Is the gig economy improving the lives of African women?

Women face challenges working for online platforms, even as they present themselves as a simpler, even better, alternative to formal jobs.
Women face challenges working for online platforms, even as they present themselves as a simpler, even better, alternative to formal jobs.
Image: Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye
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The gig economy in Africa has grown significantly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, serving as a stopgap for consumers when businesses shut down during lockdowns, and offering employment for those shut out from formal and even informal opportunities.

But women are being prevented from taking full advantage of these opportunities, because of the ways in which long-standing gender disparities are manifesting themselves in digital platforms.

A new project by Caribou Digital bears this out. Through interviews and participatory videos, the digital economy research and advisory firm collected the experiences of people who earn their living on digital platforms to understand how the Covid-19 pandemic has shaped their experience. The project forms part of their ongoing research, supported by the Mastercard Foundation, into “platform livelihood.”

Women are benefitting from the gig economy’s low barrier of entry, and the flexibility and autonomy it offers, says Grace Natabaalo, a research lead at Caribou who spearheaded the project. But interviews revealed several barriers for women at an “individual, societal and institutional level,” Natabaalo told Quartz Africa, “including access to capital, access to ICT and skills, harmful societal norms, and knowledge of online opportunities” she said.

The challenges facing women when they work for online platforms are complex, even as the platforms present themselves as a better, simpler alternative to traditional jobs.

Seeking gig economy opportunities

Dathive Mukeshimana, 31, joined ride-hailing and delivery company SafeBoda in Kampala two years ago in search of more stable income, and after exploring opportunities in both the formal and informal sectors.

“I tried difficult jobs: mobile money, restaurant. I tried [a] salon, but [it] was not profitable,” Mukeshimana shared with Caribou. “So that is why I decided to join motorcycle riding because I can get more money to feed my family.”

As in many countries, gender imbalance in employment is a significant issue for Uganda, a 2019 report by its Bureau of Statistics showed. While Uganda’s unemployment rate for men had declined in the years studied in the report (2016-2017), there was a 4.3% increase in joblessness for women. The report attributed the decline to the “skills gap, low education attainment, or limited opportunities in the job market for women for the kind of work they can do.”

Around 85% of working women in Uganda work in the informal sector, which accounts for 75% of the country’s total employment. A 2011 report found the predominant forms of informal activities, such as carpentry and transportation services (mainly using motor cycles, otherwise known as boda boda) are considered unsuitable and too demanding for women. As a result they often have to settle for less physically demanding, relatively low-return jobs, such as food preparation or selling in markets.

Gig economy work has become an increasingly popular and important alternative route into work for many Africans. And it has provided women with an opportunity to escape some restrictions, as Mukeshimana’s example shows. As one of only a few female riders for SafeBoda, she has done several media interviews in an effort to encourage more women to take advantage of opportunities offered by digital marketplaces.

Barriers to equal access

According to a recent International Labour Organisation report on the expanded role of digital labor during the pandemic, working for online platforms has become the primary source of income for almost half of workers in some developing countries and in some cases, more than half of women. The pandemic has only accelerated this shift, which the ILO reported having some positive effects.

“The development of digital labour platforms has the potential to provide workers, including women, people with disabilities, young people and migrant workers, with income-generating opportunities,” the report states. “In developing countries, in particular, such platforms are regarded as a promising source of work opportunities, leading many governments to invest in digital infrastructure and skills. Businesses are also benefiting, as they can use these platforms to access a global and local workforce to improve efficiency and enhance productivity and enjoy wider market reach.”

Yet despite the large numbers of women leaning into the gig economy in developing countries, only two out of ten workers on online, web-based platforms are women, according to the ILO’s report, and even fewer work for location-based apps like ride-hailing services. “These figures underline the fact that, in a similar way to the offline labour market, the online labour market poses challenges for women in accessing work.”

Men have more opportunities to learn the kind of digital skills required by these jobs, and are also more likely to own the devices needed to participate in the gig economy. Once onboard, women are also prevented from exploiting the opportunities provided by gig work due to gendered and societal issues. For example, Mukeshimana, one of two female riders on SafeBoda app, can’t work as late as her male counterparts because of concerns for her safety.

“Women’s safety is an issue in almost all platform work,” Natabaalo notes.

And while the flexibility of online platforms has great appeal for women, they are still being held back by the fact that they are primarily responsible for childcare and housework—a situation that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Indeed, about 23% of women surveyed by ILO who perform online work said they have children under the age of six years. On microtask freelancing platforms, men are able to work an average of 8.4 hours, compared to 7.8 hours clocked by women.

The gender disparities playing out on platforms have plagued economies for decades. Developing economies in particular miss out on significant economic gains when women don’t have secure incomes. A 2019 World Bank report said that including more women in the workplace and investing in their productivity could increase the per capita GDP of Niger’s per capita GDP as much as 25%. McKinsey estimates that including more women in influential decision-making roles could grow Africa’s economy could add $316 billion, or 10% to Africa’s GDP by 2025.

The gig economy has also not been a sufficient solution for the disproportionate way the pandemic has affected women, who continue to be the primary caregivers at home and in a professional capacity. Mukeshimana saw her wages drop and her household responsibilities increase after Uganda enforced a Covid lockdown last year, which included a curfew on motorcyclists. Gloria Kemigisha, who co-runs a fashion business online, and delivers her goods via SafeBoda, saw her business activities dwindle.

“Running this business during the pandemic, it was very stressful,” Kemigisha told Caribou. “I didn’t have time for myself because I was homeschooling, then at the same time I’m running House of Penda and at the same time I’m making sure meals are prepared. So it’s been quite a year.”

There were some benefits in the increased shift to online work. Anastestia Onyekaba, a self-taught frontend developer, saw a spike in requests for her work on freelancing platforms like Upwork. She also says the gig economy has allowed her to avoid some of the more systemic discrimination she experienced while applying for other jobs.

“In some companies when you try to apply, and you tell them your skills, they actually doubt that you can do it and have you do a test,” the 24-year-old Nigerian told Quartz Africa. “I know this because one of the companies I applied to, my friend, a guy, applied too and he did not have to do any test.”

This kind of experience contributes to the “misconception that the tech world is just for the guys,” Onyekaba says. “So most ladies are not even interested. They are much afraid to join, to start with.”

Capacity building

A recent report by the Overseas Development Institute, looking into women’s participation in the gig economy in Kenya and South Africa, argued that platform work cannot be divorced from the constraints that women face in society broadly. The report called for a “strong gender lens” in debates over the quality of this work, such as whether they truly offer more flexibility for women, and “for women’s economic empowerment to be at the forefront of efforts to ensure the gig economy evolves to the benefit of all.”

Natabaalo says that some apps are starting to recognize that women could use additional support, through training and more accommodating and inclusive policies.

“Platforms like Uber, Lynk, and Jumia, for example, deliberately provide transferable skills like digital skills, financial literacy, stock management and soft skills,” Natabaalo noted. “There are also attempts to bring more women into ride-hailing through female-only platforms like An Nisa taxi app in Kenya and Diva Taxi Uganda Driver app in Uganda.”

More representation at the board level would foster inclusivity and access. Investors are starting to see the potential in this idea, with backing for African female founders on the rise.

“A more inclusive decision-making process at the platform design, business model, and strategy stage could help build better products and services and experiences for millions of women pursuing livelihoods via platforms,” Natabaalo said.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed research on microtask platforms to Caribou Digital. It was conducted by the University of Nairobi.