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Online Work: A New Frontier for Digital Jobs Africa

As online work continues to disrupt the traditional workplace, The Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa initiative is exploring how it can expand the employment landscape for young people in Africa.

Online work provides a low-barrier-to-entry opportunity to earn an income, while building skills and digital work experience.

As employers look for more efficient, cost effective ways to source talent, online work is an opportunity to access expertise from a global talent pool, reduce recruitment time, and increase staffing flexibility. But what are the benefits for workers, particularly the high potential but disadvantaged youth that Digital Jobs Africa strives to serve? It offers significant income earning potential for those who can successfully navigate the platforms. For employees, particularly young people, online work provides a low-barrier-to-entry opportunity to earn an income, while building their skills and digital work experience.

The sector has experienced phenomenal growth over the past several years, and is estimated to grow to $5 billion by 2015. Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and South Africa, in particular, are running with the opportunity, facilitating access to jobs in fields including writing, translation, programming, design, and multimedia.

There are more encouraging signs: oDesk and Elance, two of the leading online work platforms on the continent, reported 2.5 million jobs posted on their platforms in 2012. That year, oDesk reported worker earnings of $360 million, and a recent survey found that over 60 percent of the service’s Africa-based workers provide at least half of their families’ income. In Kenya, the average worker on Elance earns $15 an hour, compared with the national average of $5 an hour—anecdotal evidence suggests that these workers spend a significant portion of their income supporting their families.

Governments are helping to spur this growth, too. For example, the Nigerian Ministry of Communication Technology partnered with the World Bank last year to launch the Naija Cloud initiative, bringing leading online work platforms to Nigeria for a convening and training session that engaged over 1,000 people. In response to this initiative, an additional 10,000 workers joined online work platforms. If African companies continue to source and recruit this growing pool of talent, the implications for employment on the continent could be transformational.

Two Young Digital Workers

With these opportunities, however, come real challenges: Many online jobs do not offer some of the benefits—importantly, health insurance—that come with traditional jobs. In addition, access to these jobs presumes widespread internet access—particularly among vulnerable populations, that access isn’t yet a given. And perhaps most importantly, many young people who could benefit from online work are unaware of, or unprepared for, the new opportunities.

A number of planned and ongoing initiatives seek to solve these problems. For instance, a number of sites are offering health insurance schemes for their workers in selected countries. Additionally, many sites now offer free skills testing as well as training materials for workers. Some platforms are working to build models that explicitly encourage worker collaboration and strengthening of social capital.

While future of global online work looks bright, the next stage of its evolution should focus on ensuring that its benefits are available to as wide a pool of potential workers as possible. Matching the sector’s incredible growth with inclusiveness and sustainable incomes will be a real—and lasting—game changer.

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