How are platform workers in Kenya, and Ghana responding to the Covid-19 crisis?

Annabel Schiff
Apr 29, 2020 · 9 min read

By Annabel Schiff, Jessica Osborn and Akua Nyame-Mensah

For the last month, we’ve been speaking to platforms and platform workers in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted their businesses and livelihoods. We spoke to 17 African digital platforms — from logistic companies to ride-hailing and domestic service platforms to e-commerce — and 12 gig-workers who rely on these platforms for their income.

We’ll soon be releasing our insights on how the pandemic has impacted both platforms and platform workers, as well as some thoughts on how to help build resilience both in and out of times of crisis.

In the meantime, we’d like to share some of the platform workers’ stories with you. The trends are consistent, and concerning. The Covid-19 pandemic has slowed down work; incomes have fallen, and expenses have risen. Many of these workers don’t have savings, insurance or any other safety-net to fall back on. They are extremely worried about how to make ends meet as the crisis continues to unfold.

Meet the Platform Workers

Daniel, Online Freelance Writer: Upwork — Kenya

We first met Daniel back in 2018 while doing user research in Kenya. At the time Daniel ran a small duka (mom-and-pop shop) during the day, and logged onto online freelance platforms (Upwork and iWriter) in the evening to write paid product reviews for global e-commerce companies. This online work seemed like a promising, income-generating side-hustle. When we got back in touch with Daniel a couple of weeks ago, he told us he’d decided to rent out his duka late last year in order to focus on his online writing. He continues to write product reviews, mainly for Amazon vendors, but, as a result of Covid-19 work has slowed significantly: fewer people are ordering non-essential goods. “I used to get around 300 jobs a month. I now barely get half of that. Most businesses are not open, or different types of products are being sold.” While he gets rent from the shop, he relies on his online writing work for the majority of his income. “I have very little in terms of savings. I am very concerned about the future.”

James, Ride-hailing driver: Uber, Little Cab, Bolt — Kenya

James drives for ride-hailing platforms — Uber, Bolt and Little Cabs — in Kenya. Married with three children, both his income and expenses have taken a hit due to Covid-19.

“I have seen a great reduction, in fact downfall, in work since the outbreak and government restrictions.”

While pre-pandemic James would take home around 10,000 KSH ($95) a week, with people limiting their movement and an evening curfew in place, work has fallen to almost zero.

“Imagine from yesterday I have not gone anywhere up until now. I am online and have no customers.”

Not only has work declined but expenses have increased. James is expected to wash his car on a more regular basis and provide hand sanitizer for his customers. And at home he has more mouths to feed, with his children home from school all day, Not only did the school use to feed his children breakfast and lunch, but he is also yet to receive a refund on paid school fees. Making ends meet is a huge worry. “We are heading towards a crisis, especially if the government does a complete lock-down. We are hand to mouth.

Godwin, Ride-Hailing: Uber, Bolt, Yango — Ghana

Godwin Amenyo is a 25-year-old Ghanaian working for the ride-hailing companies Uber, Bolt, and Yango. His biggest concern, beyond having no more customers, is that he feels the platforms should be doing more to protect drivers.

“Education about being safe should be deeper than what they have on the ground now…I’ve met a few drivers that don’t understand what it takes to be safe.”

He shared some of the tips he has picked up: not working late nights, not doing airport pickups, not picking up more than two people, not using the AC, and requesting e-payments instead of cash. Currently, he makes what money he can by picking up groceries and other items for clients he has met through the platforms. Of his current savings he says, “I have something small, I am managing at the moment.

Dorcas, Baker: Social Media Platforms — Kenya

We met Dorcas in 2018 while conducting research into how Kenyan micro-entrepreneurs use platforms in their daily business. Dorcas, a cake-baker, relies on WhatsApp, Facebook, and logistic platforms to conduct most of her business. The ability to do this work from home, through the use of social media platforms, was a great opportunity for Dorcas because she suffers from Lupus and is mostly homebound. Her story highlighted the benefits of social commerce. When we got back in touch with Dorcas recently, she told us how her business had been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak in Kenya. As soon as the first case was announced, events and gatherings were cancelled, meaning Dorcas lost a lot of cake orders. While she tried to encourage people to postpone rather than cancel, customers wanted refunds which impacted her savings because she had already bought some of the ingredients. She even had to use some of the money she had saved for her Lupus medication to provide the refunds. Since the pandemic hit Kenya, business has stopped for Dorcas, and she has no other income. While Dorcas used to use online work platforms such as iWriter and Upwork to supplement her income in the evening, this work has also ground to a halt, and her husband also lost his job.

