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It Takes Many Villages—and Cities—to Train Tomorrow’s Workforce

Written by

Paula Klein


A home health caregiver in California and an elementary school student in the U.K. each use custom technology to train for future careers. Thousands of miles away in India, people without prior computer experience in AI and computer vision are learning to use these systems for global business applications. In southern Brazil, meanwhile, family farmers are matched with produce buyers, hotels, and restaurants to more efficiently balance food supply and demand. And in Kenya, artisans and informal workers get access to jobs and global markets thanks to digital platforms.

The common threads among these diverse examples are digital technology and inclusive innovation. The five regional winners of this year’s MIT IDE Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC) in the category of Skills Development & Opportunity Matching are using creative business models, fine-tuned training, and local expertise to shape tomorrow’s workforce today. On November 8 at the MIT IIC Global Grand Prize Gala, 20 regional winners from Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America — including these five inclusive innovators — will vie for $1 million. (The event will stream live at 6 p.m. ET. Watch on the MIT IIC Facebook page.)

(The Event was streamed LIVE November 8 !Watch the livestream on the MIT IIC Facebook Page: )

Suma’s Tech Connection

 “Data technology is a fundamental part of Sumá. We could not reach the scale or impact we want without it,” said Daiana Censi Leripio, Operational Coordinator of the farm-to-table mobile platform she co-founded with her husband, Alexandre Leripio, last year.

Sumá is connecting 2,000 farmers and producer cooperatives directly with buyers, eliminating a number of intermediaries. The online marketplace uses customized mobile technologies such as online learning and chat-bots, social networks, supply-demand curation data, optimized routes, and database analysis. As a result, “we have been able to increase farmers’ average income by 30%–and some as high as 80%–and reduce the cost of purchasing fruit and vegetables by 10% for restaurants and hotels, said Alexandre Leripio, an agronomist, who is CEO of Sumá. Moreover, food waste was reduced an average of 15%, and higher-quality, fresher produce was consumed.

Farmers “are very excited to find these new business approaches” and support materials, Daiana Leripio said. At the same time, “we are happy to invest in rural communities that were losing their traditional ways, and seeing young people leave for jobs in the cities, she said.

Lynking into the Kenyan Economy

Lynk is also a technology platform making a difference for local communities. In Kenya, Lynk matches “informal workers”—those without full-time employers—with customers on an online commerce platform. The platform offers the critical technology infrastructure that’s often lacking for Kenyan workers. Similar to the service LinkedIn offers professionals, Lynk creates user profiles, referrals, and listings for service workers—from plumbers to manicurists–who promote their work on the platform. Additionally, artisans can showcase their products on the site.

 “We saw informal workers—who comprise 83% of the population in Kenya, and more than one-third of national GDP –idle and without access to markets, materials, and  logistics,” said Adam Grunewald, CEO and co-founder of Lynk. “It was an ecosystem that needed help and had very high potential.”

The site is much more than a recommendation engine or Yellow Pages, he said. “We are a full-service marketplace, as well as a payment platform.” The two-year-old Nairobi enterprise has been described as a cross between Task Rabbit and Etsy. To date, Lynk has recruited and verified more than 1,400 workers across 72 service categories, and completed more than 25,000 jobs from paying customers. It has also signed a number of key partnerships with large-scale vocational training institutions for worker recruitment. But more than skill training is needed, Grunewald said. Too often, there are no jobs or access to customers once the training is done. In his view, “Economic growth will come from traditional sectors in Africa, and we think this is key to the future.”

The platform can be accessed via mobile app and SMS, and automatically identifies qualified workers based on subskills and other signals such as location, price, range, language and experience. Lynk charges consumers a 10% commission to the quoted job value; there is no charge to workers. The platform is generating sales of $2 million yearly, and Lynk is currently raising capital for regional growth.   

Raising the Bar for Home Healthcare

Helen Adeosun, CEO of CareAcademy, believes that the U.S. is facing a “silver tsunami” as the elderly population explodes. Data shows that the cohort of adults over age 60 will double by 2050, and 86% of them will want to receive care at home. Those demographics mean there is a “huge need” for professional home-care workers. CareAcademy’s mobile app—offering on-demand home-health care education– is not only up-skilling employees for future careers, but offering much needed solutions for the aging population.

