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Africa’s female gig workers are battling beliefs about what real work is

Photo of an African business woman using an iphone at work.
Negative perceptions persist about gig work in Africa, especially for women in the sector.
  • Grace Natabaalo
By Grace Natabaalo

Research lead at Caribou Digital

Published

This story is part of a series with Quartz Africa and Caribou Digital that focuses on women in the gig economy in Africa.

Across Africa, women are now looking to new forms of work—as freelancers offering professional services online, drivers on ride-hailing platforms, Airbnb hosts, domestic workers using on-demand labor platforms, and also running micro businesses on social media. Many others are part of a growing number of vendors on e-commerce platforms like Jumia.

In a continent where women’s labor participation stands at 61% compared to men at 73%, such opportunities, made available by more affordable mobile phones and better internet, can be life-changing.

They think it’s a brothel you are running.

Though more African women are taking advantage of digital platforms to find paying gigs and trade in the face of rising unemployment during the pandemic, they however struggle to convince a society that is used to the traditional 8-5 jobs that what they do is indeed work, and perfectly legitimate. This is according to our research on young women in the digital economy in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya.

Gig work is sometimes not seen as real work

For the last four years, Rachel, a freelance voice-over artist has been earning an income through gigs she gets online from freelance websites like Upwork, a freelancing platform and Voice123, a platform connecting voice actors to clients. Friends and family, she says, don’t see it as real work. She has a bachelors in quantity surveying.

Being Nigerian, Rachel says that family and friends instead see her as a “Yahoo girl”- a label associated with Nigeria’s Yahoo Boys, a nickname for scam artists notorious for online fraud.

“There are a lot of misconceptions around it. That you are not making an honest living because you’re working online,” Rachel says.

She spends about 10 hours a day in a small recording studio she set up close to her home in Kaduna State where she lives with her family.

“When I have studio sessions. I will most likely go comfortable with maybe sweatpants, crocs, or a backpack. I’ve heard people ask, “You don’t look like you’re going to work, why don’t you look like you’re going to work?”

On the other hand, her side hustle—selling cosmetics online—is viewed more favorably as a source of income.

Rachel is not alone. Many women say they have difficulty explaining that working online really is work.

In Lagos, Carol, a former journalist who quit her job to become an online freelance content writer, says that people assume that freelancers like her are “just passing time.”

“Society perceives gig workers as not really doing anything substantial. That we have all the time in our hands, we’re not really earning that well, we’re just trying to pass time. They don’t realize that  sometimes we even earn way more than people who get up in the morning, jump on buses to get offices, doing nine to five.”

For some women running their own small businesses- selling goods and services on social media or ecommerce websites sometimes elicits harsh comments.

“I had a few friends saying stuff like, instead of you going and looking for a job you are selling online. They feel that selling online is for lazy people,” says Ama, a Ghanaian woman who runs a business online selling health products.

The mother of two said she took up the home business after she had her first child to “help me take care of my kids alongside working. I wanted to build something for myself and kids.”

“They think it’s a brothel you are running”

In Nairobi, Kenya, 22 year-old Agnes, turned her two parents’ properties into Airbnb rentals. The money from Airbnb, she says, is what her parents now use to pay her tuition at university where she is pursuing a degree in business administration.

In speaking about society’s perception of women like her who are hosts on Airbnb, a global online marketplace for short-term rentals, Agnes says, “They think it’s a brothel you are running.”

Men in the same business are however viewed differently, Agnes says. “It is normal. They do not even have to ask what it is. They will say is it not a business what he is doing? Is it not money he’s looking for to buy food for the kids? You see that mentality? Society is always mean to women.”

Another host on AirBnb in Kenya, Angella, also says people think that she is running a brothel because of the nature of the business, with many people coming and going after a few days.

Educated gig workers are seen as having wasted their degrees

Some parents are nervous to see their daughters pursuing income generating activities online that are unrelated to the education they paid for.

“My parents were kind of disappointed…You have a degree and you’re selling things online. They make me feel like I wasted myself in school,”  says Akello, an entrepreneur with a bachelor’s degree in Information Science who couldn’t find a job after completing university two years ago. She now sells clothes, shoes, and bags on social media.

Carol, an AirBnB host, says she had the option of becoming a teacher after completing her degree in Agricultural Extension but refused, to her parents’ disappointment.

“The option of being a teacher was right there on the table so they kept telling me that getting a payslip is security. They could not understand why I was pursuing the business path…‘We took you to school not for you to joke around.’”

Some female gig workers cannot tell their families what they do

Some women who have overcome stereotypes to become motorcycle delivery drivers have chosen not to tell their parents what they do in fear of the reaction they will get.

“Even now [my father] doesn’t know. He thinks I am riding a sport bike for women bikers. He doesn’t know I am doing deliveries,” she says.

Another one says she didn’t tell her mother and her family was later shocked when they found out after her story was published in the newspapers.

One of her pastors saw her in the newspaper and showed it to her mother. “She called and asked me if I’m a rider and I had to tell her the truth,” says Janet, who has since taught a few other women in Nairobi how to ride motorbikes.

The pandemic is slowly changing negative perceptions of platform work

Ella, an academic writer in Kenya, thinks society’s perception about online work is changing especially because of the pandemic.

After covid-19 hit, almost everybody started moving to online businesses so they see there is some potential in it. They stopped having so many negative perceptions about it, especially towards women.  For others, family has come around.

“At least now they can understand this is my heart, this is what I do, and they respect that,” Eddah an entrepreneur says.

Several women who have shared their experiences of online work speak of various challenges and limitations stemming from gendered power structures and social norms but they simultaneously speak of the economic empowerment and independence they derive from having access to this work.

“Now they appreciate it since life is good and my kids are in school and they say they never thought I would be where I am in life, this job is good,” says Nanjira, a motorbike driver in Nakuru, Kenya.

Many have shared how support from spouses, siblings, parents, and friends, both financial and non-financial, has been key in helping them thrive in the digital world of work.

From our research, women want to advance their skills to tap into higher paying freelancing gigs or learn better business practices to grow their businesses. Some dream of making enough money to buy their own fleet of motorbikes so they can hire other riders and make more money. Airbnb hosts want capital to rent more apartments and earn more.

As these platforms become a source of income for young women in Africa due to limited formal employment options, it is crucial that governments, development partners, and platforms find the women where they are and help them grow.

Stories under this series are based on extensive research carried out by Caribou Digital over the past few years on the impact platform work has on the livelihoods of young men and women in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana. This research work is conducted in partnership with Qhala in Kenya, the University of Ghana, and Lagos Business School in Nigeria, with the support of the Mastercard Foundation. This editorial partnership aims to share the experiences of the women whose livelihoods are directly impacted by digital transformation.

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