Women’s platform livelihoods: Balancing the opportunity with the myth of flexibility
By Miranda Grant and Grace Natabaalo
Platform livelihoods hold great promise for making work more inclusive for young women. At the same time, they also present new expressions of gender differences in opportunity, uptake, earnings, and the ways work intersects with other areas of life.
These tensions are apparent in a participatory video storytelling project carried out by Caribou Digital and Nairobi-based Story x Design, with the support of Mastercard Foundation, in October 2020. The project equipped seven young women based in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda with mobile phones, video training, and mentoring, to enable them to tell us their own experiences of platform work over a period of two months.
The women — two web developers, a farmer, a carpenter, a motorcycle rider, and two social commerce entrepreneurs — told us how marketplace platforms have enabled them to challenge structural barriers such as access to capital, sexism, freedom of movement, access to ICTs, and personal safety. Some needed very little capital to start. Others could conduct the work from the comfort and safety of their home, which enabled digital platforms to provide an entry point into the world of work.
Some women also leveraged the fact that they already had a computer, internet access, and the requisite skills to perform their platform work; others pushed themselves to learn skills that enabled them to join a male-dominated profession. While the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their lives, the women all fought to stay financially afloat and keep their passions alive online.
Despite these opportunities, the women’s stories also bring to light gender-specific challenges associated with platform livelihoods, like sexism and having to balance unpaid care work at home with platform work.
Breaking down gender stereotypes in the workplace
Dathive, 31, known as “Señorita” to her regular customers, is one of only two female motorcycle taxi riders on Uganda’s SafeBoda ride-hailing platform. Before becoming a driver, she has tried numerous other business ventures like running a mobile money business and a fashion boutique. However, none offered the potential profit of boda boda work. Joining this male-dominated sector means that Dathive has not had it easy; she sometimes had to prove that she could transport passengers well regardless of her gender. However, being one of only two female SafeBoda riders does have its perks.
“When I take a customer, I see that they are really very happy to ride my motorcycle. When we reach [our destination], and we negotiate the money, they give me a tip. We take a selfie, they call their family, their neighbors [and say]…come and see my driver, come and see who’s brought me.” — Dathive, SafeBoda driver, Kampala
SafeBoda has helped boost Dathive’s profile by popularizing her in the media, she says.
“I have been on TV, radio, and in the newspapers. SafeBoda did this so that people could get to know me and feel confident when I show up as their rider on the app,” Dathive says. Watch Dathive’s story
Sabina, 29, is also one of a few women in a male-dominated profession. She is a carpenter with Lynk, an on-demand labor platform based in Nairobi, Kenya. Sabina’s move into carpentry was thanks to a partnership between Lynk and BuildHer, a social enterprise that equips women in Kenya with vocational and life skills.
Sabina’s experience points to the types of training that might be needed to set women up for success with platform work outside of vocational training alone. She told us that the training she received taught her life skills and coping strategies that she could apply beyond her profession as a carpenter. This is worth investigating further if there is a possibility to help more women succeed on platforms by seeing what types of training they need.
“BuildHer taught me the basics of life skills, the career itself, carpentry and joinery, and how to cope with life.” — Sabina, Lynk carpenter, Nairobi
After completing the training and employment program with BuildHer, Sabina began working full time as a carpenter for Lynk. She spoke of how hard it was initially when she had just joined the platform. “When you come to the workshop, [men’s] first impression is like, ‘Really? Like really, can you make anything?’” Sabina says.
She adds that Lynk helped to create an environment where she could thrive as a female carpenter. The platform played a critical role in further developing the skills she needed to be able to prove herself through her competence in the profession. The platform work has become Sabina’s passion and only source of income. Watch Sabina’s story
After graduating from the University of Lagos with a degree in Chemical Engineering, Anastestia (Ann), 24, found it challenging to find a job. As she sent out job applications after job applications, a friend suggested she think more laterally. Having seen the success of some of her friends on platforms like Fiverr and Upwork, Ann thought, “Okay, I can do this, too.”
When Ann realized that she could make good money as a coder, she began to teach herself the basics of coding. She is now part of a small but steadily growing number of female developers in Africa. Recent statistics show that only one in five developers in Africa is female. She quickly fell in love with the work and loves that she’s making it as a young Nigerian woman in a male-dominated industry. Watch Ann’s story
Social commerce: An easy (and free) choice for female entrepreneurs
For platform sellers like Gloria, Mary, and Dorcas, social media sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube reduce the barriers to entering the world of platform selling. Women often face these barriers when setting up their own business or engaging in offline work, like a lack of capital and having to balance work with childcare responsibilities.
Social selling has provided Mary, 24, a young entrepreneurial farmer in Kenya, with the flexibility to earn an income while caring for her young son as a single parent. She already owned a computer and a phone and didn’t need much else to start her own YouTube channel, through which she shares farming best practices and promotes her mushroom and strawberry businesses. She cross-posts these videos on her Facebook page and then moves conversations with interested buyers over to WhatsApp. These channels helped her connect with buyers during the pandemic when the markets were closed. Mary is also looking forward to earning money from her YouTube channel once she reaches the 1000-follower mark, the minimum number of subscribers one must have before their channel is monetized. Watch Mary’s story
For Dorcas, 41, in Nairobi, platforms have helped her overcome the limitations of lupus that keeps her mostly housebound. She started by baking and selling cakes on Facebook and WhatsApp and has since managed to expand her home-based business to include shoes. She relies on her social networks and various Facebook groups as a low-cost means to find customers.
“90% of my sales are generated from Facebook. And then the few who do not buy, they give exposure. So, you find someone who will refer my page to someone else. So that’s how my business grows.” — Dorcas, social commerce entrepreneur, Nairobi. Watch Dorcas’s Story
For Gloria, 30, social commerce represented a flexible way to diversify her income, something that became critical when she lost her job just before the outbreak of COVID-19. While doing her full-time job, Gloria co-founded House of Penda, a Kampala-based company, as a side business selling fashion accessories through Facebook. It became her only source of income during the pandemic. Watch Gloria’s story
The tension behind the flexibility of online work
Some studies have discussed the tensions of “flexible” platform work and raised questions regarding the expectations of women that it perpetuates, specifically in handling both full-time obligations in the home along with platform work. An ODI study found that women gig workers in Kenya and South Africa identified childcare as the biggest challenge to their economic opportunities, along with work–life balance and the decreasing quality of their work.
The women engaged in this project confirmed this tension. On the one hand, many of them talked about how platform work has offered a level of flexibility that enables them to choose when, where, and how to work. For Dathive, a single mother of four, for example, the flexibility that comes with her ride-hailing job enables her to head out early in the morning, drop students to school and workers to work, then return home in time to give her children breakfast and get them to school, too. She is glad that the money she makes from SafeBoda is enough to provide her children’s needs.
Four of the seven women in this project are single mothers. They talked about the challenges of splitting time between work and children on top of the responsibility of being the sole breadwinners for the family.
Mary, for example, explained how she needed to be online regularly to connect with her customers. She said it consumes a lot of time away from her family.
On the whole, despite the challenges, the platform experience for these women was positive. Even during the pandemic, they earned some income by doing work they enjoy through platforms.
However, the many unique challenges women face as they engage in platform-based work should not be overlooked. Platforms and policymakers should recognize the gendered aspects of platform labor and devise ways to improve women’s platform livelihood opportunities.
This year, Caribou Digital, with the support of the Mastercard Foundation, will embark on a multi-country study to further explore the intertwining of gender in digital work, aiming to make specific recommendations for programmatic and policy engagement. We look forward to sharing more on this important topic.