Freelancing in Africa: A Growing Trend in an Overlooked Market

In 2020, there were more than 59 million freelancers in the US alone. More than half of the US workforce will be freelance by 2028, according to Statista research. 

However, while we often think of freelancing as the preserve of professionals in Europe and North America, the freelance revolution is a global phenomenon. The global freelance platforms market, already valued at USD 3393.5 million as of 2019, is expected to grow at a CAGR of 15.3% between 2021 and 2026

And according to a 2018 study by payment solution Payoneer, 10.1% of the world’s freelancers are in Africa — yet this large talent pool is often overlooked by European and American companies looking to hire freelancers to work remotely.

In the article, we’ll discuss the state of the freelance market in Africa, including the rise of African freelance platforms over the past decade. We’ll also discuss some of the barriers to growth in the freelance market in Africa, and how these can be overcome.

The freelance sector in Africa

Many people around the world are increasingly turning to freelance work in the hopes of gaining greater flexibility and a better work-life balance. While this is certainly true in Africa as much as anywhere else, it’s only part of the story. 

Many African countries are facing extremely high unemployment rates. Three African countries, South Africa, Namibia and Nigeria, have the highest rates in the world. And youth employment is particularly high in many places: a 2020 BBC News article described Chekole Menberu, a 27-year-old Ethiopian engineering graduate who makes his living cleaning shoes. 

Many young people — even skilled graduates in supposedly lucrative fields — have no choice but to look for opportunities to make money outside of traditional employment. This has created large pools of freelance professionals in Africa, who are available to work remotely.

A young and fast-growing population

While most countries globally have ageing populations, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where the working-age population is growing. And it’s growing fast: it’s expected to increase by 20% over the next 20 years. Many African countries will need to find ways of absorbing this growing population into their workforces.

Globalisation and technology present opportunities

Platforms that allow freelancers to complete short tasks for money have experienced significant growth in Africa over the past decade. As of 2017, for example, Uber was reportedly operating in 15 major African cities, with around 60,000 drivers across Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. 

And Uber’s expansion into the African market triggered the spread of the mobile and mapping technology needed to run such a service — which means it now faces stiff competition from local companies.

However, freelancers in Africa are not just working through ride-hailing or grocery delivery platforms: many work for clients across the world on information-based tasks that they can do from home. The same Payoneer study mentioned above found that just 7% of global freelancers — including those in Africa — work for companies on the continent. This suggests that at least some percentage of African freelancers are working online for companies in other countries — something that has only been made possible by the rise in communication technologies over the past decade. 

Technological advances have also created more jobs that lend themselves well to freelance work: content writing, SEO, graphic design and web design, to name a few. Africa is an often-overlooked market for companies outside of the continent who want to hire freelancers to work remotely — but there are big talent pools available to tap into.

The rise of African freelance platforms

Professionals in Africa are increasingly using international freelancing platforms to find work with companies abroad. According to one study, there were 40,000 Kenyans registered on Elance (since acquired by Upwork) in 2014, for example. 

However, over the past few years, a number of local freelance platforms and companies aiming at freelancers have launched in Africa. 

Tech talent platform Andela was founded in 2014, with the mission statement of helping people to build a career based on their skills, not arbitrary factors such as their race or location. Founded in Lagos, Nigeria, the company has since expanded to 90+ countries and has helped more than 175k tech freelancers across Africa, South America and Eastern Europe to find work. Andela’s carefully vetted community of freelancers include software developers, engineers and other highly-skilled tech professionals.

Similarly, Gebeya is a Pan-African marketplace for digital talent ranging from design and digital marketing to AI and cyber security. The company is headquartered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, helps clients across the globe to connect with skilled African freelancers. 

Other startups to watch in the space include African Foresight Group, a company that has cornered the market for African consulting and interim management freelancers. The company is backed by investment from Nigeria, Ghana, the Silicon Valley and the UK. 

And for strategic insights and expert networks, South Africa-based PengoInsight leads the way, allowing global businesses with a presence in Africa to connect with local experts.

Barriers to freelancing in Africa

Despite much progress over recent years, there are still some barriers that are preventing the African freelance market from reaching its full potential.

Limited internet penetration and speeds

Rates of internet penetration vary widely across the continent. Countries with the highest number of people connected to the internet include Kenya (42%), Nigeria (51%), Ghana (53%)

At the other end of the scale, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic all have penetration rates of less than 20%. The country with the highest connectivity is South Africa, with an estimated 68.2% of the population connected to the internet. 

While these numbers have been steadily growing, internet contracts are still relatively expensive in much of Africa, with the monthly cost of broadband internet averaging USD $80.1 in Nigeria, $86.2 in Kenya, and $95.8 in Sudan, for example. 

When we compare this to averages of $66.2/month in the US — and take into consideration the difference in average income between the US and most African countries — we can see that for many people, this represents a huge barrier to entry into freelancing, which takes place largely online. 

Internet speeds are also typically low, averaging 5.68Mbps in North Africa and 6.56Mbps in Sub-Saharan Africa, compared to 90.56Mbps in Western Europe, for example. Many tasks that freelancers need to complete — research, looking for clients, and even learning new skills — become extremely challenging when they’re faced with painfully slow internet, often accessed through a mobile phone. 

Lack of payment options

PayPal is one of the easiest and most common ways for freelancers to get paid around the world. And the company’s apparent reluctance to fully enter the African market could represent a big block to African freelancers trying to get paid by their clients. 

Currently, PayPal is active in more than 40 of Africa’s 54 countries. However, the platform only allows users to receive payments in 12 of those. Bizarrely, users can only use PayPal to send money (and not to receive it) even in Nigeria, one of the largest economies on the continent. 

This means that many African freelancers are effectively blocked from receiving payments from international clients. Other payment methods are available, of course, but these aren’t necessarily widely known or trusted across the world.

The future of freelancing in Africa

While there are still barriers to be overcome, the freelance market in Africa is growing and shows huge potential. McKinsey predicts that by 2025, online talent platforms could add USD 2.7 trillion to global GBP, and increase employment by 72 million full-time equivalent positions. 

Africa’s freelance market represents just a small part of these projections. But, with its young and fast-growing populations, rising tech adaptation and increasing internet penetration, the African market should not be overlooked. 

Companies working with freelancers in Africa might need to spend a little extra time determining the best payment and communication options that will work for everyone. But, by opening your mind to African freelancers, you can gain access to a broadly untapped talent pool — and achieve great results for your company.

At CXC we engage workers around the world including Africa. For a full a list of the regions we can help you in click here

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