Mohammed al-Kilany is changing Middle Eastern labor markets and economies from opaque systems that exclude most job seekers, to transparent systems that empower all, by using simple and accessible mobile technology.
The New Idea
Mohammed al-Kilany is changing the pattern of how job seekers and employers traditionally match their needs. He has created a new accessible system using basic mobile phone technology, which provides all job seekers, regardless of location, gender, or socioeconomic background with information on the labor market and job opportunities.
Kilany established Souktel Inc., an organization whose core innovation developed by Kilany, helps job seekers and employers connect through simple text-messaging (SMS) processes. From any mobile phone, job seekers create SMS "mini-CVs" that include basic data on their skills, location, etc. From the other side, employers create similar mini-job ads and post them to the same database, enabling job seekers to search these opportunities from their own phones.
Kilany is addressing several of the major factors leading to unemployment – a lack of access to experience (such as internships), a lack of access to information on how to find work, and a lack of access on where to find work. Through Souktel, Inc., Kilany’s using a written and oral system through mobile phones and has managed to connect with and place thousands of young Palestinians whose circumstances, education, and lack of resources had previously denied them access to employment opportunities and information.
On the other side of the coin, employers want a pool of candidates who meet their exact qualifications while also saving money, time and effort usually spent on screening CVs from unqualified applicants. Kilany created a platform to connect job seekers and employers more equitably and transparently, which gives equal opportunities to job seekers while also saving time, effort, and costs for both the job-seeker and the employer.
Kilany’s goal is to help communities improve their economic prospects by empowering them with better information about the available jobs and positions. In addition to providing a platform for marginalized groups to find job opportunities, Kilany is providing transparent information regarding employee rights on issues such as minimum wages to the job seekers.
The product of systemic failures in the areas of technology access, workforce preparation and poor labor market information flows is a problem that affects job seekers across the Middle East. In the 21st century in particular, a lack of technology access is a major barrier to obtaining reliable job information. In Palestine, just 34% of adults over age 18 have access to the web in their own communities (src: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics). For young women, leaving the home to access internet to search for jobs is even tougher, as most public Internet cafes are dominated by males, and computers in the home are uncommon in rural or low-income areas. Educational support on jobs and skills preparation is equally discouraging. On average, only 3% of instructional time in Middle East high schools is devoted to job preparation. In the West Bank, none of the 12 major universities has a full-time career resource center or counseling services (src. World Bank Group). In technical colleges the situation is no different. Such factors contribute to a national unemployment rate that stands at over 20% for adults above age 25, and at over 40% for young adults aged 18 – 25 (src: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics). With 27% of the Palestinian population aged 15 – 25, nearly 500,000 young people in the West Bank will be looking for jobs over the next three years (src: UNDP). This creates an immense challenge for the national labor market if good systems are not introduced to help youth find work.
In Palestine, the pilot area for Kilany’s initiative, the lack of access to the job market is part of a larger problem. Years under military occupation without a regular government have created a humanitarian crisis that limits most Palestinians’ access to technology, education, and training for the workforce. These restrictions hinder job seekers as they often limit where a person can work, whether they can access an in-person interview in a timely manner, and basic information flows. In this context, technology access is severely curtailed and most remote areas have no Internet access at all. Young graduates, employers, and ordinary community members all are lacking good, simple information sources for the basic necessities of their daily life.
This problem is not unique to Palestine either – many of the countries across the Middle East and African region —like Iraq or Somalia—are dealing with their own difficult economic and political situations, and so access to technology is limited in these places as well. Across the developing world, there is no good way for qualified workers to get information about jobs, and connect with local employers. In most countries, job seekers have low Internet access, few government resources, and limited social networks. However mobile phone use is booming in almost every emerging market: In Kenya, cell phone ownership has risen by 160% in the past two years. In Palestine, 80% of youth own mobiles. In Bangladesh there are 30 mobile owners for each web user.
By leveraging this simple and near-universal technology, Souktel bridges information gaps and helps job seekers get informed about meaningful, productive work, and overcome many of the political, economic, and systemic barriers that have previously prevented them from doing so.
Each country in the region presents unique challenges, but they have in common the fact that the political and economic situation worsens the economic problems already present. Furthermore, those living in rural and marginalized areas have little access to Internet or newspapers for information about job openings. Souktel‘s JobMatch platform can help people living under those conditions to improve their economic prospects.
