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‘Gig Economies’ in Africa: Continuity or Change?

In June 2015, a sense of anticipation for the arrival of Uber was brewing in the streets of Accra. Taxi drivers were talking about it, expressing both preoccupation and curiosity. On the one hand, they feared the implications for their jobs and, on the other, they thought new employment opportunities might arise. A few years later, there are a number of ride-hailing companies operating in Accra, including Taxify, Uru, Yenko, Dropping and Fameko, and Uber has expanded its operations to the city of Kumasi.

Going far beyond the transportation sector, the expansion of the so-called ‘gig economy’ is a global fact, with a growing number of multinational and domestic companies making use of technology to connect customers with workers. African countries are no exception. For example, Lynk, one of the largest gig companies in the continent, provides a range of services from plumbing to hairdressing to urban dwellers in Kenya and standard companies may supplement their formal business through gig workers, as is the case of phone provider Safaricom in Kenya, which has catalysed the proliferation of thousands of mobile money outlets. Further, governments may be involved in large-scale interventions to promote digital labour (i.e. ‘the remote gig economy’), as documented by Graham, Hjort and Lehdonvirta in their study of digital economies in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.

Across the board, these emerging forms of work are hailed as solutions to the low productivity of the informal sector and youth under-employment, as well as worthwhile investment opportunities. The CDC Group (the UK’s primary vehicle of finance for development), has also taken interest in the ‘gig economy’ in Africa and argues that, without needing to provide the securities of a formal job, ‘perks’ such as training, a more predictable income and a link with a multinational constitute an advantage to what the informal economy can offer. 

The reality of the gig economy in the global south

Beyond the ability of companies to attract workers and make a profit, assessing whether the ‘gig economies’ are desirable spaces for the futures of work requires addressing questions from the viewpoint of the workers and their families. What types of jobs are created? Who takes them up and how? What transformations are occurring to labour relations and the organisation of work? These questions are particularly important in the context of pervasive working poverty, where improvements in the quality of work are not matching reductions in unemployment, and stunted global wage growth, against the background of the longer-term squeeze of labour vis-à-vis capital.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), who are among the first to conduct a comprehensive study of ‘remote gig economies’ (i.e. digital labour) in the Global South, document that workers are exposed to the global dynamics of the digital labour markets and are disembedded from legal and institutional frameworks and inequality is reproduced as some workers are able to outsource their work to others for a lower pay. This story of segmentation and multi-layered labour relations is well-known to scholars of labour in Africa and can be read as a practice that embodies elements of both capital and labour, as discussed by Bernstein and O’Laughlin among others, in the context of a trajectory of capitalist development that led to the formation of multiple classes of labour.

A quick observation reveals that there are many aspects of the so-called gig economy that present elements of continuity with the organisation of work in labour markets in Africa. This is firstly demonstrated by the existence of terminology that describes ‘gig’ work. In Mozambique, where I have conducted research since 2010, it is very common for people to do biscate, rather than having a proper job. Biscate refers to a diverse range of piece-rate wage work For example, it can entail being paid a fixed amount set upfront for loading a truck or transporting goods from one place to another. Although biscate often indicates men’s work, various forms of domestic work can also be performed as biscate by women. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, in Maputo, the practice of calling a domestic worker on-demand, rather than relying on a regular service, is increasing in popularity, although there is no technological platform to mediate this service. Piece-rate wage work is found also in agriculture, where it is called ganho-ganho in Mozambican-Portuguese, and has a long history in the labour relations underpinning rural labour markets in southern Africa.

Owing to the importance of informal channels of distribution, standard companies may use ‘gig practices’ as foundational to their business model. This is the case of Fan Milk International, a Danish multinational operating in Ghana since the 1960s, recently acquired by Danone and currently controlling the biggest market share of packaged foods in the country. Fan Milk relies on a network of thousands of street vendors, who are equipped with branded containers and t-shirts but are not employed by Fan Milk. They buy products from intermediaries or Fan Milk distributors and pay a commission on their sales and are considered to be self-employed. Fan Milk only provides occasional training to the street vendors. 

More of the same?

In contexts characterised by fragmented labour markets and lack of regular employment opportunities (i.e. secure jobs with regular wages), households engage in a multitude of occupations to make ends meet. A study reports that poor households in Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania have on average 6-8 sources of income. This practice has been often praised as a manifestation of entrepreneurialism and portrayed as a preference, not least in a recent experimental study in Ethiopia. However, this interpretation has been questioned based on the survivalist nature of much informal work and the constraints associated with the early stage of manufacturing development that make factory jobs particularly onerous. It is the fragmentation of the means of social reproduction, in particular the eroded viability of household production – due to processes of commodification – combined with the gendered pressures families face to carry out reproductive work, that shapes patterns of engagement in employment. Failure to recognise this leads to two key problems underpinning current visions of the ‘gig economy’ in Africa. First, the misplaced idea that ‘gig’ work – biscate or ganho-ganho – is exactly the type of work that people want. Second, the erroneous presumption that multiple occupations alleviates issues related to low earnings. Indeed, many are trapped in poverty because they engage in multiple poorly-paid jobs. Stories of ‘success’ demonstrate differentiation rather than the effectiveness of this employment model to lift people out of poverty.

The proclaimed flexibility of work in the ‘gig economy’, which is so central in debates in the Global North (as it breaks with the dynamics of timed wage employment), is to be considered differently in the Global South, where timed wage employment was never a dominant work paradigm. Flexible work arrangements assume diminished time constraints and the ability to conciliate productive and reproductive work. However, a closer examination of flexible and irregular work arrangements shows that they are subject to specific time and spatial constraints that are in turn shaped by relations of gender, class, race, age and nationality. I argue that a social reproduction perspective is necessary to unpick these dimensions and evaluate patterns of continuity and change in the expansion of ‘gig work’ in Africa.  

Elements of continuity in the organisation of work suggests that insights should be drawn from the literature on labour and patterns of capitalist development in Africa. However, questions on what is changing are also fundamental. Are livelihoods being transformed? Are the conditions for collective action changing? Are the temporal and spatial dimensions of work shifting? How does access to technology shape who gets the job? Is capital becoming more concentrated? A framework that builds on the aspects of continuity and interrogates those of change through a social reproduction lens is what is needed to study the ‘gig economies’ in Africa and the Global South at large.

Sara Stevano is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics at SOAS University of London.

Image credit: Mstephen247 via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)