Online livelihoods and young women’s economic empowerment in Nigeria
We are starting a new research project — and we’d like you to join us on the journey. Over the course of 2021, Lagos Business School and Value for Women, in partnership with Caribou Digital, and with the support of the Mastercard Foundation, aim to understand the experiences of young women working or trading through digital platforms in Nigeria. We are particularly interested in uncovering whether and how such activities contribute to their economic empowerment, and the extent to which COVID-19 has impacted this. The study also builds on previous work on platform livelihoods by both Caribou Digital and researchers at Qhala in Kenya. It is also part of wider ongoing research on platforms livelihoods and women that includes additional studies in Ghana and Kenya.
(Un)employment in Nigeria: A need to look beyond the formal sector
Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, with over 200 million people, millions of whom are currently underutilized. Despite several government interventions to drive economic activity and consequently create (formal) jobs, Nigeria’s unemployment rate has continued to rapidly climb in the last decade. Although the data does depend on the exact definition of “unemployment rate,” unemployment rose from 3.5% in 2006 to 33% in 2020; The country currently ranks 164 out of 182 in global unemployment.
A closer look at the numbers shows that some groups — especially women — are harder hit than others in terms of obtaining employment. Overall, 23% of the labor force work only 20–39 hours per week, and 16% work less than 20 hours per week. Delving into different age ranges and genders provides an even more nuanced picture: youth (15–34 years) are faced with the highest unemployment (45%), and 35% of women are unemployed, with an additional 24% being underemployed (20–39 hours per week). The higher-than-average figures for these social groups indicate that the talents of especially young women are currently underutilized, making online opportunities all the more interesting and important for these groups.
Figure 1 presents a breakdown of the labor population.
Some of the barriers keeping (young) women out of employment include traditional gender roles and biases, lower literacy rates, and lower rates of access to mobile phones and internet connectivity. For example, 49% of men (compared to 34% of women) agree that a university education is more important for a boy than for a girl, and 74% of men (compared to 55% of women) agree that, when jobs are scarce, men should have more right to employment than women. Gaps in educational attainment start long before university, with literacy rates for young women in Nigeria at 68%, compared to young men at 82% — 1.2 times as high. Access to information and learning opportunities is hampered by gaps in mobile internet usage, which for women in Nigeria stand at 38%, in contrast to that for men at 54% — 1.4 times as high.
With the limited scope of the formal sector to employ people in general, individuals are looking elsewhere for their livelihoods. This is not new; in fact, 93% of working Nigerians are informally employed (women more than men). The increasing number of digital platforms provides an attractive avenue for individuals to earn a livelihood outside the parameters of formal employment.
Online platforms: Potential to fill women’s livelihood gaps?
Nigeria’s digital economy has seen rapid growth in the last five years. As of 2019, there were an estimated 138 digital platforms active in the country (of which 80% are homegrown). Freelancing platforms are the most common (35), followed by marketplace platforms (32) and ride-hailing apps (21). These digital platforms act as virtual marketplaces that connect buyers and sellers of goods and services. Determining the number of individuals earning a livelihood through these platforms is difficult, due to challenges in definitions and data collection. Recent estimates range from as little as 0.01% of the labor force to almost three million individuals. When individuals conducting business via social platforms (such as WhatsApp, Facebook, or Instagram) are included, estimates are even higher.
The key drivers of growth within the Nigerian platform ecosystem include a large, young, and entrepreneurial population, as well as an active ecosystem that incorporates digital start-ups (estimated up to 700), incubators, and venture capital firms. This is particularly true in Lagos, which generates the most economic activity in the country — accounting for 25% of national GDP and 18% of all Nigerian internet users. While other urban areas are also seeing an uptick in the use of digital platforms, rural areas remain behind due to a digital divide underpinned by lack of internet access, affordability, and digital literacy and skills.
Nigerian women have been moving towards online livelihoods. A demand-side survey conducted between 2017 and 2018 shows that, among internet users, women are 1.6 times more likely than men to earn income via online means. In and of itself, this is interesting, given the higher levels of economic participation among men generally, but it is even more so when compared to data from other countries in Africa, which shows that this trend is generally reversed elsewhere, as observed on microwork platforms (see Table 1). In addition to the imperative of finding livelihoods outside of traditional means (as described above), reasons for preferring online work include flexibility, the opportunity to work from home, and the potential for significantly higher earnings.
