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Widening digital divide starving rural youth of online job chances

By Peter Theuri | September 11th 2021
By Peter Theuri | September 11th 2021

Learners at Chiboi Primary School digital hub. [Jeckonia Otieno, Standard]

As the world embraces remote working in the wake of Covid-19, workers are now judged more on the quality of their work as opposed to the hours they put in.  

But amid the much-touted advantages of more jobs going online, bridging the digital divide between rural and urban areas in the country remains a major challenge.

According to a new report, digital innovation and the cultivation of platform practices still remain mostly urban, and mostly for younger people who are more tech-savvy.

The report on platform livelihoods by Qhala and Caribou Digital with the support of the Mastercard Foundation focused on logistics (app-based delivery), e-commerce by entrepreneurs running micro and small enterprises (MSEs), farming (with sales via digital platforms), and the creative industries (specifically music and visual art).

Platform livelihoods refer collectively to a variety of new ways of working, including gig work, e-commerce and social commerce, the sharing economy, and content creation for social and digital media.

“While each is distinct, there are important commonalities, since “platforms”- the digital hosts and business models connecting buyers and sellers in online marketplaces - rather than employers, are at the core of each of these new ways of working,” found the research.

“These platforms, from international giants like Uber, Facebook, and Google to dozens of regional and local players like Jumia and Sendy, undoubtedly play a role in extending new livelihood opportunities throughout sub-Saharan Africa.”

The gig economy has taken root in the country, with urban areas leading the way as rural areas play catch up. “This does not mean that the paths they create, the practices they develop, and the accompanying changes to overall markets and sectors will not eventually spread to rural areas,” says the report.

“However, none of these four sectors, as of yet, have completely removed long-standing discrepancies between rural and urban. It may be up to a variety of actors, not just the platforms themselves, to aggregate and learn how to make these systems more approachable and usable for people living in rural areas.”

Participants in the research also noted the resilience of some of the long-standing gender dynamics in each of the four sectors, with males dominating most sectors.

“For example, logistics drivers are still predominantly male. However, it does seem to be the case that young Kenyan women are successfully navigating social commerce and even social agriculture,” says the report.  

The youth involved in platform practices do different jobs to sustain themselves in what is called fractional work. This means more exertion for them, with one job barely enough to sustain them.

Platform livelihoods refer collectively to a variety of new ways of working, including gig work, e-commerce and social commerce. [Courtesy]

“We widely observed evidence of complexities and blurring of fractional work. People marshalled their own resources, whether support from friends and family, assistance from otherwise invisible employees and helpers, or combinations of online and offline hustle to earn a living,” observes the report.

“The totality of somebody’s digital livelihood is rarely as simple as one profile reflected on one platform - underneath and behind that platform profile lie interconnected resources, trade-offs, obligations, and opportunities.”

In logistics, some of the most significant dilemmas are asset ownership (owning a motorbike or renting), relationship to the platform (independent or through a partner), and platform work schedules.

“These disparities are displayed in the drivers’ earnings; some earn more than others. Drivers enjoy some flexibility, although at a cost. For some, flexibility seems unattainable, especially when weighed against daily earnings, and drivers face pressure to always be online and swift to generate higher earnings,” says the report.

In e-commerce, those who have the digital skills necessary to survive in the online marketplace succeed, but still struggle to measure return on investment with online marketing. The nascent sector is still regarded with scepticism by many.

“Most sellers take up online selling as a way to stay engaged and productive as they look for other employment, while others use it as supplementary income with the potential for expansion,” the report says.

Farmers alluded to getting higher returns compared to what they got in their former jobs. Farmers who use formal marketplaces complained that these platforms are not widely known, causing reduced sales.

Informal markets, or social agriculture, are run through social media channels that allow farmers to craft their own market.

The creative market was described as intense in contrast to other sectors where owners can remain anonymous. In creative work, people like to see the face behind the work. Most creatives described how they have to give a part of themselves to keep fans engaged.

Many passionate youths are now seeking to monetise their crafts.

“Passion fuels this sector; earning takes time and might be low in the beginning, especially compared to the amount of effort creative put in. While creatives are happy to have more people engage with their work, they are keen on finding more ways to monetise their skills,” the report says. 

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