Digitalisation is changing traditional gig industries

Rehema Zongo, 36, stirs a large pot of rice outside her small shop on Tunisia Road in Kinondoni, Dar es Salaam. Inside her kitchen, two other women quickly chop spinach to make mchicha, a popular side dish in Tanzania, while steam rises from saucepans as beans boil, which will be used to make maharage later.

It is 11.00am in Dar es Salaam, and the sun beats down on the bustling streets. Rehema is preparing for a busy afternoon, preparing dishes for the lunch hour rush.

A few months earlier, Rehema would have waited for customers to arrive and take their orders. Today, she packages the food and hands it to three boda boda drivers, who will deliver it to nearby offices. During the height of the pandemic, Rehema joined one of Tanzania’s fastest-growing food delivery apps – Food Sasa – which delivers local street food to Dar es Salaam’s workers.

Women like Rehema, fondly known as ‘Mama Ntilie’ in Tanzania, which refers to female food vendors, were once threatened by the rise of e-commerce as food delivery apps typically partnered with high-end established restaurants. But now the ‘Mama Ntilie’s’ of East Africa are becoming part of the new digital informal economy – and they are cashing in on it. Before joining Food Sasa, Rehema was selling around 26 plates a day. She now sells 55 on average, doubling her income.

Across East Africa, digital platforms like Food Sasa are re-imaging the region’s informal economy – offering traditional gig industries a bridge to formal employment. East Africa has seen a proliferation of digital platforms popping up, which are able to employ large numbers of informal actors in their supply chain or service delivery.

Research shows that East Africa is leading in Africa on digital platforms, recording 58 percent year-on-year growth in 2019. This growth has been steered by developments in Kenya. In total, Kenya has both the highest number of platforms (118) in East Africa and the highest growth (71 percent) in the region.

The expansion of such digital platforms accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, as East Africa navigated lockdowns, curfews, and restrictions.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank estimates that more than 80 percent percentof workers find their livelihoods in the informal sector. In Kenya, it is estimated that the informal sector accounts for 82 percent of the working population, while in Tanzania, it is thought to be even higher.

The challenges of the informal sector are […]

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