Digital Enterprise, Digital Labour

Microenterprise in the platform era—identifying new ‘platform practices’

Daniel, a shopkeeper and online freelance writer

The platform era is undoubtedly transforming the way goods, labor, services, and attention are exchanged around the world. But to what extent will platformitized markets change the livelihoods of millions of self-employed workers and small and informal enterprises in the developing world? 

Recently, the Partnership for Finance in a Digital Africa (FiDA) —an initiative of the Mastercard Foundation coordinated by Caribou Digital—conducted a study about how platformization is impacting micro- and small enterprises (MSEs) and the self-employed, offering its findings as a set of interlocking essays and video profiles. The study drew on qualitative interviews with micro-entrepreneurs in Kenya about how they use social media, e-commerce marketplaces, and online freelancing websites. Instead of a narrow focus on adoption, we identified emerging “platform practices”—four distinct ways in which MSEs are changing their workflows to adapt to the platform age:

We also found two overarching themes requiring further discussion:

A brief video of Dorcas, one of five entrepreneurs featured on the report site

This post for DIODE focuses on the implications of our research for the digital development community. It is a shorter form of our research implications essay, and is best conveyed as four imperatives:

Broaden the research focus from mobiles and ICTs to platforms

One line of research nearly 20 years strong looks at microenterprises’ use of ICTs. Yet the bulk of this work, whether focused on mobile phones specifically or on ICTs in general, isn’t calibrated to today’s changing internet landscape. Two forms of platformization are becoming more relevant, and need extensive study:

  • Individual micro-entrepreneurs use social media platforms for informal and real-time coordination with suppliers and customers. We aren’t talking about specialized “WhatsApp for business”, or Facebook for business, or even paid digital advertisements here. Wyche, Forte & Schoenebeck illustrate how these consumer-facing omnibus communication platforms have become the lingua franca of commerce in digital Kenya, our new research further underscores the remarkable ways in which micro-entrepreneurs have appropriated these platforms for their own purposes. MSEs have adapted these social media platforms into toll-free numbers, customer relationship managers, billboards and direct mail, pre-sales advertising, and after-sales support, all rolled into one.
  • The same markets are also being platformitized by the entrance of transaction platforms: websites designed to host multi-sided markets between buyers and sellers. These sites have scrambled the traditional means of finding, transacting with, and supporting customers. However, although they increase MSEs’ exposure, they also increase competition. Our work only scratches the surface of how this new visibility and competition impacts the profitability of small enterprises, and illustrates how more research is needed to assess whether transaction platforms work for small-scale producers, especially in developing countries.

Ask “how”, not just “whether”

The FiDA platform lens—by dividing platform functions into aggregation and discovery, transaction support, credibility, and ancillary data—enables us to see both whether and how platforms are altering prospects for small enterprises. We think this approach has merit for future studies, and we suggest that researchers zero in on specific models of change to ask how the platforms they study, be they Facebook and WhatsApp, or specialized transaction platforms like OLX, are transforming the markets they enter. It’s also important that we get to granularity. Specific affordances matched with specific functions on specific platforms matched by specific platform practices (i.e., user behaviors) is where the rubber meets the road.

Specify and replicate

A close read of our findings should quickly underscore the need for (1) replication beyond Nairobi, (2) specificity of various market segments and types of microenterprise, and (3) complementarity of methods. Our largely qualitative interviews could be expanded via quantitative study of how and whether platform use changes the profitability and sustainability of these businesses. Our study also suffers from survivorship bias: we have only spoken to active microenterprises; we have yet to investigate whether and how platformization is driving some micro-entrepreneurs from their markets.

Avoid detaching studies of digitized, platformized markets from the physical world

Our two blurring essays, on tech and touch and digital side hustles, illustrate the material component of digital pursuits. The realities of doing business in resource-constrained contexts may require more face-to-face time, more trust-building, and more creative ways of bridging the last mile in goods and services than those of less constrained markets. These dynamics are best unpacked with the type of ethnographic or qualitative work we were able to do in this study. At the same time, the very concept of “side hustles” challenges what we mean by a “job” or “a livelihood.” Digital side hustles, such as online essay writing or virtual assistant work, blur the lines between taking charge of one’s own fate and being captive to someone else’s algorithm. The Fair Work Foundation is developing a body of evidence around digitized platform work in the Global South. Our study highlights those individuals who keep one foot in a job or material micro-business and another moonlighting in the digital space.

Next Steps

We’re grateful for the opportunity to share this work with DIODE. Another helpful exchange has been with our co-travelers in the Mastercard Foundation community of practice, specifically BFA’s FiBR project, which has been looking at platforms used by micro-entrepreneurs in Tanzania, and Mercy Corps’s research into agricultural platforms in Africa. As a set, these studies shed light on changing practices and market conditions in East Africa and beyond.

We are particularly excited about the prospects for platforms to build on what they’ve already started, becoming digital spaces in which participants acquire a variety of skills and digital literacies required to thrive in the platform era. We call this “transformational upskilling” and will spend much of 2019 looking at this topic in a more comprehensive way.

Have questions, feedback, or ideas for further research on MSEs and platform practices? Please contact us at ideas@financedigitalafrica.org or @FiDAPartnership on Twitter.

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