Muhammad Mustafa, MS ’17: An On-Ramp for Pakistan’s Illiterate Workers

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Muhammad Mustafa, MS ’17: An On-Ramp for Pakistan’s Illiterate Workers

Armed with an education, this 2017 Social Innovation Fellow gives less-fortunate compatriots the tools to find jobs online and leave poverty behind.
June 29, 2017
2017 SIF Fellow Muhammad Mustafa
2017 SIF Fellow Muhammad Mustafa | Stacy Geiken

With an inexpensive mobile phone in his hand, Taza Gul approached Muhammad Mustafa while Mustafa was out for a walk in his wife’s home village in Peshawar, Pakistan. Gul was excited but apprehensive: He’d found a YouTube video that demonstrated how he might be able to grow calabash gourds vertically.

Gul’s family had been growing gourds on the ground, on rented land, for generations. The vines could grow to be 13 feet long. They took space and sucked nutrients from the soil.

Mustafa pulled out his own mobile phone.

“I researched more, then and there,” he remembered. “The vines grow better when they grow in the air. I wanted to encourage him.”

Within two years, Gul had multiplied the yield on his land by seven times: a life-changing increase for a tenant farmer.

Why had Gul never tried vertical farming before? Simple: He didn’t know about it. Gul can’t read; it was only because a nephew had lent Gul his phone and pointed out the video that Gul had access to this momentous information. The encounter was life-changing for Mustafa, too. He had built a 10-year career in telecom in Pakistan, working for VimpelCom Ltd. (now Veon), an operator with 200 million subscribers in 14 countries, and for Mobilink, Pakistan’s largest telecom operator, with a subscriber base of 36 million.

“It never occurred to me when we were building all these fancy towers that there is a big segment of society that will never be able to benefit,” Mustafa said. “Every day, I started noticing how many illiterate people I would come across — security guards, gardeners. I thought if there were a way to provide all this information, it would be very useful to them.”

Honing his idea to focus on jobs, Mustafa, a Sloan Fellow at Stanford Graduate School of Business, is developing a platform with an icon- and audio-based interface that can be used by employers to post positions online and by illiterate people to find jobs and apply for them. On Sept. 1, he will launch EasyJob in Islamabad, Pakistan.

“I have lived all my life in Pakistan, and there I witnessed abject poverty every day,” he said. “I have seen generations of families trapped. But what is shocking is that the escape from poverty can be simpler than imagined.”

The Problem

The burgeoning of the internet and greater access to technology are helping to vault many of the world’s poor into the middle classes. In two or three years, there may be a tipping point. For the first time ever, a majority of the world’s population could live in middle-class or wealthy households, according to a recent Brookings Report.

Yet there is a huge group of people left out of the revolution: about 780 million illiterate people around the world. Many of them cannot use the internet because so much of the information available there is in written form, as are most search engine interfaces, Mustafa points out. Illiteracy keeps families from accessing ideas and job opportunities that could help lift them out of poverty.

The problem is particularly severe in Pakistan, Mustafa’s home. For instance, 70 percent of the country’s rural poor are illiterate. Some job portals, such as SkillBazaar.co, cater to illiterate workers, but the sites do not provide online interfaces. Instead, they use offline mechanisms, such as hiring physical agents to act as intermediaries between employers and job-seekers.

Existing aid doesn’t meet the needs of illiterate adults, Mustafa said. As he tells it, when he hired interviewers to speak with the illiterate poor in Pakistan, India, and Kenya, many respondents said: “Give us money, build a school for our children, but we don’t want your aid. What we do want is to earn more.”

“I have seen generations of families trapped. But what is shocking is that the escape from poverty can be simpler than imagined.”
Muhammad Mustafa

A woman in a slum in Kenya exemplifies the pride and determination of these individuals. A washerwoman, she realized that if she learned to make a kind of bead, she could sell the beads and earn more money. But without the ability to read, all she could ever do was observe the process. She found a job in a laundry where a window overlooked a nearby bead-making workshop, and she watched.

The Novel Solution

By using accessible audiovisual tools to connect illiterate workers with employment opportunities, EasyJob is intended to give people a leg up in their quests to earn better livings. The company is launching its eponymous platform with $110,000 in funding from Stanford’s Social Innovation Fellowship; it is also building a mobile app.

To post a job, businesses will pay a fee of 5 percent of the ultimate value of the opportunity. Mustafa hopes to eventually sell advertising on the platform.

EasyJob’s icons identify the type of labor required — such as gardening, working as a security guard, or caregiving — and the length and hours of the engagement. Applicants can click to connect to potential employers by phone.

EasyJob is Mustafa’s second iteration of an idea to help illiterate people. He first aimed to build a broad education platform.

“In my arrogance, I enrolled in Startup Garage,” he said, naming a famous entrepreneurial course at GSB. “My classmates pushed back. They asked, ‘Do you really know what the market wants?’ ”

It was at that time that he hired people to interview illiterate poor people in economically disadvantaged countries. He learned that what they overwhelmingly wanted was an opportunity to find additional work.

“They weren’t asking for a pay raise, by the way,” Mustafa said. “One man said, ‘I work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. I have a lot of free time, and I could do another job.’ ”

And so EasyJob was born. To build the platform, Mustafa had to find an effective language.

He first tried pictures. “Pictures didn’t work,” he said. “Each photo had some cultural nuance.”

Then he found free icons through a Google search. Combined with audio, the icons did the trick.

The Innovator

Mustafa personally understands the power of information to lift families out of poverty. His grandfather was a teacher in a village school and the father of nine children, four of whom died because of undernourishment. He insisted that his surviving children become educated, and Mustafa’s father went on to become a civil servant and to marry an English teacher.

“It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for my grandfather to imagine his grandchild attending Stanford University,” Mustafa said.

Launching EasyJob is a cause close to his heart because it will enable many more families to afford school for their children. The business itself is a family effort in which Mustafa is joined by his wife, Suniya Sadullah Khan. “I don’t think I will recruit my 2-month-old son yet,” he joked.

Islamabad is home to one of Pakistan’s thriving tech communities, so Mustafa expects to have access to talent, as well as a testing ground in some of the slums, as EasyJob gets underway. If it proves successful in his home country, he plans to expand the concept to other developing markets.

— Elizabeth MacBride

Muhammad Mustafa received an MS from Stanford GSB in 2017. He was awarded Stanford GSB’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which provides up to $180,000 in funding, along with advising and support, to graduating students who want to start a nonprofit venture that addresses a pressing social or environmental need during the year after graduation.

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