Platform livelihoods of young people in Africa: “The hustle is real”
By Miranda Grant and Grace Natabaalo
In October 2020, Caribou Digital and Nairobi-based Story x Design, with the support of the Mastercard Foundation, embarked on a participatory video storytelling project that put 11 young Africans who earn their livelihood from digital platforms at the center of their own story. For two months, the seven women and four men in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda shared their experiences as platform workers and sellers.
A key theme that stood out in these stories was the prevalence of “side hustles” — money-earning businesses, gigs, or jobs undertaken in addition to a person’s primary business or employment. With personal needs and families to take care of, along with the economic impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many platform workers and sellers have taken on side hustles in the form of additional platform work or the pursuit of off-platform ventures. Below, we share insights on these side hustles as shared through their video diaries.
1. Hustling across platforms
Many platform workers and sellers operate across various digital platforms, also known as multi-homing. As singular platform work often fails to provide enough income, workers and sellers are driven to sign up to multiple platforms. Studies by Fairwork, for example, have found that many gig workers still earn below minimum wages.
In early 2020, David, 28, took up a motorcycle delivery rider gig with Solar Taxi, a ride-hailing and courier company in Accra that uses solar-powered cars, tricycles, and motorbikes. David secured the bike on a hire purchase agreement and has to make monthly payments. To meet his payment target of $7 a week, David tells us he had to sign up to other platforms, including Wote, Bolt Food, and Enrout, on top of riding for Solar Taxi. But even then, David is worried that the money he earns from across these platforms is not enough for him to fulfill his big dreams, one of which is to start a family.
“I stay online as and when a trip comes. I accept whether on Bolt, on Solar Taxi, or on Enrout. I accept them and then I run,” he says.
In Nairobi, Dorcas, 41, sells cakes and children’s shoes across multiple social media platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. In Uganda, Gloria, 30, does the same, selling fashion accessories through Facebook and WhatsApp. Although they are already using various platforms to help increase sales, they are both planning to set up their own websites as yet another way to reach more customers.
“I want to set up a website especially for the cake business. I want to make it big but still, home-based. Because I have been asked by so many people if I can tutor them on how to do just basic cakes. I can go to where they are and then just maybe tutor or even take advantage of online and then just do either Zoom classes or Google class,” Dorcas says.
Even online freelancer Anastestia, 24, who is a software developer and still new to online work, knows that creating a profile on more than one platform pays off. She is toggling Upwork, Fiverr, Toptal, and Freelance.com. She sees Upwork as her main hustle as it is where she gets most of her jobs. Watch Anastestia’s story
2. “Double-up your side hustle” and move offline
Some of the workers also balance on-platform work with off-platform side hustles, using the flexibility platform work offers to run and set up other businesses.
On top of being a rider for three apps, David is also an independent delivery guy and takes calls from customers off the platforms. However, despite working across multiple platforms and independently, he is still looking for additional means of earning money.
“There are bigger projects I want to do which this one cannot fund. So, what I will do is to add more avenues to make money so that I can actually see my dreams come true,” David shares.
Peter, 35, drives for Bolt and Taxify in Nigeria. A few months ago, he invested what money, time, and energy he had left into a 2000-bird poultry farm. If COVID-19 has taught him anything, it’s that you need to have a Plan B. He sees the poultry farm as a more stable investment than his platform work.
“You need to double up your hustle. You need to look for strategies and ways apart from what you’ve been thinking. You need to think a step or two steps ahead just to achieve or get the pursuit of your goals,” Peter says.
In Nigeria, Okoli Edwin, 20, who runs a physical shop selling solar products, tried to expand his business online through Jumia and Jiji at the onset of the pandemic. He assumed there would be a surge in solar panel demand as people would be quarantined and in need of consistent power supply. However, what he had not accounted for was the stretched pocket of buyers in a strained economic year. Okoli said he went online to look for ideas on how to make extra cash and came across forex trading. Now, Okoli takes forex trading classes online and watches the markets through his phone for any potential investments and deals.
“It got to a time where everything was just crazy — no more resources, we were out of stock, we couldn’t supply the customers. I fell down, really bad because how am I going to feed my family? How am I gonna do a lot of things? And so, I thought to myself, ‘Man, I had to get a side hustle. I had to look for another thing to do,’” Okoli says.
For Gloria, what used to be her digital side hustle has now become her only source of income. In 2019, she and a friend founded House of Penda, a social commerce store that sells fashion accessories through Facebook and WhatsApp. Back then, she still had a full-time job in brand marketing and considered House of Penda as her side business. When the pandemic hit, Gloria lost her job; she has, since then, focused on growing House of Penda. However, as it struggles to make enough money, she is now looking out for branding gigs and also applying for full-time jobs.
“I told everyone that hey, I’m available for gigs. I’m passionate about brand and communications. Tell someone that you know someone, mention my name, and that you know someone who’s really good at this. That was my strategy, get gigs and hope to God that a job comes along,” Gloria shares.
3. The struggle for those who don’t have a Plan B
Workers who are not able to find or take on side hustles are fully reliant on the work that comes through the platform, leaving them vulnerable when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. Stanley, 35, previously a cleaner on Lynk, an on-demand labor platform in Kenya, relied on the platform as his sole source of income. In fact, as part of an incubation program, Lynk even paid him a monthly stipend and bonuses. However, despite its best efforts, Lynk was forced to halt its cleaning services a month into the pandemic, leaving Stanley with no work and no income. Stanley says this has taught him a lesson — “Have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and even a Plan D.”
As Muthoni Mwaura’s Kenyan study found, “The notion of side hustling is particularly important for understanding youth livelihoods in contemporary contexts” because it helps to understand how young people make meaning of themselves and opportunities around them in extreme socioeconomic conditions. Listening to the platform workers and sellers over two months has revealed how having a side hustle — whether working across platforms or juggling on-platform and off-platform work — is key to surviving and thriving across digital platforms.
However, this also points to the shortcomings of platform work, and should make us question if this work is really dignified. Should people have to frantically piece together so many sources of income to earn a living? Does this make platform work meaningful or fulfilling?