Online freelance writing jobs in Kenya have gained popularity over the past decade. They are seen as the perfect route to beat unemployment and better off, some of the jobs pay handsomely as the employers are mainly in the developed world.
Thousands of Kenyan youth now earn their income by writing various tasks for clients - who are mainly based in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and other western countries.
From an outsider’s view, online writing gigs seem like a perfect world where money is forever trickling in and the earners do not have the limitations of formal employment. However, narrations by outsiders depict a different picture where, like everything else in life, there are many downsides that are rarely talked about.
This article is the last of a three-part series that Money254 has featured in the online freelance writing industry. You can read about the headwinds in the academic writing world here and some of the new and lucrative alternatives where freelancers are making money here.
Freelance writing basically involves writing texts for a fee without being a permanent employee in any organisation. Freelance writing has existed in Kenya for years, but mostly involved journalists and creative writers who would be contracted to write articles for magazines and newspapers at a fee.
In the post-internet era, freelance writing in Kenya is mainly online-based. These are professionals who are paid to produce certain texts, such as academic papers, blog articles, transcription, and creative pieces - for international clients.
Various websites have come up to link writers and clients who are in need of writing services. An example is Upwork, the world’s largest freelance platform where gross annual transactions totalled Ksh302 billion($2.5 billion) - and over 145,000 core clients.
The freelance jobs websites operate more like the traditional marketplace. The client (the one who wants work done) displays order requirements and estimates of the amount she is willing to pay. Freelance writers then place a bid - indicating why they are the best qualified to do the job and the pay they expect.
Initially, once the client picked a freelancer to work for them - they would connect directly - get respective phone numbers, and process payments outside the website. However, most freelance platforms have evolved beyond the normal market dynamics.
The majority of websites receive money from clients seeking a certain service. Once a freelancer is picked to do the job, they follow up to ensure the job meets the customer's specifications. This is done both by their team of editors and checkers - as well as by the client. Once the work is certified as satisfactory, the money is released to the freelancers. This arrangement reduces instances of pay disputes and eliminates fraudulent customers who would refuse to make payments after receiving the service.
The basic flow of the online freelance writing process, as explained above, would probably raise the question - where is the catch? The first challenge online freelance writing face relates to the non-social setting of their work model.
The idea of working from home had for a long time sounded like bliss to most people. However, the Covid-19 pandemic brought about a new aspect of the model. Studies from around the world found that as many as 25 percent of those who worked from home were plagued by loneliness.
Most organisations have now adopted a mixed model where employees have the feel of both working from home and the office. However, for typical online freelancers, there is no office to report to and it can be particularly devastating for those who live alone.
Mental health experts explain that the feeling of loneliness often leads to poor mental health. According to Bright Shitemi, the CEO of Mental Health 360 - a mental health awareness organisation based in Nairobi - humans are inherently social beings.
The majority of the communication is based on emails which reduce interpersonal interaction. The clients and the freelance market platforms are also based on different time lengths which sometimes means writers work and sleep at odd hours.
In the peak season when there is an overflow of orders, it is not uncommon to find writers who work for up to 18 hours a day - operating on less than 5 hours of sleep.
Shitemi confirmed having knowledge of mental health issues among people who spend a lot of their time online - advising that failure to have adequate human interaction results in poor health.
“We have observed mental health challenges with people who spent a lot of time online and that cuts across writing, gaming, and even social media use. More often than not it will be a case of depression or anxiety.
We believe that the lack of adequate human interaction is the biggest cause of these issues. Human beings are social animals and need to physically interact with others on a regular basis to stay sane. You might be aware that isolation has been used as a form of torture in prisons for troublesome inmates with devastating effects on their mental health,” the mental health ambassador noted, adding that it is important to get at least eight hours of sleep every day.
Consider the story of Christine who has worked as an online freelancing writer for five years. “For nearly six months, I would work for up to 16 hours a day - Monday to Saturday. I got so used to the routine that even when I took long breaks during the low season, I would be lonely in the house with no energy to socialise,” the former academic writer recalled.
Freelance writing is often hailed for the freedom it gives the freelancer to pick the jobs they find suitable. However, those who have done it say the idea of unlimited freedom is not entirely true. Clients and checkers have the right to return your work for revisions or improvements at any time of the day or night.
Most formal employees work on some timetable where they can plan for leave, for weekends and national holidays. Not so for freelancers. This prevents many freelancers from the freedom of being away from their computers for too long.
“If my friend or relative is having a wedding in some remote location, I have to make elaborate arrangements to make sure I am still reachable and someone can help me with my work in the event of an emergency,” Kelvin Wanderi, another freelance writer, narrated.
Making deliberate efforts to reach out and socialise with other freelance workers helps a great way in reducing loneliness. Many of them will be undergoing or may have undergone related experiences which could give you new insights. It does not have to be about work. You could as well just socialize since your work timelines are often alike. If you work long hours at night, there is probably another freelancer doing the same thing and will be free the next day.
This concept explains the rise of online freelancer platforms. Kenyan academic writers, for instance, have two main groups with a combined membership of over 400,000. Various other Telegram channels and Whatsapp groups exist for the same purpose. Some freelancers have gone further to live within the same estates -which strengthens the community bonds beyond the shared online experience.
Some of the online groups highlighted above organise physical meetings where freelancers can spend physical time together and socialise. You may consider this option, but beyond that, plan your own time to spend some of your time outdoors.
Mental health experts explain that spending time outside is therapeutic and helps the body with some much need-hormones.
“People that are online most of the time are likely to be indoors. We deprive our bodies of happy hormones when we do not move out of the house to actively engage our brains and muscles and breathe the fresh air outside.
“I would advise people that work online to take breaks and go outside, engage in physical activities like running or walking long distances, interact with other people in social settings when they can, have proper hygiene, and eat healthily,” Shitemi advises.
One of the rarely talked about benefits of formal employment is that some aspects of your life will be planned for you. Medical insurance, pension schemes, and work-based Saccos are typical perks that are offered to the majority of Kenyans in formal employment.
However, as a freelancer, you are mostly on your own. It is advisable that you practise financial discipline and plan for any eventualities that would save you money. Research on the best insurance cover for policyholders who come in as individuals. Consult financial advisors on the best approach - do you need an insurance broker? for instance. What Saccos accept membership for non-salaried persons?
Online freelance writing has become a major source of employment in Kenya. The country is also earning foreign exchange from the industry that mainly services clients in developed countries.
Despite its economic benefits, online freelance writing can be challenging because of social isolation. However, there are numerous solutions that can help writers get the best of both worlds. The highlighted tips not only uphold mental health - but also increase productivity.