“We are now down to zero income, zero savings, and have zero insurance. We’ve managed to get through the last two weeks using donations from friends.”

In addition to her financial struggles, the pandemic has had a worrying impact on Dorcas’s access to Lupus medication. Since Trump pedalled the anti-malaria drug chloroquine — which is an established Lupus treatment — as a potential cure for Covid-19, some people have stockpiled the drug so that Dorcas and other Lupus patients have struggled to access their medication. When she has located chloroquine, its price has been triple. In fact, three people in her Lupus support group have died, not from Covid-19 but because they couldn’t access the treatment.

Winfred, Courier Driver: Sendy — Kenya

Winfred is a driver for the logistics company Sendy in Nairobi. He is married with four children and depends on his income from Sendy to support his family. Work has slowed slightly since the Covid-19 pandemic, and he is earning less.

People seem to be nervous about receiving deliveries. They ask us to leave them outside the house, but this risks theft.”

In addition to the impact on his income, expenses have also increased with all his children home from school. Before he would spend around 500 KSH ($5) a day on food for his family, given that his children were given breakfast and lunch at school. Now, with his children home all day, his daily food expenses have almost doubled. What Winfred does have as a back up is the Sendy SACCO (Saving and Credit Co-operative) that he puts money into every week. He also says that he plans his expenses on a daily basis. This is even more important given the current climate.

Robert, E-commerce merchant: Jumia — Kenya

We also met Robert during our user research in Kenya in 2018. Robert continues to work for Jumia and runs a 2.5 acre smallholder farm on the outskirts of Nairobi. His Jumia business, through which he sells phone accessories, has been seriously affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only have orders slowed, but he’s struggled to purchase stock from his usual contacts in Dubai and China.“For the last three months we haven’t received any stock from China. I’ve decided to hike prices in order to reach the same income.” Unable to order through his usual foreign supply channels, Robert has had to purchase goods locally which is much more expensive.

“I have a little bit of savings, but now expenses are higher. Life is not easy.”

Robert suggested that the government helps people pay their electricity and water bills, enabling them to maintain the small profit they are making.

Florence, Carpenter: Lynk — Kenya

Florence works as a carpenter for Lynk and has a seven-year-old old child, a mother, and a sister who are dependent on her. She’s been working at Lynk for nine months, and relies solely on the platform for income. Work has really slowed since the Covid-19 outbreak.“Before Covid-19 we had around five projects waiting in line, now we work on one project, and then wait for another to come in.” Lynk is supportive where they can be, in terms of providing education on how workers can protect themselves from contracting the virus, as well as providing personal protective equipment. But the platform doesn’t have the funds available to support workers financially. In addition to trying to share her limited income with her family even as prices have hiked, Florence has no savings.

Stanley, Domestic Cleaner: Lynk — Kenya

Stanley joined Lynk as a cleaner late last year. Lynk, a Kenyan platform connecting households and businesses with domestic workers, carpenters, and artisans, has been severely impacted by the precautionary social distancing measures set out to combat the pandemic.

“Before I had at least a daily job. Now Im lucky to get a job twice a week.

Stanley relies solely on his Lynk income to support his wife and two children. He has no savings, no insurance, no safety net to help him through this difficult period. What’s more, the cost of goods has gone up. Stanley went to buy a common painkiller for his son and found that it cost double the usual price. Food prices have also doubled.

“We need this coronavirus to go away. It has affected everywhere and everyone. I wish things will change. I have kids to support and bills to take care of.”

Bernard, Delivery Driver: Jumia — Kenya

Bernard is a delivery driver for Jumia. He also works in fashion, designing and selling clothes as a side business. His fashion business has been severely impacted by the crisis as people prioritize their spending. Luckily, to balance this, he has been busy with his Jumia work. Although people are buying fewer electronics and non-essential goods, work has been busy, with orders almost doubling. Even though he has identification and a letter from the government enabling him to work outside the curfew, he still goes home in the early evening because he fears police brutality. Jumia provides him with hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks to protect him from contracting the virus.

There are an estimated 4.8 million platform workers in eight key African countries alone. While these are glimpses into nine individuals’ experience, these trends represent the experience of millions of others. Stay tuned for the insight we’ll be publishing soon, and find our other work on COVID-19 here.

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