In South Africa four in every 10 young males and females are neither employed, educated nor are they receiving any sort of entrepreneurial training, and 2022 predictions for the South African youth unemployment rate are projected to be as high as 64%.
Michelle Mathews is a Director of Product at Viridian and through her work of designing and implementing projects, supporting tech start-ups, social entrepreneurs and digital transformation, she has promoted more than 600 companies, startups, non-profits and social-impact projects.
We meet with her as she talks us through and shares insights on the phenomenon of “Gig Work Readiness” In South Africa.
Dreams Talks: It’s staggering that 45% of young people are neither employed, educated nor even in any sort of entrepreneurial training. So how does this percentage of South Africans survive in reality? What do they do?
Michelle Mathews: They survive really hand-to-mouth and really just depending on what comes through their networks and and through their families. So whoever can access social grants in the family that becomes a big, important way of literally feeding themselves. But they’re also actively in these spaces, informal economies that people tried to start dabbling into. But obviously, it’s all very precarious and not really a way to build a meaningful livelihood.
Dreams Talks: How is the UK – South African Tech Hub Launch League Initiative equipping young Africans to become economically active?
Michelle Mathews: So in all of these communities around South Africa, the government and other individuals and organizations have encouraged the establishment of hubs. These are spaces where young people or really anybody in the community can go to try and get support in starting a business, developing a skill so that they can get some work. And, you know, really just anything that they can do to find a pathway to income. And the Launch Fleet Initiative supports these types of organizations, these hubs, entrepreneurs, support organizations, these digital skills training organizations to offer better services to start to connect and network with each other, to create better pathways to income for young people looking for ways to earn a better living.
Dreams Talks: Now, in your opinion, how much has the COVID 19 pandemic impacted the readiness of gig works in South Africa?
Michelle Mathews: So I think you’ve mentioned gig work and it is one of the opportunities that we’re seeing for young people in the digital economy. Like I said before, people are sort of living hand to mouth and and trying informal ways to to create an income. But we have very small markets in South Africa. The gig economy, especially the digital online gig economy, opens up a global market to earn better incomes for young people. And what we would like the hubs which have been teaching digital skills to start to consider is how do they prepare young people, not only with the digital skills, but to start to sort of operate businesses or act, as we call them, ‘solo-preneur’ years into the space and take those digital skills and tap into a global market for for their labor and start to hopefully earn a better income and then stimulate the economies back home.
Dreams Talks: So what role will the new digital economy play?
Michelle Mathews: So this new economy is a space where digital platforms and digital tools and digital skills allow people to have different types of income and ways of working. And so the new economy offers its own opportunities, but also its own challenges.
And I think that if we don’t acknowledge this, we can’t properly prepare our young people to deal with that, because there’s no going into a globally competitive space. They’re going into a space where, yes, it is possible to earn a better income than they can currently. But there’s also a little bit of a race to the bottom.
So how do you conduct yourself well into that space and use it as a building block into something that’s more sustainable? So this gig economy, new economy space, because ultimately what we do need people to do is to build their own sustainable businesses here back home. But they’re not even getting their first opportunities at the moment.
Dreams Talks: Can the South African government play a bigger role in this informal industry to provide a certain level of protection and financial security?
Michelle Mathews: Yeah, the South African government does have its security net, a very broad but light security net financially for people through the social grants. And I think that that the important role that they need to play in something like the gig economy because obviously youth don’t get those grants. Youth are supposed to go out and work. But if you’re working in a sort of informal global digital gig economy, it can’t be a free for all free market situation. And the government is going to have to look at conditions that these big organizations get people to work under, obviously things like minimum wages, etc..
But also I think just generally, we need an acknowledgment that we can’t just let people engage with this new world and well equipped because there is definitely the opportunity for there to be issues of exploitation in this space and for us to end up in this, like I said before, a race to the bottom. So it should definitely not be an unfettered free for all into this. We’ve really got to prepare people for this and actually make sure that we protect people at a high level, from systemically being exploited in this new economy.
Dreams Talks: And that is very important. Now, how important is the evolution of technology to the readiness of gig work in South Africa?
Michelle Mathews: So actually, I think one of the benefits of the pandemic has been definitely an increased access and an increased importance placed by consumers on having that access.
Our mobile data costs are still ridiculous and there are constant kind of campaigns around that. In South Africa, we call it “DATA MUST FALL” based on student fees must fall movement, but yet we’re seeing more and more competition in that space, more and more initiatives to create more access.
But at the moment, not cheap enough access both by the private and by the public sector. So we are definitely seeing a bit of penetration and I think in most African countries, the prices can definitely be lower and we mustn’t let up on the pressure there because it is the enabler of the new economy.
But at the same time, this is also the launch week initiative which commissioned this work and is essentially about hubs and community spaces that can make these kind of resources available as well. So if a young person goes into their local hub, there is almost always a computer lab or center there. That hub is set up by government or private sector and will have a connectivity and they should be able to use that space.
Dreams Talks: What is the objective of the launch league?
Michelle Mathews: So the launch league is an initiative that supports hubs around South Africa and those hubs are typically physical spaces in communities that have their own computer labs, which are connected to the Internet. So for those that don’t have access at home, these hubs need to become safe spaces for them to go and access the digital economy, learn the skills they need to learn and start to earn so that they can actually afford to have connectivity at home. So that’s another benefit of hubs and these types of community spaces for communities.
Dreams Talks: Gig work is a lot more freelance related. do you think it can eventually be sustainable? Is this something a person can feed his family off and on the long run?
Michelle Mathews: Many people that I know do sustain themselves on this type of freelance work. It is extremely tough. And is it a way for millions of people to make a living in the long term? I don’t think so. But what we’re hoping through the experience of being skilled and supported, to develop those kind of entrepreneurial competencies that allow you to get your first job, not just somebody looking for somebody to give them a job, but is somebody going out, being opportunistic and then running their own career that potentially might even spark a seed of entrepreneurship and that we can see lots more people starting to explore; well, if I can do this and I’m not making enough money doing this, but I’ve got these kind of aptitudes, maybe I need to make some other choices. So I’ve been a freelancer in my life. At some point I said, No, this is not working for me. I got a business partner.
We hired some people and we run a business now. And that was a path that I could take that I had the opportunity to take. So I just think more people need that opportunity.