COVID-19 and the platform livelihoods of young African workers

Grace Natabaalo
Dec 7, 2020 · 3 min read
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As part of Caribou Digital’s ongoing focus on emerging platform livelihoods, and with the support of the Mastercard Foundation, we spoke to 30 young African platform workers in March, June, and September about the effects of the pandemic. These young men and women from Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana, the majority of whom are below 35 years old, make their living through digital platforms as ride-hailing drivers, delivery drivers, freelancers, e-commerce sellers, and on-demand laborers.

While pegged to the pandemic, these conversations bring out similar experiences — both positive and negative — captured within the 12 elements of Caribou Digital’s recently published platform livelihoods framework. Through this framework, we map several kinds of platform livelihoods, uncover trends and identify cross cutting issues, based on our own original research and that of the wider digital development community.

With high unemployment rates in all four countries, platforms offer opportunities and, more importantly, access to work and markets and earnings, as you will read in the three blogs that follow.

It is interesting to learn how these workers and sellers often engage with several platforms, “multihoming” and working fractionally across one to augment another. Some on Upwork, for example, advertise their services on social media. Similarly, those selling on e-commerce websites like Jumia, often advertise or use their personal networks on social media to market their physical shops.

Additionally, even though the platforms provide access to a wider market, this doesn’t always translate into enough earnings. COVID-19 has forced some ride-hailing and delivery drivers to look ‘off-platform’ to find more work. One driver in Kenya said he would start buying farm produce when he makes longer trips to the countryside. He would then sell this produce in the city. Another driver in Ghana said he is considering starting a fabric business for his wife and delivering to customers himself, in between rides.

For these youth, platforms have offered a first entry point into work, whether as drivers, freelancers, or micro-entrepreneurs. Students are taking up driving and engaging in social commerce to raise money to pay for their education and other necessities.

Another thing worth noting is that of the eight digital commerce sellers we spoke to, six are women; of these, five use social media exclusively to sell their products due to the low barriers to entry as compared to e-commerce. They make enough to pay for Facebook or Instagram Ads but do not want to be burdened with subscription fees charged by platforms like Jiji and Jumia.

Hidden hierarchies are visible in the ride-hailing business. Most drivers we spoke to don’t own the cars they are driving, so paying weekly rental fees takes a big chunk of their income. They are driving to own; they dream of owning a fleet of cars and being bosses someday.

However, with the disruption caused by the pandemic, which led to less earnings across the board, the workers and sellers were exposed to the precariousness of platform work. Some are contemplating finding “better paying” full-time jobs, some are thinking about quitting, while others have already left the platform. However for some, the options for finding work elsewhere remain few, and platforms continue to provide the lifeline they need.

In these blogs (listed below), we share the experience of some of the 30 platform workers and sellers, highlighting not only their struggles but also the ways they adapted to ride the pandemic wave — from upskilling and expanding product offerings, to finding innovative approaches to earn a living.

In January 2021, you will get a glimpse into the lives of 10 platform workers and sellers through our video storytelling project. In a series of short self-shot videos, the platform workers and sellers will share their real-life experiences as digital laborers during the pandemic.

Social commerce and e-commerce: Not enough orders

Ride-hailing: Fewer customers, less income

Tough gigs: On-demand labour and freelancing

Caribou Digital

Caribou Digital: building ethical inclusive digital…

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