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What does it feel like to be a trader or service provider working and selling online in Kenya?
Formal platforms in this sector offer access and validity to clients who are difficult to access independently and assist entrepreneurs with administrative work, including timely payment and customer engagement.
We spoke to platform entrepreneurs in services, including cleaning and interior design work. Some of those in domestic manual cleaning and laundry (mama fua) go to the client’s premises for cleaning; others have invested in their own laundry machine. Deep cleaners offer specialized services on location. Interior design work includes painting, electrical work, and fixtures installations. Interviewees in the trades made custom furniture on request.
With few end-to-end platforms, research on clients is key, in social media, besides the profile’s names, it’s hard to determine if the client can be trusted. When not mediated by platforms, workers have to conduct risk assessments of clients to weed out online fraudsters. Clients with unmanageable expectations lead to low payments, additional work, bad ratings, or requests to redo work.
While trades (creating custom products on request) and services (getting a request for a service and delivering the work in person) entail different things, there were common themes revealed by platform workers in this sector. They highlighted the location-based nature of access to work for service providers; the need to identify and target the right clientele; and the prevalence of trust concerns when providing service on clients’ premises.
“Where we are right now, if you want a bigger group of clients, you get them from online. When I started I was doing door-to-door. Like when I get a client, I go also to the neighbours’ place and leave my contact. But I saw that has become too slow, and also you get that you don’t get clients that often. So I opted to advertise myself online. At least I can get more clients, so I when it worked I settled with it.”—Rose, 30, Cleaning services (uses social media and Jiji)
Workers who advertise online might get clients from all over Kenya, even if they have clearly stated they only serve a certain location. Some have to turn them down, as the costs and time required for travel limit the location one can serve. With the challenges presented by geographic proximity, platform workers in this sector compete for clients within one locality. Those who are able to target smarter “win.”
As they market on marketplaces and social media, they need to be creative in identifying the right clients, with some stating that a certain profile of client is likely to need cleaning or moving services. Formal platforms are instrumental in attracting the right clients, the type that would need the services and pay a good fee.
When interacting with the clients, platform workers need to learn the unwritten preferences of clients; some might require those providing services in their homes to wear uniforms or clean a certain way. Timely delivery, quality work, and fulfilling clients’ demands (which are not always clearly communicated) are some of the challenges that come with delivering the work.
Challenges with standardization—or the lack of it—were common among those in trades and services.Highlighting the different practices of end-to-end formal platforms, marketplaces, and social media, many stated the importance of instrumental platforms that handle standardization, training, and quality control.
From site visits that do not always guarantee work, to the need for material costs before starting, to delayed or missing payments, those working in trades and services have many hidden costs. Platform workers have to define the terms and conditions of engagement to protect their time and money.
From Google business pages, personal websites, social media, and listings on formal marketplaces, one needs to try all avenues to meet clients where they are. For instance, for those targeting more affluent clients, having a website and promoting it on search algorithms is important.
Trust concerns are prevalent in this sector. To earn trust from clients online, workers showcase their ability to do the job they say they will and deliver high quality. Many mentioned showcasing the process of their work by taking videos or photos to show progress. At the same time, posting consistently is necessary to show that one has successfully delivered work and other clients are engaging.
Online engagement takes many forms: ensuring they are responding to enquiries, reacting to customer reviews, and visiting other pages doing similar work. Happy and loyal clients can become brand ambassadors by posting positive reviews.
From needing a mobile office space, winning longer-term projects, procuring better tools, and looking for streamlined ways to run the business, growth in the sector entails expanding to serve more organized clients.
Online platforms have created new ways to access work for those in trades and services. Workers need to adjust to the demands that come with this new trend, including learning how to navigate digital spaces. This work is highly precarious for those who have not established a standalone business (where they are dedicated full-time to the business and market across several platforms) and rely on only one platform; jobs are scattered with below-average earnings. It was clear how the work is valued offline is likely to extend online, e.g., low pricing by clients for work that is hard to standardize, like cleaning.
In a time where unemployment rates are high, many engage in this sector rather than stay jobless. Others who are entrepreneurial have a bigger picture for their business, such as getting more tools of work to service more clients, and are excited about creating employment for others. Even as platforms digitize work, there is immense reliance on existing social structures, such as serving certain classes of people, referrals and reviews to gauge ratings on quality of work, and judging professionalism based on how the workers present themselves. With this sector going online, many workers are interested in how social media platforms, which are more prominent than formal platforms, can aid in confirming clients’ legitimacy.
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.
The arts and creative industries: Digital channels as a source of inspiration, distribution, and a platform to educate audiences on the value of art.
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.
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.
Freelancing and microwork: To connect with clients all over the world for everything from data processing to graphic design and writing, freelancers must build a personal brand while microworkers mostly remain anonymous.
Cross-cutting themes: Reflections on cross-cutting themes around rurality, gender, inclusion for people with disabilities, and fractional work.
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