hat home Although it is Bongoma, a small town in western Kenya, his workplace is all over the world. Kevin, who asked that his real name be withheld to protect his credibility, has written about Chinese casinos without ever being there. He reviews barbells, headphones and home security systems from weightlifters he’s never seen.
Africa’s digital workers are reshaping old workforce geographies. Freelancers on online platforms can reach clients all over the world, leveraging skills ranging from blogging to web design. Others are hired by outsourced companies to sift through data used to train chatbots and self-driving cars. Optimists hope that online work can put Africa on the same service-led growth path as countries like India and the Philippines. Pessimists worry that such jobs will exacerbate injustice.
Some are attracted by the flexibility and pay of the job; others because they cannot find regular work. There are freelance evangelists. Baraka Mafole, a student in Tanzania, organized training events and wrote a book in Swahili on navigating online platforms. “Everyone is talking about digital jobs now,” he said. In Kenya, the government’s Ajira program operates support centers aimed at connecting one million Kenyans to online platforms and making the country a “digital hub”.
Typical tasks include transcription, data entry, online marketing, and even writing papers for lazy students. Joan Wandera is a Nairobi office worker by day and a “virtual assistant” for corporate America by night. “It gives you insight into other countries,” she said. Sometimes it’s the prospect who needs to learn. Some clients think Africans don’t speak English, she sighs.
Mohammad Amir Anwar of the University of Edinburgh, who co-authored a book on Africa’s digital workforce, said that like the wider outsourcing industry, freelancers “are working with Africa’s reputation.” Fight because Africa is a place where you don’t expect digital work to happen”. Some African freelancers use VPNs and pseudonyms to pretend they’re elsewhere. Power outages and competition for gig work from cheap workers in Asia and beyond pose other challenges.
Available data suggests that it will take time for Africa to become a continent for digital freelancers. In 2019, Mr Anwar and his colleagues estimated that there were 120,000 African workers on Upwork, the continent’s most popular platform — fewer than the Philippines. Most people don’t seem to be making any money.
Outsourcing practices also raise ethical questions.At a Facebook content moderation center in Kenya, run by an outsourced company, Sama, staff told time The magazine said they were mistreated and misled about the nature of their work. A former employee has taken the two companies to court, accusing them of union sabotage, forced labor and human trafficking. Sama stopped serving Facebook this year. Facebook’s parent company, Meta, says it takes its responsibilities to content moderators very seriously.
Technological change is moving rapidly in unpredictable directions.chatgpta new one AI tool, trained with the help of Kenyan workers who flagged tens of thousands of passages of obscene and violent text. Will freelancers like Kevin become redundant one day? ■