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What does it feel like to be a freelancer or microworker finding work online in Kenya?
We spoke to platform workers in freelance (ghost writers, virtual assistants, transcribers, graphic designers and software developers) and microwork (annotators, data entry). The difference in experience between microworkers and freelancers is the type of tasks they carry out. Microworkers complete many small tasks that are part of a large unified project. Freelancers, on the other hand, register on a platform and bid for work.
Most freelancers and microworkers earn from working rather than trading, renting, or creating. The literature on “hidden hierarchies” shows, however, that freelancers sometimes work alongside or manage other individuals, creating, in essence, a small enterprise beyond a single profile. In these instances, freelancing becomes a combination of working and trading. As extensive literature shows, this sector allows workers to both experience entrepreneurship and work as their own boss. Some of the challenges they face include work instability (sometimes due to infrequent jobs), long working hours, restrictions on type of tasks, and building credibility online.
“I learnt about this through a friend that has been in this field for long since 2013. I used to see my friend earning, and if I get a job in my field of nursing I earn about KES 20,000 (US$182.42), and you know it is not a permanent job and you know getting a job with the government is hard. So maybe I get a job for one year, I go to the next place and get an eight months contract. And my friend told me that I have worked in a lot of places I should come [and] she show[ed] me how she earns money online.”—Polly, 30, Freelancer (academic writer)
Altough the narrative about this type of work is “come online, there is work,” tmany interviewees stated that the work is competitive, sometimes seasonal, and usually affected by market trends. Freelancers and microworkers often choose platforms that are familiar, pay well, and have good job availability. Those platforms that allow freelancers to negotiate for higher rates are preferred. Whenever there is low demand on the platform, some turn to microworking sites, lower their rates, or do personal projects to keep themselves occupied and engaged.
As new workers join the sector, many struggle to build their profiles and face challenges accessing work opportunities, especially building credibility without any experience on the platform. Others fail to go beyond creating a profile. These new workers sometimes seek help from experienced professionals, who then subcontract work to them. This arrangement creates a microwork-like experience for many newcomers: they are nameless and faceless, carrying out tasks without ever understanding their contributions.
This is an evolving sector that requires freelancers to consistently upskill. Beginners receive basic training and mentorship from community social media groups or other avenues (e.g., Ajira). Some use online channels, especially YouTube; others prefer in-person meetups.
Many detail a scenario of always working. This situation puts them under a lot of pressure they complete tasks on time and earn a decent income, leading to long hours and/or little to no social interaction. Some participants reported that this results in resentment from family members, especially about staying up late.
While work in this sector can be delivered across borders, sometimes geography limits access to work. Some workers face discrimination based on their location that impacts their ability to get gigs, and/or outright bans by international platforms based on geography. To overcome this, workers change their location and profile details, or use virtual private networks (VPNs) to mask locations and meet platform requirements.
Most interviewees stated that they believe there is a future in online work. Their comments fall into three broad areas. 1) There is the possibility of expanding into another sector, such as content creation as a creative. 2) Workers may expand to increase their clientele, for instance, by purchasing more equipment to better target clients or investing in company branding. This is mostly for people who view this work as a business, especially after exposure to work or consultancies from global markets. 3) Others become trainers, supervisors, or brand ambassadors; for instance, microworkers, especially on Remotask, see a future as trainers. Some also work towards building informal networks to subcontract work to other freelancers or microworkers.
Freelancers rely on community networks and groups to find jobs, circulate information, learn new skills, navigate payment issues, verify clients’ credibility, and pick up techniques for handling bad customers. Some freelancers mentioned cons or scams (lack of payment or missing-in-action clients) that made them wary of taking jobs from unknown or unverified people. Community groups maintain shared knowledge, such as the names of blacklisted clients and advice on how to work with difficult clients. Most of these groups are on WhatsApp and Facebook.
Social freelancing can put freelancers at a disadvantage.
Some of the interviewees participated in “social freelancing”—a set of informal practices using social media platforms rather than, or in addition to, formal marketplace platforms for promotion and job discovery. Although social freelancing still brings in work for freelancers and (to a lesser extent) microworkers, most complain about the precariousness of the work, especially because interactions with clients are without security. Some have been exploited by clients without a redress mechanism.
To succeed in this sector requires work assets, digital savvy, ratings or portfolio, and referrals. Successful freelancers earn customers’ trust, maintain good ratings, and invest in client relationships. Freelancers who succeed focus on creating a brand through quality work, maintaining relations with clients, and using offline and/or social media networks to expand clientele.
“Within the platform, it is your portfolio that campaigns for you. So people will look at the samples that you have, then check the amount you have posted or you have bid for. So it’s your portfolio that’s says much about you.”—Sam, 31, Freelancer (graphic designer)
Online platforms have created new avenues for freelancers and microworkers to access work. Most of the workers interviewed invest in training to be competitive and get their first clients. Most beginner freelancers struggle to obtain work, so they turn to social media to get subcontracted work from experienced freelancers. Beginner microworkers, on the other hand, may rely on platforms’ training to upskill and get their first job.
Work in this sector involves individual workers creating their own profiles, but there is a strong sense of community for sharing information and outsourcing work. Some freelancers turn their social media profiles into mini-marketplaces to subcontract work to others. As digital channels grow, the key issue is how freelancers can leverage their existing networks to work collaboratively to mitigate some of the challenges they face finding work online.
Explore the report’s results on other sectors
The arts and creative industries: Digital channels as a source of inspiration, distribution, and a platform to educate audiences on the value of art.
Asset renting: People can earn a living by renting out assets they own (like property, tractors, or specialized equipment) or by renting them then re-renting them out in smaller fractions.
Delivery and logistics: Fast-paced work, driven by algorithms. Structured weekly earnings, support in bookkeeping, budgeting, and saving.
E-commerce and social commerce: Experiences with platform sales via formal marketplaces, social commerce, paid and free online advertising.
Farming: Formal multi-sided marketplaces built to connect farmers to markets and “social agriculture,” the practice of using social media to sell agricultural commodities and get social support in communities.
Ride-hailing: In big cities and smaller towns, ride-hailing is a mix of working and asset renting, as the driver and their vehicle are intertwined.
Trades and services: Domestic and care work, trades for custom-made products, and a myriad of other services, delivered on demand and matched by marketplaces and social media.
Cross-cutting themes: Reflections on cross-cutting themes around rurality, gender, inclusion for people with disabilities, and fractional work.
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