For young women in Africa, the promise of gig work still delivers

Afi is one of very few women that have joined the male dominated ride hailing sector in Accra, Ghana. She took up this work in July 2021 after being home and unemployed for more than one year. Before this, Afia had a full time job at a debt collection company but quit when they couldn’t pay her a salary due to challenges brought on by the covid-19 pandemic. She now drives for Uber and Bolt.

Afia said she thought about becoming a driver in 2018 and 2019 because she loves driving, but her husband always refused, insisting that “my wife is not going to be a taxi or Uber driver and drive people around.”

It wasn’t until she stayed home for several months with no income that her husband finally listened to her and allowed her to use the family car as a source of income.

“The salary stopped coming and everything went back to him and he started providing everything. I noticed it wasn’t easy for him because I even had to ask him for money when I wanted to go to the salon or buy toothpaste. Sometimes he would get angry immediately when I start discussing something with him because he felt I would certainly ask for money at the end of the conversation.”

Afia makes about 1000 Cedis a week ($148) from driving Monday to Friday.

“I wanted to be independent and have my own money and if I want to buy something I will just buy it. I don’t have to explain why I want to buy something or why I want to wash my hair to anybody again,” Afia says.

Afia’s story is one of many women who are making a livelihood through the gig economy.

The importance of financial independence in women’s empowerment

According to UN Women, in many developing countries, economic growth has failed to generate structural transformations that can deliver decent employment opportunities for women. Therefore, labor force participation rates remain low among women.

It is this lack of formal work opportunities across the continent that is pushing many to now look to ride hailing, delivery, freelancing, among others although there are also many that are joining the gig economy to find better work opportunities, develop their passion, or because of the flexibility it provides.

The women who have taken on this work say it has put them on a path to financial independence. They are relieved that they don’t have to depend on anyone, whether a spouse, a partner, parents, or other family members. For those with partners, having access to economic resources has helped to reduce gender inequalities in their relationships.

I don’t have to explain why I want to buy something or why I want to wash my hair to anybody again.

When women have access to economic opportunities, it can enhance their well-being and amplify their voices within and beyond their households and also provide security in cases of relationship dissolution, whether as a result of divorce, separation, or widowhood.

Another motorcycle driver in Nairobi, 28 year old Carol said that before she joined Uber and Bolt, she was also fully dependent on her husband.

“My husband didn’t want me to be a rider but I told him the Ksh. 100 ($1) which he was providing (daily) was not enough. He used to complain that we didn’t know how he was struggling to get money,” Carol said.

When Carol and her husband later separated, she continued driving the motorbike and this remains her only source of income.

“It has really helped because I’m able to afford school fees for my kids, they eat well, they are clothed and I’m able to pay my house rent,” she says.

Akoth, a 28 year old Kenyan who does writing gigs on Upwork — a global freelancing platform — spoke of how a teaching job she previously had was not paying well. “By the time you are being paid you have debts all over. I felt like I was just wasting myself by being there. I had some savings from the money that I used to get and bought a laptop, then I decided to undergo some training in freelance writing,” she says.

On average, Akoth earns about $150 a week.

“It has helped me pay school fees for my siblings, at least I have been able to help my parents to pay school fees, even my own school fees, and it has also enabled me to pay for short courses here and there,” she says.

In Nigeria, Adaobi, a freelance digital product designer, said she was looking for something more challenging than the job she had in Abuja. While she was looking online for other jobs, she ended up on Fiverr, a global freelancing platform.

“It’s definitely better than what I was earning at my full time job and because these jobs are not Nigerian projects, I earn more. It’s better for me,” Adaobi, who has since done many jobs for companies based in Europe and the U.S, says.

A thorny path to empowerment

But the gig economy is not without challenges. Women drivers constantly worry about their safety. Several women have reported how male customers harass them. Many prefer not to drive past 7pm for example, for fear of being assaulted and this has an impact on their earnings.

“We encounter a lot of challenges with men passengers, you might find them trying to woo you, and in the long run he may fail to pay you if you refuse his advances,” one female rider in Nairobi said.

Freelancers have been a target of online sexual harrassment and verbal assualt by clients.

Freelancers also work long and odd hours especially when they have clients from other time zones. This can be harder for women as they also have to make time for domestic responsibilities expected of them as mothers, daughters, partners, or wives. This unpaid work reduces the amount of time women can spend on paid work.

One freelance transcriber whose husband is also a gig worker says, “I have a home and I have to work on it. I have a small kid, I have a husband and I have to take care of them, so if we are both transcribing me and my husband, he has more time to work and more concentration than me.”

On top of the above challenges, the gig economy doesn’t provide social protections and benefits like health insurance or pension that one would get through formal employment. This makes this work precarious and puts a strain on the little income that women make.

Despite challenges, women have big dreams for gig work

The above challenges notwithstanding, women are optimistic that this work is a stepping stone to a better future.

Afia dreams of making enough money to buy cars, and run a transport business with a women’s only transport business.

Akoth wants to build her own website, create unique content, and make more money than she is making now.

Freelancers especially, are upskilling through online courses to boost their qualifications and position themselves for better work opportunities online.

Many women have the same dreams as Afi and Akoth. Driven by a longing for financial independence and dreams of starting their own businesses, women brace the obstacles and use these gigs as a starting point.

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