Mohammed Kilany established the social enterprise Souktel Inc. in 2006, which allows users to leverage their mobile phone-based SMS service to receive and send information concerning employment opportunities. Kilany proposed this idea in 2005, while volunteering with a youth group and from there it blossomed. He and his partner, Jacob Krueglem, submitted their model at the Harvard Business Plan in 2006, placing second and receiving funding to fully develop the Souktel concept.
When Kilany decided to tackle the issue of youth unemployment in the Arab World, he took great efforts to ensure that he addressed the challenge tangibly and concretely. First, he and his team looked at many past initiatives that had failed: NGO projects, government programs, and private-sector services like online recruiting websites. The critical question was why did they fail, and what value could we add through new technology to help people become productive, active citizens? Kilany began to understand that simple, accessible information was the answer—and that mobile phones could be the medium, because nearly every person has one. To confirm this hypothesis, he and his team reviewed research on youth unemployment in the MENA region: World Bank studies, UNDP documents, and local country profiles. He then conducted 20+ focus groups with unemployed youth and local employers in Palestine, Morocco and East Africa (Somalia). This additional inquiry confirmed that many jobs do exist in MENA countries—but they‘re left unfilled because job seekers and employers don‘t know how to find each other. Kilany then felt more confident that a phone-based information service could solve this problem, and succeed where other ventures have failed.
In 2007, Kilany and his team launched the pilot program at Birzeit University – a leading Palestinian higher education institution. Within a year, over 40% of service users had found work/internships through Souktel (compared to a 25% success rate at traditional HR firms); 75%+ of employers using the service had cut hiring time and costs by over 50%. The results of the piolot convinced Kilany that Souktel had real potential to help communities across the region improve their social and economic well-being, so Kilany decided to scale the initiative: In early 2008, Kilany partnered with three additional Palestinian universities on a Ministry of Education employability project that brought Souktel to campuses across Palestine. Since its founding, employers have reported that Souktel has helped them cut down time and costs involved in sourcing employees by 50%. Palestinian job seekers have also confirmed that their income has increased by $400+ after finding jobs through the service.
In early 2009, Kilany expanded this service beyond the Middle East to Somalia, where over 6,000 job-seekers used the mobile service to find work at close to 100 major employers, through a service run in partnership with the national mobile network Telesom, and US-based non-profit the Education Development Center (EDC Inc). The initiative received partial funding from the US Agency for International Development. In late 2009, Kilany launched another mobile job information service in Morocco, again through partial USAID funding and in partnership with US-based non-profit the Near East Foundation.
Kilany is constantly improving the technology in order to adapt to the changes in the labor and economic market as well as expand services to other marginalized groups in the society. For example, Kilany is exploring the possibility of introducing a specialized service for the visually handicapped so the message will be communicated over a voice service instead. In addition, low-skilled workers who may be illiterate and unable to read or respond to text-based SMS messages can use the voice service. In Uganda, Kilany adapted his technology to set up a new Farm Price SMS service, which allows average Ugandan farmers to get real-time market prices for the crops, as well as potential buyer information.
The pilot project began in Kilany’s home country of Palestine, but he has designed Souktel to be easily scalable and replicable across the developing world. Souktel has expanded into Somalia, Morocco and Latin America and plans to expand to other countries in the Middle East, North Africa and North and East Africa in the next few years. Before expanding into a country, Kilany’s team performs extensive background research to understand the job landscape and the type of problems typically plaguing job seekers such that the technology can be adapted to meet their needs. Furthermore, Kilany’s team conducts research to determine whether the ideal conditions for technology deployment are present: the country must having growing rates of mobile phone use and good network coverage, for example. For technical scaling, Souktel’s “plug-and-play” modular application requires minimal hardware, minimal set-up time, and minimal added cost to increase its scope and reach. For service model scale-up, Souktel’s service concept can be promoted easily through existing NGO partner networks and programs.
To date, 8,000+ job seekers and 200+ employers use Souktel’s JobMatch technology every day. In particular women in traditional communities surveyed by Souktel indicated that Souktel has had a marked impact on their work prospects and lives. Previously women had minimal access to job opportunities without being able to leave their homes, use Internet cafes for job searching, or pick up and move to a new city in hopes that they will find work. However Souktel has provided three distinct services that have changed the entire landscape for job searchers, and enabled women in particular to have increased access to job markets. First, Souktel has introduced the concept of internships, where employers can advertise unpaid positions to help job seekers earn experience rather than sitting on the street or at home, waiting for employment. Second, Souktel has partnered with Google to pilot bringing 3,000 hours of outsourced IT temporary labor that job seekers can complete wherever they are. And third, Souktel’s straightforward technology (that is accessible without needing a computer) has enabled women to source job opportunities without leaving their homes. As a result of these strategies, traditional communities surveyed by Souktel have demonstrated that 90% of their women now have jobs through the SMS service, whereas before these women were unemployed for six months or more since they were not permitted by their families to go out of the house and search for jobs. Additionally, Souktel itself is a model for equal opportunity, as six of its core 10 founding staff is women. Since Souktel’s founding, all 10 of these staff has remained part of the team.
