The Monitor Group report estimated that Impact Sourcing would be a $20 billion market by 2015 out of which $10 billion would be the direct income for 780,000 people. By 2020, according to Avasant, the market will grow to employ 2.9 million people. The Monitor Group’s research suggests that Impact Sourcing employees’ incomes increase between 40% and 200%. Further advantages include the benefits of formal, stable employment and access to health care and education.
The potential of impact sourcing: from low-skilled to high-skilled work
So far the focus of so-called Impact Sourcing Service Providers (ISSPs) has been on low-skilled work. They typically hire and train physically or socially-disadvantaged people who generally lack advanced skills, including youth from slums, hearing-impaired, and women or ethnic minorities. They often work on ‘microtasks’, such as data entry and conversion, content management and transcription.
The microwork model was successfully introduced by US-based outsourcing firm Samasource. Its example was followed by others, such as Digital Data Divide (Kenya), TechnoBrain (Tanzania) and Rural Shores (India). These companies’ clients generally break down projects and processes into smaller, standardized parts and see this way of organizing as a more effective way to utilize staff and at lower costs.
The limitation of microwork is that although it improves the economic position of the worker through introducing job opportunities and significantly higher wages, it does not contribute to skills development and employability in other, more lucrative job positions. This is why it’s so important that job creation and skills development go hand in hand. And also that high-skilled jobs are on offer, creating a pull-effect, motivating people to learn those skills.
Software development: the perfect match for Impact Sourcing
Probably the most attractive area for creating high skilled jobs and skills development through Impact Sourcing is software development. As production methods from the open source community are increasingly being adopted in the industry, software is often already being produced in virtual teams. At the same time, there is a huge shortage of software developers around the world, resulting in sort of an infinite demand for software development skills.
The potential of Impact Sourcing software developers is huge. As an indication, McKinsey predicts that by 2025 online labor platforms will add 72 million full-time equivalents. Gartner estimates the current global IT outsourcing market at roughly $200 billion. And Upwork data suggests that the amount spent globally on online hiring for software development by 2020 will amount to $19 billion. Most of that money would go directly to the workers, and in the case of Impact Sourcing that would mean a major multiplication of their current income, if they had any.
Compare that to Fair Trade: in 2015 a relatively modest total of €138 million was received by producers in Fairtrade Premium. And whereas according to a Solidaridad report even the best performing smallholders only manage to earn an income of less than US$10 a day, it is at this moment certainly not uncommon for a software freelancer online to earn the same amount per hour instead of per day.
Tech giants turning to Africa
So the IT outsourcing market is already huge. And despite the fact that outsourcing projects are often associated with all kinds of difficulties, due the global shortage of software developers this market remains very promising, especially as technology increasingly allows for dealing with the traditional obstacles of remote working.
Moreover, whereas traditionally most outsourcing was done in India and Eastern-Europe, tech firms are continuously looking for untapped pockets of talent. For example, tech giants like Google and Microsoft have considerable interest in the African continent, where both have elaborate developer outreach programs.
Nigeria-based startup Andela has even managed to secure a $24 million investment from Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation. Andela runs a high-end IT staffing company, in which it builds and manages (remote) engineering teams with the most talented developers from tech hubs across Africa.
The Fair Trade Software Foundation
With all this interest to turn workers from low-wage countries into software developers, an important point of concern is to what extent this will be done in a way that truly pays fair wages and promotes the development of human capital. Andy Haxby of IT firm Competa foresaw these developments, as in 2010 he introduced the concept of Fair Trade Software (FTS). Haxby:
“Fair Trade Software is still a work-in-progress and we are continually refining the model, but essentially FTS is an economic model for the IT sector based on co-development partnerships and Fair Trade Principles. By creating virtual teams with members in both OECD and developing countries it is possible for software development services to meet Fair Trade criteria. Urban youth in developing countries are the largest marginalised group in the world, and FTS helps to not only provide employment but more importantly develop capability and grow the digital economies in developing countries.
Organisations that meet FTS criteria can use a FTS label. There are different labels depending on the type of involvement and degree or participation, but a key factor is demonstrable capacity-building. Simple outsourcing or impact-sourcing is not sufficient on it’s own, there must be a mechanism for skills transfer, for example by mentoring. The reason for the focus on skills transfer is that it is important for software developers in places like Africa to learn the skills needs to tackle complex projects in their own countries, without external help.”
Unlike outsourcing, in which tasks are assigned to partner companies in developing countries and delivered upon completion, the Fair Trade Software process right now is based on working in virtual teams. The Foundation is still exploring how to certify the different ways in which developers may be used. But that aside, Haxby sees little limitations:
“When we started working using the FTS model we thought that it would only be applicable to projects developed in-house with maybe one or two Scrum teams in the EU and one or two teams in a developing country. We did not think it would scale to much larger projects. However, we were recently involved in a project for the Kenyan government that involved 30 people in 5 Scrum teams split between Kenya, The Netherlands and the UK. It worked very well and I don’t see why you couldn’t scale further.
FTS is produced using international best management practices and to international quality standards. There should be no difference in quality to products produced entirely in the EU. Due to the coaching/mentoring aspects of FTS, and the need for constant quality review and code refactoring, FTS development can be rather slower than is normal for software developed conventionally but the final result is the same quality.”
Fair Trade Software is actually more competitive
Incentro is a high-end software agency that serves the top-100 Dutch corporations, which is certified by the Fairtrade Software Foundation. For Incentro’s Coert Prins, this approach cuts both ways:
“We started our Kenyan office because we wanted to make a change for the people in Africa. We have a strong believe that the only way to make something last it should have a sustainable business case. Like other Fair Trade products it takes a bit more effort and resources to give our staff fair working conditions (like proper wages, opportunities and investing in lots of training). To validate our way of working and share this value with our customers we decided to get certified and build Fair Trade Software.”
But there it also contributes to their own competitiveness:
“In this way we can stay away from the race to the bottom but stay competitive by focusing on quality software by well trained, skilled and happy employees. For the customer Fair Trade software gives them a clear and validated way to contribute to sustainable development goals. More and more companies have a CSR policy and this really fits in well without having to put in the extra effort.”
Moreover, according to Prins this way of working allows Incentro to mitigate the risks and negatives of traditional outsourcing:
“The quality of the software is key. Too many companies have been disappointed with the low quality software delivered by outsourcing to low labor countries. Although Fair Trade Software doesn’t compete with these very low prices it does provide a high value for money. We work with senior developers in the Netherlands who can interact face-to-face with the customer and co-create software with the team guarding the quality of the software. Combined with Dutch management in Kenya we deliver the same quality software as you can expect from our development in the Netherlands but at a more competitive price.”
Impact sourcing as a typical example of Shared Value
Incentro’s statements are supported by research. Impact workers tend to be more loyal and motivated than regular outsourcing workers or even inhouse staff. Research by the Everest Group shows that Impact Sourcing service providers (ISSPs) have a 15–40% lower attrition rate than traditional Business Process Outsourcing providers (BPOs).
Being able to retain staff and at affordable rates happens to be a major added value to companies in need of software developers. Especially since the quality of work goes up over the long term if a software team can stay together. At the same time, Impact Sourcing may lead to a better position of employers in their own domestic labor market as well: the values-driven, tech-savvy generation of millennials is known to favor employers with a clear and meaningful impact policy.