- Sama is a longstanding and trusted employer in East Africa and has helped lift more than 59,000 individuals out of poverty
- As a certified B-Corp, Sama is committed to paying all members of its workforce a living wage standard to each region, offering competitive benefits, and providing upward mobility training
Every day, we hear and read about artificial intelligence’s potential to impact the way we live, work, and play. From making travel easier to book, to improving health outcomes for families, to protecting our ocean floors, AI applications are already advancing our society for the better.
What’s not always discussed is what’s behind the machine learning algorithms we rely on: a band of people making AI technologies work. At Sama, we believe that humans-in-the-loop — especially those creating and monitoring the quality of training data — are at the heart of AI.
Protecting the heart of AI means ensuring team members in the AI supply chain are treated with dignity and respect, paid a living wage, and are given the opportunity to build life and career skills that set them up for long-term success.
Social impact has been baked into Sama’s recruitment strategy and business model throughout our history. To date, we’ve helped lift more than 59,000 individuals out of poverty. With a vision of equally distributing opportunity by bringing work to underserved parts of the world, we’re dedicated to providing meaningful digital employment opportunities at a global scale.
A look at Sama’s impact model
Sama was founded in 2008 on the premise that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. Our business model was designed to minimize inequities by providing people from marginalized communities with training and work that pays a living wage for their respective regions.
The International Labor Organization estimates that 8 out of every 10 workers in Africa are in informal employment – the highest share among all the world’s regions. While a substantial part of the economy, informal work doesn’t provide many of the protections, nor the stability, of work in the formal sector.
For many members of our workforce, Sama serves as an on-ramp to formal employment. As part of the recruitment process, we ask questions about prospective team members’ backgrounds to better understand how an opportunity in the formal sector could impact their longer-term trajectory and, ultimately, support a sustained lift out of poverty.
What’s more, employment at Sama has a ripple effect. Through our research, we’ve learned that many of our employees support siblings, parents, or their children and wages help pay for school fees, rent, and other household and living expenses.
Access to a living wage and benefits
Minimum wages — and even fair wages — do not always cover the actual cost of living for individuals and their families. Employment at Sama has a tangible and immediate impact on individuals’ lives. New team members see an average of 3.6x increase in their earnings when joining the company and we pay a living wage, plus healthcare and other benefits, that cover expenses for employees and their dependents in all regions.
In Kenya, for example, the 2021 monthly basic minimum wage in Nairobi for general workers was Ksh 13,572 ($119 USD), however, the estimated cost of living for a family of five in a non-metropolitan area is Ksh 39,622 ($394 USD) per month.
To help bridge this divide and enable individuals to sustainably move out of poverty, Sama is committed to paying all members of our workforce a living wage standard for each region. As part of this goal, we employ a living wage definition that aligns with the United Nations and other experts in the field.
To do this, we conduct annual living wage estimate exercises grounded in the Anker methodology, which has been used around the world to produce high-quality, consistent, and objective information about living wages and wage gaps. In our own exercises, we use data collected directly from members of our workforce to understand the size of their households and how they contribute to household expenses, as well as data on typical costs in the cities where they work and live. All costs are aligned with applicable local and international standards and benchmarked against available third-party estimates.
Validated through an extensive independent MIT study, individuals who were trained and were included in Sama’s hiring pool out-earned the control group and were more likely to experience better outcomes. For our female workforce, which is historically impacted by the gender pay gap, the MIT study found that women who were trained and included in Sama’s hiring pool earned, on average, 60% more than women in the control group.
Sama’s team members in East Africa are full-time employees. In addition to offering our team members salaries well above their country’s minimum wage, we’re committed to providing our workforce with benefits such as health insurance, an opt-in pension plan, transportation to the office, subsidized meals, and paid leave for new parents.
Ongoing professional development for long-term success and upward mobility
Paying our workforce living wages is one part of supporting a sustained lift out of poverty, but alone it’s not enough. Individuals need to build transferable, market-aligned skills to secure work in the formal economy.
In a 2019 study from Aga Khan University’s East Africa Institute, employers said they need employees with strong life and technical skills. Through Sama’s professional development platform, Sama U, team members receive critical training in topics ranging from basic digital literacy and the future of AI to using tools like Slack and Google Suite to communicate effectively in a professional setting.
Training begins with foundational courses focused on level setting digital skills and awareness of AI applications. Foundational courses also provide guidance and resources for individuals who are new to the formal workplace. While at Sama, team members continue to learn by taking required and optional technical courses, courses on wellness and development, including how to regulate behavior and emotions when working with others, and courses to build soft skills, like how to work as an effective team member.
Taking care of our people
We recognize that training AI systems is a tough job and for many employees, it’s their first time working in a formal workplace setting. That’s why we’ve invested heavily in building programs to support not only team members’ professional development but their personal development and wellness as well.
We have developed a robust mental health and wellness program, which includes access to counselors and psychological support, regular wellness breaks, in-office wellness (healthy foods, meditation rooms, maternity rooms, exercise, and game rooms), and 3-weeks paid time off.
When the pandemic first hit, we launched SamaHome within weeks, an opt-in program that provided access to hotel accommodations for employees who didn’t have reliable internet or a home base that was conducive to working out of. Additionally, we offered unlimited Covid-related sick days and office furniture stipends.
Now, we’ve transitioned to a hybrid model that includes working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing new opportunities for Sama employees and members of their households to continue their learning. To ensure all members of our workforce had what they needed to safely and effectively work from home, Sama connected more than 1,000 team members to high speed internet connections. At the time, these employees did not have internet access in their homes.
When we asked our team members how they were using the internet during non-work hours, 58% said they were focusing on their own professional learning – one of the most cited uses of the internet during non-work hours. Some 40% of employees said members of their household were also using the internet connections for professional development.
As we reopened our offices, we’ve worked to keep our team safe by following local and CDC guidelines, having nurses on site, and hosting three vaccination drives for employees and families that choose to vaccinate.
Holding ourselves accountable
As the first AI infrastructure company to become a certified B Corporation, creating impact through intentional hiring and employment practices is essential to our model.
We collaborate with industry leaders and organizations like the Haas Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership and Partnership on AI to advocate for more ethical AI supply chains and responsible sourcing, as well as for dignified employment for humans-in-the-loop.
It is also important to us to empirically and objectively assess our impact. Since 2008, we’ve tracked various outcomes resulting from Sama’s training and employment opportunities. From 2017 to 2020, we collaborated with Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on a Randomized Controlled Trial. The study validated the effectiveness of our training and employment programs in creating sustainable pathways out of poverty in Nairobi, Kenya.
While we’ve made significant progress in establishing a new norm for tech and AI workforces globally, our work is far from done. We are committed to continuing to unearth new ways to meaningfully improve employment and income outcomes for those with the greatest barriers to work.