His home is Bungoma, a small town in western Kenya, but his workplace is the world. Kevin, who asks that his real name be withheld to protect his credibility, has written about casinos in China without ever going there. He has reviewed weightlifters’ barbells, headphones and home-security systems he has never seen.
Africa’s digital workers are rewiring the old geographies of labour. Freelances on online platforms can reach clients around the world, harnessing skills from blogging to web design. Others are hired by outsourcing companies, sifting data used to train chatbots and self-driving cars. Optimists hope that online work can set Africa on the path of services-led growth trodden by countries such as India and the Philippines. Pessimists worry such work will entrench injustices.

Africans are drawn to the work by the flexibility and pay; others because they cannot find a conventional job(AFP file photo) PREMIUM
Africans are drawn to the work by the flexibility and pay; others because they cannot find a conventional job(AFP file photo)

Some are drawn to the work by the flexibility and pay; others because they cannot find a conventional job. There are evangelists for freelancing. Baraka Mafole, a student in Tanzania, organises training events and has written a book in Swahili about navigating online platforms. “Now everyone is speaking about digital jobs,” he says. In Kenya the government’s Ajira programme runs support centres that aim to link a million Kenyans to online platforms and make the country a “digital hub”.

Typical tasks include transcription, data entry, online marketing, or even writing essays for indolent students. Joan Wandera is a Nairobi office worker by day, and by night a “virtual assistant” for American businesses. “It helps you learn a lot about other countries,” she says. Sometimes it is potential clients who have learning to do. Some clients assume Africans cannot speak English, she sighs.

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Freelances, like the wider outsourcing industry, “are fighting against a reputation of Africa as somewhere where you would not expect digital work to take place,” says Mohammad Amir Anwar of the University of Edinburgh, who co-wrote a book about Africa’s digital workforce. Some African freelances use virtual private networks and fake names to pretend they are somewhere else. Power cuts and competition for gigs from cheaper workers in Asia and beyond create other challenges.

The available data suggest that it will take time for Africa to become a continent of digital freelances. In 2019 Mr Anwar and colleagues estimated that there were 120,000 African workers on Upwork, the continent’s most popular platform—fewer than in the Philippines. Most did not seem to be making any money.

Outsourcing practices have also sparked ethical questions. At a Facebook content-moderation centre in Kenya, run by Sama, an outsourcing firm, workers told Time magazine that they were mistreated and misled about the nature of their work. A former employee has taken both companies to court, accusing them of union-busting, forced labour and human-trafficking. Sama discontinued its services for Facebook this year. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, says it takes seriously its responsibilities to its content moderators.

Technological change ricochets in unpredictable directions. Chat GPT a new AI tool, was trained with the help of Kenyan workers, who flagged up tens of thousands of passages of obscene and violent text. Could it one day make freelances such as Kevin redundant?

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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