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Africa’s Digital Workers are Rewiring the Old Geographies of Labour

Freelancers on online platforms can reach clients around the world, harnessing skills from blogging to web design. Others are hired by outsourcing companies, sifting data used to train chatbots and self-driving cars. Optimists hope that online work can set Africa on the path of services-led growth trodden by countries such as India and the Philippines. Pessimists worry such work will entrench injustices. Some are drawn to the work by the flexibility and pay; others because they cannot find a conventional job. Typical tasks include transcription, data entry, online marketing, or even writing essays for indolent students. Freelances, like the wider outsourcing industry, “are fighting against a reputation of Africa as somewhere where you would not expect digital work to take place,” says Mohammad Amir Anwar of the University of Edinburgh, who co-wrote a book about Africa’s digital workforce. Some African freelances use virtual private networks and fake names to pretend they are somewhere else. Power cuts and competition for gigs from cheaper workers in Asia and beyond create other challenges. The available data suggest that it will take time for Africa to become a continent of digital freelances. In 2019 Mr Anwar and colleagues estimated that there were 120,000 African workers on Upwork, the continent’s most popular platform—fewer than in the Philippines. Most did not seem to be making any money.