The video-based training and certification program—accessed via smartphone or the Internet– makes it easy for caregivers to continue their education on their own schedules, so they can better serve clients and advance their careers. The program has a 92% completion rate, Adeosun said, which is much higher than typical industry-wide rates. “The result is a better caregiver, a better home care agency, and better care for patients.”

The proprietary program is scenario-based with lessons and assessments built in as the learner progresses. In three years, more than 22,000 caregivers have gone through the training. “We built our own classes because no robust content was available,” Adeosun said. While North America is the target market today, the model is applicable elsewhere, too. CareAcademy programs are offered in every region of the country and “as demand grows, we are forming new agency partnerships,” she said.

Adeosun said CareAcademy also wants to raise the bar and change mindsets about home-health careers. The program seeks to empower caregivers and elevate their jobs–and their salaries. “When caregivers have access to education that treats them with a high level of professionalism and respect, they want certification and advancement.” Employers, who pay for the courses, are also educated and encouraged to invest in their employees’ future. [NOTE: CareAcademy was one of the Grand-prize winners.]

iMerit’s Human-Machine Interface

iMerit trains workers for long-term careers in a very unique skill-set. Its employees, often economically challenged, are taught data and content work for machine learning and computer vision applications. It offers an entry to other technology and career opportunities, according to Jai Natarajan, iMerit VP of Strategic Marketing and Technology.

In five years the company has grown to over 1,600 employees in eight locations; seven in India and a new facility in New Orleans, LA, in the U.S. More than half of the workers are women (including the founder-CEO Radha Basu), and 80% come from low-income backgrounds.

 iMerit is a big leap for many prospective workers. “This may be the first time anyone in the family has earned a salary in an office job,” Natarajan said. While educated, few employees were computer-literate or had university degrees before joining iMerit. Nonetheless, they now work in fast-paced, technologically advanced and demanding positions supporting technology innovation teams at more than 100 worldwide businesses. Employees label, segment, and validate data, and create taxonomies for data scientists, financial analysts, and engineers. Natarajan said that “iMerit leverages human intelligence to label and enrich data in machine learning, natural language processing (NLP), and computer vision.”

Results of a recent impact study iMerit conducted with employees showed that nearly 80% felt their work was making a difference to society, and 70% said their stature in their family has risen since working for the organization. They also have made purchases—such as water purification systems—made financial investments, and are participating in the larger economic community now.

During the intensive three-month, on-site training course, “learning by doing” is emphasized and pattern-recognition, context and exceptions matter more than rules, Natarajan said. In fact, previous backgrounds as artisans, artists, tailors, or designers are often very useful in the new work. “When we recruit, we look for detail-orientation; people who are strong visually with shapes and images.” Iteration is fast and simulation tools often provide training on the fly. These are skills workers of the future will need as we work more closely with machines, Natarajan said.

Teaching Children Computing One micro:bit at a Time

No group may be more open to learning new skills than children. For this reason, BBC micro:bit inspires children, with a focus on girls and those from disadvantaged groups, to participate in the digital world. It uses a tiny, programmable computer designed to make learning and teaching easy and fun. Micro:bit Educational Foundation is a U.K. based organization that provides low-cost or free devices to participating educational programs across the globe. In 2016, the microcomputers were given free to every child seven years of age or older in the U.K. The BBC initiated and was project lead for the program.

Kavita Kapoor, COO, said the growth of the organization from its BBC roots to becoming an independent educational foundation last year, is testimony to the urgent need for digital skills around the world. Many initiatives promote computing, but few are strictly for kids. The computers are used in schools in 50 countries and there are more than 200 different online activities and resources are available.

Kapoor aims high. “Our mission is to inspire children for their future. We’d like to reach 1.8 million kids worldwide, especially those who don’t have access to computing, whether they’re in rural Virginia, Scotland, or Southeast Asia. We’re helping to get the skills into those hands via donation programs for Syrian refugees in Greece, and at after-school programs in Bangladesh, for example.”

The micro:bit JavaScript Block editor can be used to write the code in minutes. The website, hosted on Amazon Web Services, allows anyone to access coding examples and the web- and app-based programming environment.. The user can drag and drop blocks and try the program on a simulator. The process is simple, but the applications are endless.

Kapoor sees ease of use and creativity directly preparing youth for the digital future of work and for “jobs that haven’t been invented yet. This type of creativity is normal in the technology field today, but it will soon be required everywhere. We’re not creating coders,” she said, “We want student to become artists, archaeologists, and philosophers” who are also adept with digital tools. That’s the future of work.