A SOCIAL enterprise called Digital Divide Data takes poor people from the provinces and teaches them English and computer skills while they work and get paid – transforming physical documents to searchable digital archives for a variety of clients.
International clients include the national libraries of the Netherlands, England and Singapore along with Cambodian telecommunications companies and the Cambodian government’s Ministry of Planning – all of whom are willing to pay for the transformation from physical to searchable, digital documents.
According to general manager Kunthy Kann, who was a poor young student himself from Kampong Speu, Digital Divide Data provides a four-year work-study programme and requires a high school diploma for admission.
“We have more than 400 graduates now who are making about US$400 per month – from a background of making about $30 per month in the provinces,” Kann said.
More than 400 people are working in DDD’s Phnom Penh office, 150 in Battambang, 300 in Laos and 30 in Kenya.
The Kenya expansion was encouraged by the Rockefeller Foundation, one of DDD’s donors, according to Kann. “We are also thinking of opening an office in Vietnam.”
With a total of 800 people and a work-study programme as a model, Digital Divide Data aims at giving disadvantaged young Cambodians “soft skills” and specific work skills.
The work of the operation is done in two shifts, one for work in the morning and one for studying in the afternoon. After four or five years the student workers graduate and DDD helps them move on to better jobs.
“They have good skills and know how to behave in companies and we help them to move on to better jobs,” Kann said.
Young Cambodians who want to join DDD must graduate from a state-recognised high school and only 27 percent of Cambodians graduate, Kann says.
“This is a work-study programme, a bridge – a four-year programme. At the beginning, most students speak very little English,” Kann said, “but by the time they graduate, they can get jobs for $400 a month at places like ACLEDA Bank – a salary that stands in sharp contrast to the $30 a month uneducated people earn in the provinces.
“This is a place for developing human resources for Cambodia.”
The DDD office, toward the west end of Street 360, was established in July 2001 with 20 data operators.
According to Kann, DDD has no ownership – but is a social enterprise.
“When we first started it was 100 percent funded by donations from the US.”
The founder is Jeremy Hochenstein, a graduate of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who had been working for Mackenzie Consulting in Hong Kong when he visited Angkor Wat and saw students working on computers when he visited a school operated by World Vision.
“He asked what they were doing after training, and they said there were no jobs available.”
DDD’s first job was the digitisation of the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper.
“In Cambodia we are doing record management solutions,” Kann said. “Companies like telecoms have forms and we scan those forms and we transform them from physical to electronic. Most surveys done in Cambodia are handwritten. We are able to enter the data which makes it easier to analyse.”
Seventy percent of the jobs are international, according to Kann.
“For example we are doing jobs for the Dutch National Library, and so far we have converted about 8 million pages of documents from physical to a searchable, electronic format.”
Because of DDD’s work, students around the world don’t need to go to the library to search for documents – they can easily access them via the internet.
“Digitisation saves time and saves space,” Kann said. “You can even read documents from an iPad, an iPhone or by e-books. The business model is that we generate the business. The revenue is going into salary, education, scholarships and capacity building.
“The social model is people from underprivileged backgrounds, living under the poverty line, but they have high school, but cannot go to university because of no money.”
In an effort to break the cycle of poverty, DDD’s idea is to provide a means of both study and income generation for poor kids so they don’t have to be forced to stop studying to work for their family to generate income.
“We train in English and computer skills for six months, so after six months they know basic English and some sort of soft skills like team work. Most of them are from the provinces, so they need to learn how to live in the city, ride a bicycle and how to adjust to their new environment.
“After six months we offer them a job. We offer them full-time English for free for almost one year because English skills are very important. If you know English you can graduate and get a much better salary.” Kann said.
When young people graduate from DDD after four years, they are offered 60 to 80 percent scholarships to study at universities – along with career counseling.
Kann himself was a poor boy from Kampong Speu when he had to work on his mother’s farm after he finished high school – owing to a lack of money.
“I ended up working as a farmer for almost a year. Mum would splash me with water at 5am.”
Unimpressed with the farming life, Kann decided to take his bicycle to Phnom Penh and try to find a place to learn English and computer training for free.
“I lived in a pagoda with a monk and I had a bicycle and after two months I found a Christian church – the New Life Foundation – and they provided English and computer training for free.”
That led Kann to teaching English himself, and eventually to his work-study job at DDD 10 years ago.
Today, at age 33, he’s the general manager and is the boss of some of the people he used to work for.
Along the way, he took a one-year scholarship to Japan, learning to speak Japanese, and working for Toyota and Hitachi. He helped found DDD’s Battambang office. He was married in 2009.