However, gendered gaps and dynamics remain. First, it is important to remember that the figures in Table 1 refer to the percentage of internet users that earn a livelihood via online platforms. Given the prevailing digital divide (for one, according to the GSMA, 56% of men compared to only 40% of women in Nigeria make use of mobile internet), women have more hurdles to overcome before they are able to access and productively use mobile internet, and subsequently online platforms. Moreover, women’s (analogue) employment is concentrated in economic sectors such as agriculture, small-scale commerce, and the informal sector. Initial cross-country evidence shows that similar differences might remain when moving to online livelihoods.
Table 1: Digital Platform microwork participation in select African countries disaggregated by gender. Source: Gillwald and Onkokame (2019).
We intend to further investigate the potential of online platforms to meet the need for more income-generating opportunities for young Nigerian women. We think of women’s (economic) empowerment in digital platforms as the relative ease with which women have access to these platforms and mobilize them for sustainable socio-economic capital.
Online platforms might contribute to women’s (economic) empowerment through facilitating income-generation, coupled with flexibility and autonomy, which provides more opportunities for women to be self-sufficient and combine a decent livelihood with their other responsibilities. In Nigeria, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, women entrepreneurs (mostly low-income) working in open markets had to pivot their trading activities to online platforms, even though many were previously unbanked and undigitized. This shift became imperative because of the increased migration to online shopping. For these women, going digital was a survivalist option to retain their clientele and potentially expand their operations during the lockdown.
However, studies show that some digital platforms exploit online earners, which might further exacerbate gendered power dynamics. For example, certain platform practices, such as the ability to block users due to bad reviews, put earners at a significant disadvantage. And online environments are not removed from the biases prevalent in offline environments; forthcoming research by Caribou Digital finds that freelancers in the Global South can find it beneficial to pretend to be based in Europe or the United States, as they find it increases their likelihood of getting jobs. We might expect to see similar biases impact the online livelihoods of women (remember that almost ¾ of Nigerian men agree that jobs should go to men when they are in high demand!).
Different stakeholders have different roles to play in creating opportunities for women’s online livelihoods. State interventions, for example, can set regulatory requirements for platforms and apply interventions to labor relations overall. In Nigeria the 2016 National Social Protection Policy establishes a gender-sensitive and age-appropriate framework for enhancing women livelihoods, though it does not recognize online work; the Nigeria Youth Employment Action Plan (NYEAP) targets young people within the age range of 18–35 for employment creation in critical sectors of the economy; and the National Gender Policy of 2006 aims to mainstream women’s rights across economic sectors. Thus far, however, these policies have not significantly shifted private sector practices from traditional values and power dynamics.
Online platforms can apply a gender lens to their activities to de-bias their structures and provide more protection to the individuals using them. While work has been done to establish international standards on best practices for online platforms (see, for example, the work done by the Fairwork Foundation), to our knowledge this is not yet prevalent through a gender lens.
The development and research communities have roles in unearthing evidence, bringing parties together to learn, and making recommendations! This is precisely where our current project comes in.
Our key questions are:
1) In what ways might platform work empower women?
2) How can we make platforms work better for women?
We will undertake qualitative research to answer these questions. This will consist of focus groups and in-depth interviews with women earning livelihoods through online channels — both as gig workers and micro-entrepreneurs — and in-depth expert interviews with ecosystem stakeholders, including civil society, platforms, digital finance providers, regulators, and other private sector actors.
We will use a participatory video storytelling method to dig deeper into the lived experiences of select female workers by giving them the tools (a phone, video training, and mentoring) to tell their story. See Caribou DIgital’s previous participatory video storytelling project with gig workers.
We will also engage digital platforms directly through a Gender Self-Assessment Survey, conducted via Value for Women’s Gender Smart Nexus. This standardized assessment measures the levels of gender inclusion for different types of businesses. We will adapt this survey to platform operations specifically, allowing us to summarize trends in platforms’ focuses and approaches. This tool will subsequently be available for other platforms to use, and we invite you to get in touch should you be interested in applying it to your own operations!
Between July and September, we will engage with online earners, digital platforms, experts, and other interested folks. Should you be interested in a conversation with us about your work, or feel that there is a certain individual we simply must interview — please don’t hesitate to send us an email! We’ll publish a consolidated country report by the end of 2021, and will share updates on our findings as we move along.
Raymond Onuoha (email@example.com)
Prof. Olayinka David-West — Lagos Business School (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Renée Hunter — Value for Women (email@example.com)