.

The training gives them hope in a world where dreams are often crushed, said Mai Siriphongpanh, a Digital Divide Data board member.

"Dreams are not for poor people," she said. "Today you have to worry about what will happen to you tomorrow. Will you have food to eat?"

When Yon's 8-year-old sister recently contracted typhoid fever, he had to borrow $40 from a teacher to pay for her medicine. While life remains a struggle, he is brimming with optimism. He hopes to one day become a university professor and earn enough to ease the burdens of his family.

Digital Divide Data was launched with donations from Silicon Valley venture capitalists and receives funding from the Skoll Foundation in Palo Alto and support from companies including San Jose networking giant Cisco Systems. Its client list includes universities around the globe and publishers who use the nonprofit to digitize books for Apple Inc.'s iPad, Inc.'s Kindle and Sony Corp.'s Reader. Google Inc. hired the nonprofit to manage its AdWords campaign in Africa.

"We've got kids living in the slums at night and managing AdWords during the day," said Chief Executive Jeremy Hockenstein, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant who co-founded the organization. "If it can work there, it can work in other countries with slums and office towers."

Governments in developing countries recognize the enormous potential of outsourcing companies to provide jobs, but they are usually for "the more educated and affluent people," said Susan Kagondu, a researcher in the Rockefeller Foundation's Africa office, which supports Digital Divide Data.

A report in June funded by the Rockefeller Foundation estimated that the income of workers like Yon can soar as much as 200% when they are employed by outsourcing operations such as Digital Divide Data, which has about 750 trainees and full-time employees in addition to 400 alumni. The study said that by 2015, nearly 800,000 bottom-of-the-pyramid workers could be employed in regions including Southeast Asia and Africa, representing 11% of the $178-billion global market for so-called business process outsourcing.

While the report notes that global outsourcing is draining the United States of some jobs, Hockenstein said the work done by his employees — tedious and time-consuming data entry and database creation and management — would be prohibitively expensive to do in the United States.

"A university couldn't afford to spend several million dollars to digitize a library, but it can afford to spend a few hundred thousand dollars" by hiring organizations like his, he said. His model is to spread some of the work to areas of the world beyond India, China and the Philippines, which he said represent about 80% of the outsourcing industry. "If we can harness a huge flow of revenue that is already out there, we could get more people out of poverty."

Many of Digital Divide Data's services do not require a lot of analytical skills. Nonetheless, they are crucial, said Cathy Aster, project manager at Stanford's digital library systems and services department. "They are helping to make a larger portion of our cultural heritage available in an online environment to a population from around the world," she said.

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