ShaqoSearch: Innovation in the COVID-19 Era
By Morgan Kerfeld, 2020 Acara Fellow
ShaqoSearch is a project that won the undergraduate division gold prize and the crowd favorite award in the 2020 Acara Challenge. Feature image credit: Alight, wearealight.org.
Starting a company in Somalia in the midst of a pandemic is a reality I never thought I would be living. This last year we have learned an entirely new vocabulary; unprecedented, social-distancing, incubation period, and unimaginable circumstances became commonplace terms, almost overnight.
The pandemic hit around the same time that I competed virtually in the 2020 Acara Challenge. It seemed so bizarre to pitch an idea addressing a grand challenge in Somalia when here, in my own community, there were so many grand challenges coming to the surface. Yet one thing I learned from Acara is that there will always be a grand challenge to address, and you have to take every opportunity to fight for the cause you believe in.
For me, fighting for the cause I believed in meant diving even deeper into the development of ShaqoSearch, a tailor-made job connection platform that matches young adults to employers in Kismayo, Somalia in order to address the greater than 65% unemployment rate for young adults in the region. The pandemic has demonstrated to me just how drastic a 65% unemployment rate truly is. In the United States, the pandemic has caused incredible distress for hundreds of thousands of Americans who lost their jobs unexpectedly. Yet, even in this turmoil, our unemployment rate in the U.S. is nowhere near what young adults in Somalia experience. When one considers that reality, it is hard to ignore the problem at hand. In fact, while the issues that came to light due to COVID-19 may have caused certain grand challenges in the world to seem less critical to address, COVID-19 further exacerbated the unemployment problem in Somalia. The need for ShaqoSearch became even greater.
Unfortunately, the pandemic also turned my plans for ShaqoSearch’s launch upside down. In a matter of days, I went from looking for housing in Africa, creating a job description for myself with my partner organization, Alight (formerly the American Refugee Committee), and scoping out airline flights to realizing I would be grounded in Minnesota for the unforeseeable future. To say I was devastated is an understatement. It felt like all my work from the past seven months pushing toward a pilot launch was spiraling down the drain. On top of the logistical nightmares facing ShaqoSearch, my team in Somalia was now facing a health crisis further exacerbating many of the problems already apparent in their own communities and local refugee camps. My team’s priorities were shifted, as they should have been, toward health initiatives to try and avoid an “Ebola-like” outbreak of COVID-19 that would have been impossible to control.
While my team in Somalia worked to keep the mission of Alight (my primary partner) alive and thriving in their community, I was in Minnesota trying my absolute best to keep ShaqoSearch afloat. Luckily, having worked virtually with my team for the past seven months, I was used to the virtual working scene of Skype meetings and late-night emails. I determined that if I wasn’t going to be able to launch the pilot in person over the summer, the next best option was to jump into the development stage. When the time was right, my team would have everything necessary to launch. I met with software developers via the computer, researched the intricacies of coding, and tried to troubleshoot creating a platform in a language I did not know. It was one of the hardest summers of my life, and I am confident that it would not have been possible without Alight’s and Acara’s incredible support.
As summer turned to fall, I switched my focus from development to funding opportunities. I was honored to place second in the Iowa and Minnesota Campus Compact’s Social Changemaker Challenge after my mentor at Acara suggested I would be a strong competitor. Through this opportunity, I was fortunate to receive funding from Principal Financial. This funding has allowed me to hire an employee in Kismayo and start planning for a potential move to Kenya where I would be able to continue ShaqoSearch’s development with my team.
Now, almost a year and a half after starting this passion project, we are making strides toward it becoming a reality. On January 1, 2021, ShaqoSearch onboarded its first consultant in Kismayo, Somalia who is currently launching our pilot. Over the next three months, he will be working with my team in Somalia to make connections with young adults and employers that will be our first ShaqoSearch users while I work on designing our tech here in Minnesota. We expect to learn a lot throughout this pilot that will guide us in our next steps. Our hope is that after a successful pilot, we will be in the position to start implementing our beta version of ShaqoSearch. Ideally, we would go live with this platform in July 2021. As I look to the future, I have no doubt there will be more hurdles to face. However, I am optimistic and confident ShaqoSearch and my team will emerge on the other side after the unprecedented obstacles we have already overcome.