For the past decade, the online academic writing industry has attracted global attention amid concerns over the ethics of assisted writing. Kenya has particularly been in the spotlight - as it is world-famous for producing many freelancers who help students write and refine their assignments.
Many of these students are based in the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia - some of the world’s biggest anglophone economies. At the height of the academic writing service, CBS Television estimated that the amount sent to Kenya for services related to the academic writing industry was billions of dollars annually.
Although it operates informally and data on its value to Kenya’s GDP has not been quantified, it could be in the same league as the entire horticulture industry (flowers, fruits, and vegetables). These exports contribute about USD1 billion on an annual basis.
This is the first article in a three-part series zeroing in on the often unspoken side of online freelancing in Kenya which has become a formidable employer of college-educated youth unsatisfied with prevailing low remuneration levels and disenchanted by the traditional 8-5 grind.
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The success of the academic-assistance business is now threatened by various factors that have seen many freelancers contemplate an exit. The first challenge has been hostile macroeconomic forces in the industry. Publicity on the talent of Kenyan academic writers has not been received well in western countries. Governments in the UK and Australia have taken active steps to criminalise academic writing and crack down on websites offering such services.
In 2020, in the wake of several exposes on the Kenyan industry, Australian Minister of Education Dan Tehan announced strict laws banning advertising and the provision of academic services. Those found advertising or providing these services risk two years in prison or fines of up to Ksh7.6 million (AUD 100,000). The Australian government has also been assisting universities to come up with technology that detects and deters papers where there has been external assistance.
The UK made a similar ban - prompting the closure of one of the most popular websites that had been sourcing work from Kenyan freelancers (Ukessays.com). The United States Department of Education has been pressured to criminalise essay writing services. Some US states have come up with laws banning the services.
However, the official policy of the American federal government has been non-interference in the “curriculum or academic policies of an institution."
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The overall effect of these laws has been to limit legitimate marketing resources for academic-assistance services. Financial transactions have also been affected as some multinationals, PayPal, for instance, blacklisted transactions related to academic-assistance services. It has also deterred some students from seeking help - knowing there could be dire consequences involving a criminal record. The ripple effect is less demand for papers and fewer income opportunities for Kenyan freelancers.
In June this year, one of the biggest employers in the academic writing industry - Uvocorp - announced the closure of all services in the UK. “We have some news about the policy of the United Kingdom regarding our services.
Recently, the UK has passed a bill, which makes it impossible for us to continue offering services in that country. That is why, please note that starting from the 28th of June, we will no longer provide any kind of academic assistance to the customers from the UK,” a notice seen by Money254 read in part.
The website had the best reputation among Kenyan writers and is one of the longest-running websites in the industry. At its peak, the company would pay as high as $30 for a page. Those who were able to open accounts at Uvocorp would sell them for as high as Ksh300,000. However, in the past year, Uvocorp - and many other websites - have closed down hundreds of accounts owned by Kenyan freelancers. The average payment has fallen to about $6 per page, while accounts are now going as low as Ksh50,000.
As the Kenyan academic industry adjusted to the hostile legal framework, the ravaging effects of the global economic crisis hit home. The United Nations has described the ongoing crisis as the largest cost of living crisis in the 21st century. The crisis came as world economies were adjusting from the ravaging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine worsened an already dire situation by disrupting major supply chains.
The UK had its internal factors that have accelerated the cost of living crisis - with experts predicting Britain will have a recession before the end of the year. Economists have also warned that the global economy could have a recession in early 2023. The worsening economic recession has not spared many UK, US, and Australian clients who source writing services from Kenyan academic writers. The impact of the recession has become more apparent in the past six weeks.
In a typical year, the academic writing career has three seasons in line with the academic calendars in most institutions of higher learning. The period from late January to April is a high season. Work is at its peak with multiple orders and high prices - even for the simplest jobs. Between May and August, most universities are on a summer break, resulting in minimal work under what is referred to as a low season. The high season resumes in September as schools resume from the summer holidays - lasting to the festive season. However, this year has proven different.
“Six weeks since the so-called high season, work is still minimal. By now, I would be working 18 hours a day because of being overwhelmed by the order requests. However, I find myself without any work for more than half the day, and even when it’s available, the pay is dismal,'' a freelance academic writer told Money254.
Amid the high cost of living crisis, most consumers have been forced to reduce their spending. Students in the giant economy countries that pay Kenyan writers have not been spared. Some have opted to write their papers to save money for other pressing needs. International students are popular consumers of academic-writing services.
English is a secondary language for them even though they attend institutions where English is the mode of instruction. Many international students do part-time jobs to source money to pay for academic work. They have also been hit by the wage cuts and redundancy prevalent across the global economy. The lost income and the extra time to write and edit their academic work have adversely affected the Kenyan essay millers - as they are nicknamed in the UK.
The debate in Kenyan academic writing circles is whether the glory days of the multi-billion industry are over. Freelancers who previously sub-contracted other writers have had to reduce the numbers significantly. Some previous “employers” are seeking to be subcontracted as writers for a meagre share of their usual cut
“As someone who has been in this industry since 2016, I attest and predict that at the current trend, there is no future in academic writing. I know some will say they have been hearing this story for long, but if you are a veteran, you totally agree with me. From 10 employees, now I can only sustain 2 or 3, and it is October,” a Kenyan freelancer lamented on a social media group that brings together academic writing experts.
The challenges facing Kenyan academic writers go beyond the recession and the hostile legal framework in sourcing countries. While Kenya has dominated the academic writing industry for over a decade, Pakistani and Indian students are giving Kenyans a run for their money. The two countries have, in recent years, emerged as major suppliers of academic writers.
The increased supply of writers from other countries has exacerbated the competition for jobs that are already reducing globally. According to Livingcost.org, a crowdsourced database on the cost of living in 197 countries, you need Ksh50,356 to have a decent livelihood in India. You require Ksh73,598 to have the same quality lifestyle in Kenya and Ksh35,588 in Pakistan.
The net effect is that a Pakistani writer can take less than half the pay a Kenyan need would need and still live the same quality lifestyle. Indeed, Money254 visited some social platforms where Pakistani and Indian academic writers bid for jobs. In one instance, a writer was willing to work for Ksh60 ($0.5) for a page. For the same task, a Kenyan writer would ask for a minimum of Ksh605 ($5).
For the past decade, Kenya has been a global hub for academic writing. The high unemployment rates, coupled with relatively high literacy levels, have created a demand for freelancers who help foreign students with their academic assignments. However, the industry is facing turbulence as some western countries crack down on academic-assistance services.
The problem has further been compounded by the cost of living crisis that has affected both developed and developing nations. Freelancers are increasingly taking a wait-and-see attitude while others have made exit plans for more sustainable jobs and businesses. In the second part of this three-part series, we tell you about some avenues where freelancers make decent incomes - away from academic writing.