Africa’s Informal Economy is Basically a “Gig” Economy

Today, freelancers represent 35% of the United States workforce and 16.1% in the Europe Union. In Africa, figures are harder to determine, however, in South Africa the number is thought to be about 10% and rising strongly. In OECD countries, studies show that freelancers work chiefly in the service sector and doing mostly white and pink collar jobs in mostly in communications, media, design, art and tech, among others sectors.

These figures above demonstrate the same global trend: from creative entrepreneurs to those paid by the task, indicating that freelancing is on the rise in development countries. The current increase in freelancing being observed in developed countries is as a result of the increased outsourcing of traditional 9-to-5 white collar jobs to freelancers.

Research shows freelancing was not the preferred choice for many white-collar freelancers in developed countries. While some white-collar workers left 9-to-5 jobs with poor pay to become freelancers, most became freelancers after failing to get a 9-to-5 job. However, in the United States, only 37% of current freelancers in the country say they resort to freelancing out of necessity. In these countries freelancing is increasingly a choice that people mostly make in order to escape the 9-to-5 workday or in other to work in style, trying to combine innovative approaches to business and lifestyle, making freelancing sounds like an innovation or freedom.

This colourful “Gig” economy narrative been promoted by developed countries ignores Africa’s unique economy and labour market. From the African perspective the story is different. Let’s take a look at the Africa’s economy and labour market.

According to the estimate of the International Labour Organization more than 66% of total employment in Sub-Saharan Africa comes from the informal sector. These employment according to the lnformal-sector theories, refers to jobs in smallscale enterprises, self-employment, one-person enterprises, artesian production and domestic services, that are without social security protections such as healthcare benefits and retirement plans.

Jobs in this sector are characterised by task based wages, short contracts, and multiple employers. They are mainly temporary, usually single engagement, and of short or uncertain duration. By these descriptions, one can say most jobs in Africa’s informal sector are freelance jobs.

Also most of the jobs in the informal sector are blue collar and are common in the domestic service sector, construction and repair sector, agriculture sector, and the transportation sector. This is due to fact that: there are very few large scale business in Africa, which are associated with high skill levels and modern technology; the continent’s service sector is underveloped and the continent’s economy is majority made up of small scale business associated with low skill levels and crude technologies. Jobs in the continent are mostly blue collar white collar jobs are very few.

We must change the notion in Africa that freelancing jobs has to be white collar, pink collar, online or tech related jobs, as it is categorized in developed countries, and the notion that the “gig” economy is a new development globally. The truth is that African labour market has one of the largest pool of freelancers in the world, and Africa’s informal economy is basically a “gig” economy, and has been for a long time.

The informal sector in Africa is basically not different from the future envisioned for workers in the freelance or “Gig” economy in developed countries, except that freelancer and their employers in developed countries operate within employment law and pay taxes. Like the “gig” economy, the sector consists mainly of self- and wage- employment for households and small-scale firms with no fixed employer. Also, both the “gig” and informal sector workers depend on their reputation and network they establish to succeed, provide their own working equipment and work without healthcare benefits and retirement plans.

While freelancing is increasingly a choice that workers in developed countries mostly make in order to escape the 9-to-5 workday or in other to work in style, this cannot be said of freelancing in most African countries, as the labour market and work environment are different.

Freelancing in the continent is mainly due to lack of formal and regular jobs. Most Africans have never had a 9-to-5 job despite many years of searching, not to mention escaping from one. Freelancing in Africa has little or nothing to do with style or work performance, it is simply the way for many Africans to survive as they struggle to earn enough income to get by daily, as a result, many African freelancers are a jack of many trades.

It is common in Africa to find a university graduate with advanced education engaging in several freelance jobs of unrelated skills, for instance, a university-trained engineer can be freelancing as a photographer, event managers, social media marketer, content writer, etc. while still searching for a regular and formal engineering job. The freelance industry for formal jobs in Africa is very small and underdeveloped. Full-time government or large-company regular 9-to-5 jobs are still the prefered types of employment in Africa.

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