Fredrick Nzioka Soo, Masy Sou, and Thip Nouansyvong grew up in different countries, but faced the same challenges: poverty and lack of opportunity. Digital Divide Data fueled their future with training, scholarships, and data management jobs.
The personal stories behind the statistics are almost as staggering as the statistics themselves. More than 341 million unemployed youth live in developing countries, barely subsisting on less than $2 a day, and with hope of finding meaningful work about as fleeting as hope for three meals a day.
Fredrick Nzioka Soo’s father died when he was young, and after two years of hard labor in his Kenyan village, he decided it was best to relocate to Mathare, a slum in Nairobi with about half a million residents. “It was atrocious,” Fredrick recalls. “I lived in a small sheet-iron makeshift. Even in daytime it was the equivalent of a cave in terms of darkness. I knew all was well when the day ended without chaos.”
Masy Sou’s father died before she was born, leaving mother and daughter to fend for themselves in Cambodia. When her mother became ill and had to be hospitalized, Masy needed to find a way to feed herself, and bought fruit to sell at the market. “While sitting there, I knew I did not want to be a seller,” she recalls. Her mother had told her, “I don’t have any assets to give you. So, knowledge is very important. When you have knowledge, everything is yours.”
Thip Nouansyvong was born into a poor Laotian family. “I didn’t see any opportunity to step foot into a university.” But, she says, “I realized I would make a mistake if I didn’t motivate myself.”
All three found their way, by happenstance and good fortune, to Digital Divide Data – a social enterprise founded in 2001 to create better opportunities for low-income youth—including young women and people with disabilities—by providing them with the work experience, and English and computer skills that could lead to successful, sustainable careers.
Digital Divide Data recruits young people living in poverty and trains them to deliver services like data entry, digitization, document conversion, and web research to clients worldwide, via centers in Kenya, Cambodia, and Laos.
Potential recruits undergo skills testing, home visits (to confirm their families' level of poverty), motivational interviews, skills training, typing practice, counseling—and eventually placement. Youth selected to participate in the work/study program serve as data management operators and work 6-hour shifts performing work for clients. The income they receive is higher than most opportunities for youth. Digital Divide Data also provides healthcare for all of its workers.
Since 2010, Cisco has provided product grants to help Digital Divide Data improve its technology infrastructure and expand its programs by training and employing more young people. Cisco grants have allowed the organization to to expand its workforce in Nairobi, improve its service line, and invest in new services, such as eBook production. Having access to Cisco technology in the workplace provides an opportunity for the operators to gain skills in networking technologies and pursue careers in the local IT industry.
Although Thip, Fredrick, and Masy came from impoverished backgrounds, all three knew that the way to a better life could be possible by gaining a better education and computer skills.
Thip had heard about Digital Divide Data from her neighbor, whose daughter worked there. “I knew that DDD gave free scholarships to students. I was not confident that I would be selected because I believed DDD gave scholarships to the best students only, and I knew nothing about English and computers,” she said. “But, my neighbor’s daughter told me everyone studying at DDD was a disadvantaged student, so I would have an equal opportunity. I decided to go for an interview and got selected.”
“My recruitment to DDD came as a surprise,” recalls Fredrick. “A stranger came and asked my friend casually, ‘are you interested in applying for a job?’ My friend was not ready, and I said I would give it a chance. I started the vital training and tests. It was a wonderful day for me.”
Long before the day she found herself sitting in a market selling fruit, Masy knew she wanted to work for an organization that used computers. “It was the first goal that I set for myself, to learn about computers and to have a job when I could use them.” Shortly after Masy’s mother’s health got better, Masy saw a roadside announcement that Digital Divide Data was seeking volunteers. “I never hoped that I could work at DDD, but luckily I became a trainee in 2006. I liked the work; it helped me improve my computer skills.”
After a probation period, youth are eligible to receive scholarships to pursue higher education while they work. Operators typically work at Digital Divide Data for about 4 years until they earn degrees, building their experience in technology-related work and receiving support for their personal development, soft job skills, and leadership. By the time operators finish their degrees, their work experience and education make them competitive for well-compensated, dignified work opportunities.
It wasn’t long before Masy was promoted from operator to trainer, then to a team leadership position, and to project management administrator, all while continuing her university studies. “Everything I have received from DDD has helped me to improve my personal life, allowed me to get more technical skills and professional knowledge.”
“I have gained overwhelming experience,” says Fredrick. “My typing speed has improved and I am able to work with many computer programmes, for instance HTML/XML, Abby Finereader, Flex Capture, e-Pub, Adobe Professional, data entry, and scanning.”
“I appreciate DDD for awarding me with an opportunity to purse a bachelor of commerce degree at Kenyatta University,” Fredrick says. “I hope in the future I will be a renowned financial consultant. I have been able to cater to my needs, pay for my younger brother who is in high school, and also support my mother who is ailing.”
Masy graduated from the university in accounting and finance in 2011, and says, “Everything I have now is because of working at DDD. Before DDD, I thought the world was not fair to poor people like me. Things were very dark for me and the way into the future was not sure. But when I started to work at DDD, everything began to change in my education and my family life.”
Thip took the work experience she gained at DDD and the scholarship she was awarded and used it to study political science and law. She graduated from university and began work as a legal fellow with Clinical Legal Education, at the National University of Laos in Vientiane Capital. “My main task is to educate local people to understand justice and the law so they implement it seriously.”
Digital Divide Data has hired more than 1700 people since inception, and 554 of them have gone on to graduate from college. As many as 50 percent of employees are women, and 10 percent are disabled. After their tenure with Digital Divide Data, they are able elevate themselves from poverty to the middle class, and become role models for their families and their peers.