Meet the real digital nomads
There was a famous campaign Oxfam ran back in the Nineties with the catchline: ‘Give a man a fish and he’ll feed himself for just a day, but give him the means to catch his own fish, and he’ll be able to feed himself and his family for a whole lifetime.’
Mohamed Anis, founder of social impact enterprise StepUp.One, wants to do the same for the world’s 100 million plus refugees – men and women – living in camps, empowering them not with fishing rods but with digital marketing skills.
“We’re giving them the rod, we’re taking them to the lake – where there are real fish – we’re teaching them to fish and then we’re giving each of them their own lake and putting teams behind them to help them set up a fishing business,” he says.
If this plan sounds a little bullish for a social impact enterprise, it’s perhaps because Anis brings with him the ambition of a software engineer who reached a senior position at Indian IT giant Infosys – the $13bn company founded by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s father-in-law, NR Narayana Murthy.
Anis was inspired to leave IT and focus on social impact following a speech given by Mohammed Hassan, the ambassador for refugee rights at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019.
Hassan, a displaced person from Somalia who has lived in Kenya’s Kakuma camp for more than twenty years, urged the world to “redefine the purpose of refugee camps”.
He added: “It’s high time that refugees are seen as partners in development efforts, rather than a burden to society. We have people with talents who, given a chance, can perform. Let’s move away from this model of handouts and see how we can really empower people to provide for themselves.”
Anis reasoned that if his former company could outsource 350,000 India-based software developers to thousands of global clients – then why not apply this model more broadly by offering a service that everyone needs, that would be relatively easy to train people to do.
And so four years ago StepUp.One was born, aiming to reskill refugees as digital professionals, deploying them to deliver sales, marketing, recruitment and fundraising individuals, start-ups, scale-ups and enterprises.
The project started at the Kakuma camp in 2019 with five refugees and now boasts a team of over 1000, across seven camps.
“The focus is to deploy them to remotely manage the digital marketing side of a startup or an enterprise’s businesses, so that founders and executives can focus on their daily business lives, while we help create impact for them within the digital space,” Anis explains to TI, over a Zoom.
I should add here that this interview that was arranged by one of StepUp’s graduates Mwesa Ahmed, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo now working as a digital marketing manager, who approached me via startup conference Slush’s networking app.
Because Anis is focused on reskilling as many people as possible, the training he has devised is unique and aimed at a broad range of people with varying levels of education, work experience and English.
He describes it as “a step by step guide”: there are 230 things in total that each student needs to do, broken into ten steps and based around a scenario-based training model.
He adds: “It goes into excruciating detail and each thing involves a click, a very precise activity that you must do. And they use the same training with the client once they land a job. They go through same 150 to 200 steps. And by keeping it the same, they are able to master the technique.”
Live sessions are delivered daily as a small ‘hackathon’ via a video conferencing platform that runs at 9am UK time. Snippets of these sessions are recorded for trainees and practising digital media managers to watch for revision purposes.
“What we run through on a daily basis is ‘how can we solve our clients’ problems?’ Let’s say we win 5-6 new clients that week. We discuss each client with the group, and how we are going to solve their challenges and how we are going to work with them. So people are learning real world experiences from hundreds of clients who signed up with us,” Anis explains.
“The steps you can learn in two to three hours is not rocket science, but when you see them applied to every client – it gets into your brain and enables you to apply those steps to different personalities and difference businesses,” he adds.
Trainees are also given tutorials on tools such as Canva, for graphic design, Hootsuite, for social media automation and analysis, and, as soon as it was released back in November ChatGPT .
“We’ve done thousands of hours of Zoom training on GPT, and already, so much content has come out of that from my team,” Anis adds.
Clients, not charity
In terms of clients, the firm has now worked with 120 founders, 100 executives, ten creators and five recruiters.
With a charge for the service of $300 a month, the easy wins initially lay with VPs in enterprise: everyone wants to be seen as a thought leader or a connector, but so few have the time. It’s also something that is easily expense-able.
But far more satisfying, adds Anis, is the work they do with startups.
“With founders we find that we’re really treated as part of a team. Also, you start with a founder, and, as the company scales they need more of us – we mirror their success and growth.”
Startups were certainly the firm’s focus at Slush this year, where the organisation claims to have helped one Norwegian ocean tech entrepreneur set up ten meetings with investors at the Helsinki event, despite only having signed up two weeks before.
The number of StepUp graduates has now exceeded 1,400, but Anis says scaling this year is will be a challenge.
This is partly because StepUp.One is not a charity and so can’t fund the much-needed infrastructure costs required to fund workable office space and connectivity in camps such as Kakuma.
Ahmed, whose clients include a UK-based Jamaican entrepreneur, works from one of the Kakuma’s community centres, which enables 20-30 people to work at the same time. But to be able to fund their own purpose built centres they need to scale.
“We’ve been doing this for two and a half years and we’ve got more than a 1000 people working for us but where do I get the money to give these people the infrastructure they need?” says Anis.
“As a principle we never accept donations from anybody. The only way anyone can work with us is that we will deliver value for them and we will expect that value to be delivered back to us.
“Because that of we are growing slowly. Training a person who then builds a team can be a slow process. Our best investors are our customers. If each customer pays $300 for our service, we are more than happy to grow slowly but at a sustainable pace.”
Subscribe to our Editor's weekly newsletter