Flexible, Affordable, Portable Social Safety Nets for Gig Workers.

Tessie Waithira
Frontier Tech Hub
Published in
9 min readNov 16, 2020


The world of work is evolving and the gig economy has a lot to offer. Flexible jobs are one way to earn supplemental income or a fallback plan in case of a job loss. With this, comes pertinent questions on employee benefits to people who need them but don’t fit the policies put in place by organizations that provide benefits.

For instance, what would a personalized insurance package look like for an uber rider? How are freelancers preparing for retirement? Are there loan options for casual workers who need financial help to acquire a work asset? With these new ways of livelihoods e.g. platform work, freelancing, and self-employment, how can we create benefits that fit the way people currently work? We set out to understand: (1) gig workers’ take on social safety nets, and (2) what barriers inhibit service providers from providing these benefits to individual workers, not on full-time employment.

Note: We carried out this experiment at a time when there are massive job insecurities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the unemployment rate almost doubling between April to June.

The idea

At Qhala, supported by the Frontier Technologies Livestreaming (FTL) Programme and the UK-Kenya Tech Hub, we are setting up as a portable benefits platform for gig workers. This will be a social safety net to allow subscription to benefits like health insurance, retirement, savings plan, discounted memberships, product financing, etc. We plan to have the perks platform serving gig workers, freelance/independent contractors, and small business owners by giving them access to curated benefits/perks that meet their individual needs. We are keen to partner with service providers, policymakers, and gig workers to make this a reality. In recent months, we have been conducting intensive research in this space.

To learn more about this sector, we carried out different research whose insights will guide the development of the platform. We carried out:

  • Desk research — To understand the gig economy, the security, and the social benefits scene in Kenya.
  • User research — Targeted one-on-one interviews to learn about different experiences, pain points, aspirations, and mindsets.
  • Expert interviews — We involved subject matter experts to learn about their experience and the different sectors that can play in.
  • Market research — To learn more about future possibilities and the wider market.

The overall goal of the research was to understand the experience of 1)Gig workers (working either independently or through a platform) when accessing what would otherwise be employee benefits if they were on formal full-time employment. These include insurance, product financing (asset finance), savings, loans, investment options, retirement plans, discounts, and other membership benefits. 2) Experts who have been serving gig workers in different sectors to understand the space.

Desk research

What are perks in Kenya? Are there essential and aspirational perks? How do people access perks? Who are the possible partners and what do they currently offer? From this research, we learned that delivery and distribution channels are key in adoption and that different people will require different social benefits depending on their lifestyle and immediate needs. There is already existing work, especially in insurance both from the government (NHIF), and other individuals providing microinsurance that are extending the service, especially to those in the informal economy.

There are emerging new ways of adaptive distribution with adaptable remittance processes such as pay as you go. We also noticed that even though the information is available, adoption of services is low, does information design influence adoption? This research also helped us identify a negated middle, which represents the underserved group that we focused on for further research. We also narrowed down to a prototype that we showed to these research participants for early feedback.

The user interviews were engaging one on one interviews. We set out to:

  • Understand how giggers prioritize or would prioritize, and choose social benefits and securities.
  • Understand what barriers prevent gig workers from taking perks (is it a trust issue or remittance challenges?)
  • Investigate what opportunities exist in the benefits space.
  • Test the prototype to see if it meets the user’s needs. The prototype tested: Priority between insurance, savings, loans, and other membership discounts. What are the preferred remittance and payment methods? What are the preferred ways to manage social security benefits and perks? What type of social security benefits and perks would be essential for different user groups?

Meet Sarah — A freelancer/ independent contractor working with different clients.

Sarah is a 26-year-old graphic designer in Nairobi. She is an IT graduate and has worked as a freelancer for the past 4 years. She started creating designs for her friends and family business before completing college, all for free. After college, and with the challenges in landing employment, she decided to work freelance full-time. Over time, she has gained clients willing to pay for her service, some return clients, and others are one-off.

Sarah has learned that having the right tools makes you more productive and able to produce quality work. She knows she has to work harder to purchase a better laptop. There are many like Sarah who have either never been employed full-time or transitioned into freelancing after leaving full-time employment. They offer their services through online connections or offline. Some are more experienced in freelancing than others, some have had social security benefits when they were in employment and are now adjusting to taking care of their insurance, investments, and retirement plans.

Meet James — A boda boda rider making deliveries for a logistic platform.

