Can workers win in Africa’s gig economy?

Millions of Africans are exploring work opportunities in the global gig economy, but can the benefits of flexibility be joined by increased wages and better conditions?

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Image : Vane Nunes / Adobe Stock

At just 19 years old, Sheikh Sarr took matters into his own hands after graduating from school in The Gambia last year. Instead of risking joining the ranks of unemployed university graduates, he enrolled in a computer programming course at the Indian Institute of Hardware Technology in the capital city of Banjul. With impressive speed and determination, Sarr learned the fundamentals of five programming languages and completed an online coding boot camp in less than 10 months. Now, he’s eager to leverage his skills by setting up profiles on Fiverr and Upwork, two of the top online marketplaces for freelance work, and joining Africa’s thriving gig economy.

 “I know the market is hot and the world needs programmers, so for now this is the best way for me to be creative and earn good money,” says Sarr, who pays the equivalent of $18 monthly for unlimited broadband between 7pm and 7am, so that he can learn to code through the night.

Growth of the gig economy in Africa

The global health crisis served as an impetus for a growing multitude of Africans exploring digital job opportunities, driven by the quest for novel avenues to secure work. A host of local and global platforms emerged, paving the way for chauffeurs, voice actors, housekeeping staff, and technology professionals to discover short-term, flexible “gig” occupations. Although an upsurge in workforce numbers led to suppressed earnings, pivotal African markets have experienced growth in the number of their citizens pursuing platform-based livelihoods.

A study conducted by Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) estimated that 5% of Kenya’s adult population, amounting to 1.2m people, now participate in some form of the gig economy, which can include businesses on Facebook and Instagram.

The Online Labour Observatory (OLI), a joint effort between the International Labour Organisation and the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, reveals that Kenya currently represents 0.9% of the worldwide online freelance workforce. According to OLI, this global workforce has exceeded 19m active users on several of the world’s largest platforms, and there were over 163m registered freelancer profile accounts in 2020 alone.

For Kenyans, writing and translation services are the most common online occupations, while software development and technology dominate in Nigeria. Africa’s most populous nation is sub-Saharan Africa’s second biggest contributor to a market expected to reach $455bn this year, according to Statista, a market research firm. 

‘Positive and negative implications’ 

“The shift towards remote work during the pandemic has led to an increase in demand for certain types of online work, particularly in the tech industry,” says Fabian Stephany, a research lecturer in AI & Work at the Oxford Internet Institute.

“Many employers are realising that they can hire freelancers from other parts of the world at lower wages, and are taking advantage of this potential arbitrage. However, this trend is not limited to the Global South, and is happening across the globe. It’s important to note that this trend has both positive and negative implications for workers, and needs to be carefully monitored and regulated to ensure that workers are treated fairly and have access to decent working conditions, and opportunities for career development.”

As the African gig economy expands, it encounters a myriad of impediments that obstruct its development. A principal challenge is the considerable entry barrier for numerous Africans, stemming from constrained access to reliable internet, electricity, and financial resources. Potential clients may also show reluctance to engage with African gig workers due to ingrained biases and stereotypes, causing some Africans to set up accounts using virtual private networks to mask their locations, and risk having their accounts suspended.

On the supply side, African gig workers grapple with concerns including depressed earnings, the absence of benefits and job security, and insufficient safeguards against occupational hazards, says Grace Natabaalo, who researches African platform economies at the advisory firm Caribou Digital.

Unpredictable power outages and load shedding further disrupt work routines, complicating adherence to deadlines. Governmental policies and regulations may display inconsistencies and ambiguity, generating instability and uncertainty for gig workers, analysts say.

“Tax authorities across Africa are trying to expand their base by targeting individuals engaged in online work, including freelancers and influencers,” says Natabaalo.

“The challenge lies in finding ways to effectively capture income from these new forms of work within the tax system and also consider addressing the lack of social protections, such as health insurance. Governments could include gig workers in social protection schemes or health insurance plans. However, whether the resources and planning are available to achieve this remains uncertain.”

In response to the expanding gig economy in Africa, governments are implementing initiatives to capitalise on its potential. Kenya’s Ajira Digital Clubs initiative aims to equip young individuals with digital skills and connect them to online job opportunities. And as the gig economy grows, policymakers are focusing on addressing the challenges faced by the vast informal sector, promoting upskilling through gig work to enhance the overall skill set and employability of the workforce.