Souktel is a social enterprise and is established as two entities: a for-profit entity (a corporation registered in the US), which is responsible for research and development of the technology, and also as a non-profit entity (NGO), registered in Palestine, which is responsible for implementing the technology in communities across the developing world. The for-profit arm attracts private sector investment to fund the creation of the high quality mobile platform. Then the for-profit arm donates the technology to the NGO arm, which delivers the job match service in low-income communities at no profit. Independently, the for-profit arm also sells some of the technology for commercial uses in order to earn revenue for the investors. Thus, the profits of the for-profit arm are reinvested in the social venture. This hybrid social enterprise model has allowed Kilany and his team to scale successfully without becoming overly dependent on donors and funders.
In five years, Souktel will have revolutionized the way ordinary citizens find and share information about work and the job market. By doing so, Souktel will also have improved economic outcomes for low-skilled workers across the developing world, and it will have created stronger linkages between rural/marginalized communities with the job market. Kilany aims to have 100,000 job seekers and 10,000 new employers use JobMatch by 2015. Among these users, Souktel anticipates that two-thirds of job seekers and 80% of employers will be matched with work or staff. Job seekers and employers will see their search times and costs drop by 50% or more. Newly employed users will earn $200-500 per month (median low-skilled wage for Palestine), enabling them to support 3-5 other family members. Employers who have found new staff will see gross income rise by $500-1000/month, thanks to increased productivity.
In ten years time, Kilany’s long-term goal is to expand to other developing countries as well as to the developed countries such as the US and Europe in order to empower the low-income workers. Based on the reported success of Souktel, Kilany aims to influence governments to change their labor policies—helping fix minimum wages, assure benefits, and promote fair hiring.
Mohammad Kilany was born in Kuwait in 1982 but grew up in a village in Jenin, Palestine and from a young age was a self-proclaimed addict to all kinds of technology. At his high school, Kilany won most of the technology and computer competitions. Always believing technology is the tool for solving many of the problems that his country and his peers faced, he always searched for solutions using technology. For example, when Kilany was in the tenth grade, his school lost several important hardcopy documents due to weather and aging. Kilany proposed to the principal that they scan every important document and create a digital archiving system. The school purchased a scanner and within a year, the important documents of the past 20 years had been scanned and digitally archived. The digital scanning and archiving became a policy adopted by the entire district Board of Education and Kilany was recognized by the school and the Ministry of Education for his innovative idea.
Through his life, Kilany personally experienced the struggle of unemployment and the stress it places on individuals and families. After the 1990 Gulf War, Kilany’s family was expelled from Kuwait and found themselves back in their homeland, facing major financial problems because, as Kilany states, they were outsiders with no connections. For many years, his father struggled looking for jobs and the family was used to living without money or savings. Kilany was able to earn a scholarship to attend university but the scholarship did not cover his final year of studying and he could not pay additional fees. Almost ready to give up on his dream to work in the IT sector, Kilany’s family made a tough decision. His mother sold her dowry (gold gifts from her wedding day), which was his family’s last and final source of wealth so that he could finish his degree.
After finishing his degree, Kilany wanted to repay his mother and family right away, however despite his degree, it was impossible to find a job. Kilany took on small jobs here and there, such as cleaner and waiter, but all these were short and poorly paid. As he recalls, “I had a degree in IT but no future, no options, and no way to link up with the employers in the big city.” Kilany decided to spend his last savings and took the taxi to Ramallah where upon pure luck he landed a small job at Paltel Telecom Group. Over time, he became a regular employee and was finally making enough to send back to his family in Jenin.
Kilany describes himself as one of the lucky few who was able to find a job. Yet, as a result of his experience with unemployment, he decided to use his IT background and knowledge to focus on helping other youth find jobs so that others won’t suffer the way he and his family did. This gave him the drive to create Souktel to help those in his community and beyond.
Kilany is also a Synergos fellow, elected for his Souktel Inc. initiative and Souktel was also awarded the King Abdullah II Youth Innovators Award. Every time another youth gets a job through his Job Match service, Kilany feels one step closer to solving poverty and unemployment so that eventually his own story will not be the common one.