James is a 28-year-old boda boda rider from Nairobi. He is married with two kids and is the family’s sole breadwinner. He joined a logistics platform as a rider after four years of providing casual labor at construction sites. As a rider on the platform for the last two years, he has learned the trade and even managed to get offline clients. He attends to them whenever they require delivery services. His plan is to save up and acquire more motorbikes, hire a second rider and register them on the platform to earn extra income.

James worries about the risk of injuries, hospital charges if his kids happen to get sick and what would happen if he was not able to continue riding. There are many like James, who either have small businesses and are selling online through social media and e-commerce or are providing services on demand either online or offline through referrals. They would like to expand their businesses, save their weekly earnings, and have a solid plan for retirement.

Gig workers have different needs at every stage of their entrepreneurial life. For instance, getting health insurance is a priority, but the cost of acquiring it as an individual as opposed to being part of a large company inhibits many from getting it.“I can’t go for my own insurance, they are very expensive”, There is no clear line between themselves and the business, they are the business. “A freelancer is a business, without him or her there is no work, hospitals on cash are very expensive.” They would like to be able to take care of themselves to keep the business running, and with this, they would require affordable health care.

From speaking to different gig workers, we realized that collective bargaining would go a long way in easing access as this would give them a more formal structure. On community and organizing, a membership that goes beyond work to social and self-development would help them in their personal development. Different people looked at retirement in a different light, many are keen on new ways of investing, this shows the need to create solutions that are adaptive to the needs and aspirations of the current generation and their changing take on work and life. While pension schemes might appeal to some, for others getting a capital boost to grow their side gig to a full-time business would go a long way. We notice that fear of debt traps, especially as observed over time in mobile loans, have made many averse to loans.

Expert Interviews

We spoke to platforms enabling gig work, communities bringing together gig workers for organizing, networking, and connecting, and different service providers who would offer value to gig workers. Our key takeaway from this was the need for adaptable tech i.e improvement on old systems to match current ways of working and an empathetic understanding of user needs for the service providers. It was also clear that collective bargaining will go a long way in easing negotiation power. The partners will be key in the curation and distribution of benefits to gig workers.

Market research

The goal of the market research was to identify other opportunities that we can look into as we believe there is an opportunity to extend the offering beyond gig workers to the larger ecosystem such as small businesses with fewer employees. With this, we were able to test out what gaps are in the market and what the purchase intent is when it comes to social security benefits and other perks. We conducted market research through an online survey that was distributed to several target groups. The findings from this solidify most of the sentiments we had got from the one-on-one interviews: cost, convenience, and value when selecting a service provider.

From this and other research we have undertaken in the gig economy space, we offer these starting points for anyone who is creating or exploring solutions in the gig sector:

  • Delivery and distribution strategies are key when offering solutions in this space. New and creative partnerships are emerging in the space of service delivery and it’s great to continue experimenting with new collaborations and delivery infrastructures.
  • As we create solutions, it’s great to think about the economic security of those we are offering solutions. From our discussions, most gig workers have become averse to loans from observing their fellow colleagues suffer from bad debts. Offering solutions should not come at the expense of the users well being.
  • Traditional models can be disrupted through understanding user needs, current lifestyles, and aspirations. When we spoke to young people on retirement plans, we noticed they are keen to explore new investment options most of which are not easily accessible in the market. This could be due to challenges in getting the correct information or lacking the right support to explore these options.

The outcome of the research was a clear target persona that we will be focusing on for the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). We were able to learn of their pain points, their needs, and their mindsets. By clearing out what basic and aspirational needs look like for different gig workers, we were able to select the initial benefits which we will be focusing on for the initial pilot. The research helped in assumptions testing proving or disproving and we were able to gather more questions and areas of exploring going forward. As we continue creating solutions in this space, we are keen to figure out:

  • How might we design, package, and distribute perks for the different target groups?
  • How might we engage and onboard partners who share the same agenda as perks?

With opportunities created by new technology and the youth exploring more ways of making a livelihood, there is a need to create solutions that support their economic security in the long run. This can be done by borrowing closely from traditional employment settings, solving problems based on user needs, and most importantly including flexibility and portability into the solution. Unlike in the past, the current workers of today work on more projects, serving different clients at the same time, and so they should be able to move with the benefits from one work to the other.

We are keen to observe how these new ways of working, and especially things necessitated by COVID-19 like remote working, will affect employee perks and benefits even in the traditional full-time settings.

This post was originally shared at Qhala’s account here.