The Covid-19 pandemic has unlocked a myriad of opportunities in the digital space for young Kenyans who now depend on technology for their livelihoods, a new study has disclosed.
The report, Platform Livelihoods: The quality of Kenyan youth’s digital experiences in logistics, e-commerce, farming and the creative sectors, conducted by Qhala and Caribou Digital with the support of the Mastercard Foundation interviewed 74 youths aged 18 to 35 years in urban and rural Kenya.
The survey found out that Kenyan youth are making ends meet through various digital money-generation opportunities provided by Facebook, Instagram, Google, Uber, Bolt, Sendy, Jumia and Kilimall in a period characterized by massive job losses in the country.
However, the study notes, digital innovation and the cultivation of platform practices are still mostly urban, and dominated by younger people who are more tech-savvy.
“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. But none of the four sectors has completely removed long-standing discrepancies between rural and urban,” states the report.
Similarly, participants described some of the long-standing gender dynamics in each of the four sectors, with car hailing drivers and e-commerce delivery personnel being predominantly male.
However, young Kenyan women are successfully navigating social commerce and agritech, gradually closing the tech gender gap.
Tade Aina, head of research at Mastercard Foundation, said despite the disruption of Covid-19, in each of the four sectors “young people are devising creative solutions to the problems posed by the new digital economy, demonstrating the resilience and transformation technology can bring.”
The research also found a massive motivation for individuals to upskill, stay ahead of trends and make themselves the best they can be for the success of their business.
Chris Locke, founder of Caribou Digital, said digital platforms have become increasingly fundamental to economies across the world and no country should be left behind.
“We saw a wide range of engagement highlighting the innovative ways young Kenyan are using platforms not only to build their business and support their livelihoods, but in many cases to pursue work they’re passionate about. Many participants combine work on formal apps with innovative use of social media, leveraging a broad array of digital skills and approaches,” he noted.
But platform workers and sellers such as those utilising Facebook Marketplace, WhatsApp for Business, Instagram and Google ads experienced different paths during the pandemic.
“Those in logistics such as Uber, Little, Gobeba and Sendy fared better because the platforms established themselves as essential service providers and delivery agents,” says the study.
Such app-based platform delivery services work as aggregators, facilitating supply and demand by ensuring driver availability, making them attractive to clients.
Platform work allows many drivers to earn a decent living and save for future plans but the survey reveals that there are significant disparities among drivers depending on asset ownership (owning the bike or renting), relationship to the platform (independent or through a partner), and platform work schedules.
“While the evolving logistics sector holds promise, there remains much to be done to ensure sustainable, dignified, and fulfilling livelihoods for its drivers, especially around social protection, benefits, and rightful policies for drivers,” the study states.
Those in small businesses such as selling items in stalls experienced a drop in demand, but switched to online shopping platforms to deepen and expand their online business visibility.
Both formal and social media platforms have created new ways to search and discover businesses through paid ads, search engine optimisation (SEO), online referrals, and collaboration with social media influencers.
The emergence of these innovative practices blurs the established boundaries set by digital technology companies, visible in a rise of creative local infrastructures such as buying accounts, organising offline pickups and deliveries, and engaging influencers who sellers believe have a greater influence on clients than paid platform marketing.
“When curfew and movement cessation was implemented, delivering orders became difficult. But farming saw a great shift during the pandemic, with a new type of online and social farmers.”
With the proliferation of online channels, farmers are now looking to reach their customers directly and sell at competitive prices, particularly through social media and farmer-owned websites.
However, part-time farmers struggled to oversee their farms during lockdown, cessation of movement, and border closures.
Though online platforms connect farmers to the market, the study notes, they still depend on offline markets for direct selling, or research to tap into high-end markets, understand evolving client needs, and grow their business.
Most people lost their business- to-business markets due to closures of schools, restaurants and hotels but due to increased home deliveries and most people being at home, food demand and supply were high.
“The gig economy has become an important source of livelihood for many young people in Kenya and in Africa. Understanding what motivates young people and witnessing ﬁrst-hand their experiences was key to appreciating the size of the impact of the gig economy,” said Shikoh Gitau of Qhala.
For creatives, offline gigs for musicians, comedians and other performing art entertainers were affected by limits on public gathering, while visual artists saw decreased sales, as most people consider art to be a luxury item.
“Creatives focused on their digital platforms and put in more time to connect with fans on social media, build their audience, and tap into new ways of keeping their followers engaged,” the research established.
While digital platforms offer a chance for independent creatives to showcase their art, the report says they still work with distribution partners who help market and protect their work for a commission.
“Musicians in particular stressed that generating income depends not only on how much you make, but also on how you get paid. With several stakeholders and many intermediaries between the artist and the money, musicians receive a small share of total platform earnings.”
While creatives are happy to have more people engage with their work, they are keen on finding more ways to monetize their skills.
They seek to move their brand into a business, avoiding cases of “here now, gone tomorrow” prevalent in a sector where trends drive engagement but don’t last long.