Africa’s gig economy forms an increasing slice of the continent’s vast informal sector, notes Stephany, yet it stands apart due to its organisation by prominent global entities, such as multinational corporations from Silicon Valley, and its firm grounding in digital technology. 

Although exact figures remain elusive, the consensus is that there is a pronounced disparity between high-skilled professions, such as programming and graphic design, and lower-skilled gig work. The majority of gig jobs do not provide substantial learning prospects or lucrative wages, with merely a small fraction (estimated by analysts at around 5-10%) comprising work where workers can command higher remuneration based on their advanced skill sets.

Opportunities for women

Despite uncertain career trajectories for a significant portion of Africa’s gig labour force, and the risk to jobs from the rise of AI tools like ChatGPT—capable of executing technological tasks with increasing proficiency—the gig economy has unlocked numerous avenues to financial autonomy for African women, says Olayinka David-West, professor of information systems at the Lagos Business School.

Working on online gig platforms can offer African women the opportunity to earn a higher income, especially if they are able to work with foreign clients and earn in foreign currency. This can be particularly beneficial in countries with unstable currencies or where the cost of living is high. Additionally, many women who work in traditional jobs may face limitations in terms of earning potential or job opportunities, so online gig work can provide an alternative path to financial independence and empowerment.

One third of Kenya’s writing and translation gig workers are women, while in Nigeria, 23% of professionals online are women, according to the Online Labour Observatory. 

The lack of available jobs for university graduates is ramping up the number of female gig workers, says David-West, as Nigeria’s unemployment rate shot past 30% in 2022, according to Statista. 

“These individuals need to find ways to make a living and many gig workers, particularly in ride-hailing platforms, hold university degrees and those with less education often turn to jobs like dispatch riders. The primary challenge is whether the economy can create enough work opportunities to accommodate the expanding labour force, and if they can’t, then more workers will look to the platform economy, says David-West, who is helping implement the Fairwork project in Nigeria by evaluating working conditions in the Nigerian gig economy.

Empowered by online platforms like Upwork and Fiverr – which have more than 20m freelancers advertising on their sites – young women are embracing financial independence by developing new skills and seizing work opportunities. Leveraging e-commerce and social commerce, they gain control over their income without the constraints of significant capital or physical stores, says Natabaalo. Yet limited access to capital remains a challenge, often constraining the growth of their businesses and gig work.

“Many young women may lack negotiating power or financial resources to demand higher wages, resulting in low pay or no work. However, generating income independently is empowering, and developing new skills can increase work opportunities,” Natabaalo said.

Anastestia Onyekaba’s success story

For Anastestia Onyekaba, a chemical engineering graduate from Lagos, it was through creating digital birthday cards that she discovered her passion for graphic design. With a depressed jobs market in Nigeria, she created an Upwork profile as a UI/UX designer and frontend developer during the Covid lockdowns. Her mother struggled to understand Onyekaba’s non-traditional career path but after witnessing her dedication, she became supportive and bought her a high-powered laptop. 

Overcoming early challenges including low pay and clients exploiting her inexperience, Onyekaba gained confidence, her rates increased, and she then started attracting higher-paying clients including one from Japan who wrote her a glowing review.

“This was what just blew up my profile,” says Onyekaba. “After that, people started to trust my applications but before it wasn’t all rosy in the beginning, because clients were trying to take advantage of a starter designer that could offer a very little price.”

Facing Nigeria’s unreliable infrastructure, including internet connectivity, payment challenges and power supply issues, Onyekaba moved to Dubai for a more conducive freelance environment, just before the UAE implemented a visa ban on Nigerians. 

Her rates increased to $50 per hour, and she now has four repeat clients from the US and UK, as well as a steady stream of gig requests falling into her inbox from clients from around the world.

“There’s no end to the learning, and research. But right now I am young and I have the energy to save up and dabble into investments from the money I earn from Upwork, which can propel me to even greater financial freedom in the long run,” says Onyekaba. 

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Will McBain

Will is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist based between the UK and West Africa.