How can we make platform livelihoods better for young women, especially during and after COVID-19?

Savita Bailur
Caribou Digital
Published in
5 min readMay 31, 2021


By: Research Team at Caribou Digital, in collaboration with Qhala, University of Ghana, Lagos Business School and Value for Women

In Kenya, the COVID-19 pandemic meant the genesis of new business lines, especially for home supplies and deliveries, and the slowed growth or shutdown of some businesses for luxury goods and travel. This ultimately impacted people’s livelihoods, especially women.

In Ghana, women, particularly those working in the informal economy, have been more adversely affected than men in terms of job and income losses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Nigeria, COVID-19 has meant increased job losses, adversely affecting household livelihoods and resilience. These trends expose the vulnerabilities of gig workers and their lack of savings and other protections amidst rising living costs.

Caption: Mary Ikugu is a budding Kenyan agripreneur uses social media to find markets and customers.

So what can we learn from the stories women have to tell of their experience?

How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact a woman who delivers homemade food through WhatsApp orders in Nairobi? How did a female freelancer on Upwork in Lagos juggle her workload?

We’re excited to share that, with the support of the Mastercard Foundation, Caribou Digital is kicking off a year-long research project on the lives and livelihoods of young female platform workers and sellers in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria through and beyond the pandemic.

This gender lens is part of our broader and continuing work on platforms through which we’ve explored the real lives behind platforms (Platform Livelihoods), including our diagnostic discussions and participatory video storytelling.

We’ve put together a great group of research partners following a comprehensive selection process who we’re excited to work with:

This research will be conducted sequentially in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, in each case with a landscape review and expert interviews, as well as focus groups and interviews with female workers from different types of platform-related work. Each research team will also deploy a survey or social media scraping of keywords and discussions that arise in workers and sellers groups. Through interviews and participatory video storytelling, young women will tell their story in their own words, in partnership with Story x Design, a multimedia production company based in Nairobi.

A screenshot of the female respondents from our previous video storytelling project

At Caribou Digital, we see platform livelihoods as more than just earning an income — a livelihood encompasses other factors including growth of the individual, their safety, the support they need and get, and whether they find purpose in their work as they navigate this new way of working. In earlier work, we defined platform livelihoods as how people rely on “digital platforms” to make money as workers (in the gig economy) or sellers (in e-commerce and social commerce). As we’ve seen in our research so far, livelihoods are constantly being negotiated between workers and platform owners, through digital means, including algorithmic interaction. As a demographic who may face barriers to participation, we were especially curious to understand the challenges that young women face, and how we can make platform livelihoods better for them.

A gender lens on platform work often surfaces structural barriers such as lack of access to capital or infrastructure, or varying levels of digital skills. It also questions the notion of flexibility, as childcare places additional constraints on women’s time compared to men, as an ODI study found in Kenya and South Africa found. Our new project investigates how COVID-19 impacts these existing challenges.

The gender lens will also help capture how unconscious biases and prejudices (for example, that a woman shouldn’t be driving) become obvious tangible barriers for women wanting to enter platform work on a ride-hailing app (the woman is denied a loan for a vehicle to drive for work). We’ll apply and explore Andrea Cornwall’s work on the levers of empowerment, seen as a combination of “individual change, institutional or social change, informal and formal practices.” This might nuance the discussion from “women use cheaper phones and therefore we should build platforms for cheaper phones” to why women use cheaper phones and how that can be addressed. This research will also provide insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic may have impacted such norms, from unconscious biases and prejudices to tangible biases.

Dathive is one of only two female motorcycle drivers on the Safeboda app in Uganda (from our previous video storytelling project)

Finally, we use the word “we” in the research question: “how can we make platform livelihoods better for young women”? But who is the “we”? The research asks exactly that — who is the “we” that needs to make the platform work better for women? Is it the platforms themselves? Is it female workers who might demand better conditions through women’s rights groups and activists? Is it policymakers like foundations and governments? And, related, how do we define “better”?

As we progress through the research, we’ll keep blogging and sharing the emerging themes on Twitter (@cariboudigital) and here on Medium (Caribou Digital). We’re excited about this research and look forward to discussing it more with you!


This research is supported and funded by the Mastercard Foundation as part of Young Africa Works, an initiative that focuses on finding solutions to the youth employment challenge and reducing poverty in Africa.

Thanks to (in alphabetical order):

Prof. Nana Akua Anyidoho, Centre for Social Policy Studies, University of Ghana

Prof. Akosua Darkwah, Department of Sociology, University of Ghana

Prof. Olayinka David-West, Lagos Business School

Dr. Shikoh Gitau, Qhala Limited

Renée Hunter, Value for Women

Nasubo Ongoma, Qhala Limited

Raymond Onuoha, Lagos Business School

Note on photos: All photos published with permission.



Savita Bailur
Caribou Digital

Research Director at Caribou Digital; Adjunct Associate Prof at School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University