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DFS Voices: Being a woman and running an online business in Kenya, with Nasubo Ongoma

Tags: 'adms' 'AI' 'Artificial intelligence' 'Data privacy' 'Digital Competences' 'Digital emergency' 'Digital Gender Gap' 'Digital Inclusion' 'Digital platforms' 'Empowering' 'Future of work' 'Gig economy' 'Women's Rights'


Reading Time: 3 minutes

Experimental designer Nasubo Ongoma works at Qhala and is interested in surfacing insights that answer the questions 'why' and 'how', to then bring these issues to light through human interest stories with a focus on the African story. Her research experience revolves around understanding the impact of adopting technology on societies with a keen interest in improving participation, control and access to technology in communities. In the last year, she has investigated how (and how well) digital platforms provide ways for young people in Kenya, focusing on women, to make a living through new forms of gig work. 

"There are some women who claim feeling more empowered due to the availability of digital platforms and by being given the option to choose when, how, and where to work".


You have participated in the ‘Global Perspectives on Women, Work and Digital Labour Platforms’ collection by Digital Future Society, as coauthor of the article ‘The experience of women platform workers in Kenya’. Could you give us a panoramic view of the gig economy’s situation in Kenya?

A lot of youth are attending digital platforms and looking at how to get work due to the increase in unemployment and underemployment in Kenya. It is an ever-growing field, an estimated million dollar industry. It is very challenging to understand or to know the number of people actually working in the gig economy, because a lot of people share accounts and subcontract work amongst family or even friends. But we realized that youth are involved in a lot of sector, especially freelancing.

“But being a woman and running a business online is not an easy thing”. The headline is a clear statement. Why is it not easy, what kind of barriers do women in Kenya have to face in their day to day, working through online platforms?

We spoke to many women, most of them young, between the age of 18 and 35. Digital platforms present opportunities for them, enabling them to become independent and to also cater for their families. However, we realized that there are a lot of offline issues or challenges; for example, sexual harassment. Sometimes they go through verbal abuse and even safety issues, both online and offline. They talk about exercising caution to avoid things such as harassment. For delivery drivers, it means not working beyond 7PM. Some women also use pseudonyms to be able to navigate the platform without receiving being harassed by anybody online. A lady that we spoke to, his delivery driver mentioned that she went to deliver food in someone's house. This person came out half naked, and she was not comfortable going into the house to actually make that delivery. Unfortunately, this person did not take the delivery because of that exchange and reported the woman to the digital platform. This affected her and her sales in the end, because she was not able to defend herself before the digital platform.

Part of your research describes flexibility as a myth. Could you give us some examples of female experiences that show it?

Digital platforms’ premise is that you can work anytime, anywhere. However, when you look at it from a woman's perspective, this also means having a double shift. So women must have a balance between work and home tasks, and some have to stop working at specific times or hours in the day to just do their home chores. If women are not online when, as they say, sometimes you get good jobs at specific hours; if they are not able to get these jobs at those hours, then it means that they will miss out on the next jobs for not having been matched previously. Maybe future research can look into it to see what role does algorithm play, especially if you are looking at it from a time perspective, as women can spend less time online than men.

Some narratives say the gig economy is “empowering” for women.

There are some women who claim feeling more empowered due to the availability of digital platforms and by being given the option to choose when, how, and where to work. But for some others, it can be disempowering because they do not know how to navigate the platform or do not have the support system to help them access opportunities.

What role do social change and policymaking play in changing this scenario?

This really calls for a lot of stakeholders to come together to really understand all these issues from the offline perspective, even as we try to build more and more digital platforms to accommodate women. Unless we bring more people together, we are definitely going to leave clusters of women behind because maybe these women have not been represented, or their voices have not been heard to enable more people or more platform builders to understand some of the barriers that they may face.