Evolution of a startup: How Souktel uses mobile phones to improve lives

shutterstock_417324376As an international aid worker, Jacob Korenblum couldn’t help but see what was driving the cycle of poverty in the Middle East. Unemployment was rampant — particularly among young people.

The problem wasn’t always a lack of jobs. Often they were available. But with limited Internet access, no reliable communication link existed between the labor supply and demand.

And that’s when Korenblum noticed something else. Cell phone use was growing in the developing world. What if those mobile devices could connect employers and qualified workers? That brainstorm became the basis of Souktel.

“It wasn’t a single, a-ha moment,” said Korenblum, the president and CEO of Souktel. “It was more of a gradual understanding of what communities were dealing with and how traditional solutions were not working. You really need to spend time in those communities and truly come to understand the challenges they’re facing. Until then, you can’t possibly think of what the solutions might be.”

Souktel, founded in 2006, has become one of those solutions. The pilot project was launched in the Palestinian territories, where youth unemployment was at 40 percent and military checkpoints separated laborers from potential jobs. Souktel matched 10,000 mobile users to much-needed jobs through low-cost text messaging.

A decade later, the innovative startup is reaching more than 500,000 mobile device users in 30 countries around the globe. In addition to jobs, Souktel has expanded to connect people with a wide range of services and emergency aid. In Turkey, it’s ensuring that Syrian refugees get legal advice. In Liberia, Souktel is helping with the post-Ebola recovery effort. In Afghanistan, women are put in touch with information about community services.

Souktel, a Tech Awards laureate in 2010, is being honored again this year as part of a retrospective gala on Nov. 17, 2016, celebrating the program’s first 15 years. Souktel will be recognized with the PayPal Equality Award for the impact it has had since first being named a laureate. It will receive a $50,000 prize. Learn more about all of this year’s laureates.

The organization has transformed the mobile device into a lifeline.

“The notion that a cellphone could be used for something other than making a phone call and chatting with your friends wasn’t even conceived of at the time,” said Korenblum, a Harvard-educated native of Toronto. “Then it became about matching a job-seeker and an employer. But now it could be a patient reaching a health-care provider. It’s all about linking supply and demand of any kind.”

The name Souktel is derived from Arabic. Souk means market and Tel is for telephone. And they have created an information marketplace with cellphones.

Korenblum, who is fluent in Arabic, doesn’t have a technology background — just like half of the company’s 30 employees. But his previous experience with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Canadian International Development Agency has helped him understand the challenges of the people he is trying to serve.

The idea behind the job-matching product was ingeniously simple and perfectly tailored to a local population that had basic cellphones, but not necessarily smartphones. Workers can post mini-job resumes via text messages. Employers do the same with mini-job ads. Souktel’s platform connects the two parties.

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The trick was solving a difficult technology question. Souktel’s solution compresses data into small packets that can be sent across poor mobile systems in countries that sometimes don’t even have 2G networks.

Souktel took that model and branched out into a multitude of social services. The work with Syrian refugees is a great example. Souktel has helped about 7,500 people who have virtually nothing find legal advice about their rights.

“There are basic questions that refugees in Turkey have, like if they are able to enroll their children in school,” Korenblum said. “That’s a key concern because refugees are worried about their kids’ future. We anticipate reaching tens of thousands more Syrian refugees in the months ahead.”

With seemingly no shortage of upheaval in the world, Souktel will continue to make connections.

“People might be from different backgrounds, but they are united in a common purpose for things like creating better healthcare and education,” Korenblum said. “Everybody working together is a key priority, and technology can help people do that. That’s our aim.”

This post originally appeared in The Tech Museum of Innovation.

The Tech Museum of Innovation is an interactive science and technology center located in the heart of downtown San Jose, California. Views expressed in this article from Telecom TV do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.

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