Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia

This project aims to understand the implications of gig economy and online freelancing for economic development.

Sub-Saharan Africa has traditionally been characterised by stark barriers to non-proximate communication and flows of information. However, in the last few years, there have been radical changes to SSA’s international connectivity; fibre-optic cables have been laid throughout the continent and there are now almost one hundred million Internet users and over seven hundred million mobile users in the region.

This rapid transformation in the region’s connectivity has encouraged politicians, journalists, academics, and citizens to speak of an Internet-fuelled economic revolution happening on the continent. For the first time in decades, Sub-Saharan Africa is receiving more capital through investment than in foreign aid and many see the potential for SSA to move away from dependence on agriculture and extractive industries and towards a focus on the quaternary and quinary sectors (in other words, the knowledge-based parts of the economy).

However, while much research has been conducted into the impacts of ICTs into older economic processes and practices, there remains surprisingly little research into the emergence of new transformative Internet and mobile-based economic activities and work in Africa. The question therefore remains if, and under which circumstances, we are seeing a new era of development on the continent fuelled by networked technologies, or whether Sub-Saharan Africa’s engagement with the global economy will continue to be on terms that reinforce dependence, underdevelopment, and economic extraversion.

Southeast Asia (SEA) is a region that has a population and demographics comparable to SSA, but that has enjoyed good international connectivity for somewhat longer. Due to its location between Europe and East Asia, Southeast Asia was traversed by some of the earliest submarine cables. A modern high-capacity fiber-optic cable providing direct links to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and the island of Borneo was completed in 2009. Although SEA is more prosperous than SSA, it, too, grapples with issues of development and dependency, and has seen improved connectivity lauded as ushering in a new era of development. SEA thus provides an interesting comparison to SSA: with socioeconomic similarities, but 3-10 years ahead of SSA in the connectivity revolution.

Research Questions

The purpose of this research project is to understand the current and potential impact of Internet and mobile technologies on social and economic development, especially when it comes to the emergence of new and transformative ‘virtual’ economic activities and work, such as ‘microwork’ and ‘game labour’. The project is designed to tackle this broad line of inquiry by (1) focusing on the geographies, drivers, and effects of Sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging virtual production networks at this important moment of change on the continent, and (2) contrasting these with developmental trajectories in Southeast Asia.

The project focuses on five core research questions:

  • What is the overall landscape of virtual production networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia? Such a landscape includes the range of formal and informal, institutional as well as individual actors involved in virtual production, and their mutual relations and geographies.
  • What factors explain the network structures that we see? Of interest here is what material, institutional or cultural factors might explain the structures observed in the virtual production networks, particularly if/when they differ from one country or region to the other.
  • How are these networks changing over time? More specifically, we are interested in changes over the life of this project, but also larger trends spanning years and decades. Are SSA and SEA at different points of the same technology-driven development trajectory, or are they following distinct trajectories?
  • Who benefits from SSA’s and SEA’s virtual production networks? A particular focus here is on the potentials for the underprivileged in society, and how the structures of the networks either benefit (e.g. by including them in production) or constrain (e.g. by placing them in poor bargaining positions) them.
  • How do observed changes differ from public, political, and academic discourses surrounding potential effects? To maximize the impact of our empirical results, we must position them within existing debates and where necessary, challenge the existing truths.

Using a mixed-methods approach, we will be able document the challenges and barriers to productive engagement with virtual economies. We will discover who is benefitting, what difference remaining barriers and positionalities in SSA and SEA make, and ultimately what difference changing connectivities make in the world’s economic peripheries. This project will thus contribute not only to academic and policy debates surrounding connectivity and Internet access, but will also provide a robust evidence base crucial in shaping future rounds of Internet-related development projects and plans in low-income countries.


This project is supported by the IDRC (International Development Research Centre).

Latest blog posts

Journal articles

Conference papers

  • How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers

    Date Published: 14 April 2017

    Source: Red Pepper

    For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

  • What the Gig Economy Looks Like Around the World

    Date Published: 13 April 2017

    Source: The Atlantic

    Mark Graham talks about the costs and benefits of digital freelance work.

  • The Gig Economy and the Third World

    Date Published: 6 April 2017

    Source: Sputnik News

    Helena Barnard, an author of the OII report ‘The Risks and Rewards of Online Gig Work at the Global Margins' discusses whether the gig economy will boost or destroy the economies of developing countries.

  • “Gig economy” and its effects on working Africans

    Date Published: 4 April 2017

    Source: Africa News

    Mark Graham discusses the opportunities and challenges of the new digital world for African workers [Radio, 4 min].

  • The global gig economy and its implications for African digital workers

    Date Published: 27 March 2017

    Source: Intelligent CIO

    Addressing the 4th UNI Africa Conference in Dakar, Senegal, Mark Graham warned of the danger of ‘parasitic capitalism’ where digital companies give little back to the places where they are embedded and platform workers are left to fend for themselves.

  • Oxford Professor Mark Graham warns of ‘parasitic capitalism’ by digital companies

    Date Published: 27 March 2017

    Source: Times of Africa

    Oxford Professor Mark Graham, while addressing the 4th UNI Africa Conference in Dakar, Senegal, warned of the danger of ‘parasitic capitalism’ where digital companies gave little back to the places where they are embedded.

  • Pay crash expected in online gig economy as millions seek work

    Date Published: 24 March 2017

    Source: New Scientist

    A huge number of people in South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa looking for online “gig economy” work could cause a race to the bottom on pay and conditions, according to a new report from the Oxford Internet Institute.

  • The hidden dangers of the global gig economy

    Date Published: 21 March 2017

    Source: Wired

    Oxford Internet Institute researchers say we need an equivalent of the Fairtrade Foundation to protect workers online

  • A Different View of Mapping

    Date Published: 1 March 2017

    Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review

    Several platforms are using crowdsourcing and open-source technology to challenge Google’s dominance over how we see the world. Mark Graham comments.

  • Why the digital gig economy needs co-ops and unions

    Date Published: 15 September 2016

    Source: openDemocracyUK

    Millions of people are joining the digital gig economy, attempting to outbid one another for increasingly precarious bit-work. We need to challenge that culture, say Mark Graham and Alex Wood.

  • Industry 4.0 – what does it mean for workers?

    Date Published: 29 June 2016

    Source: Uni Global Union

    Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute says he found significant levels of income inequality on crowd work platforms such as Mechanical Turk with 80% of workers on one such site receiving only 10% of the income.

  • Digital work marketplaces impose a new balance of power

    Date Published: 25 May 2016

    Source: New Internationalist

    Can we reverse the diminishing power of workers in a world of hyper-geographically mobile work? asks the OII's Mark Graham (Long Read: 8 min).

  • Organising the Digital “Wild West”: Can Strategic Bottlenecks Help Prevent a Race to the Bottom for Online Workers?

    Date Published: 11 May 2016

    Source: Union Solidarity International

    Mark Graham discusses the atomised world of online work and points to ways in which a "race to the bottom" might be avoided.

  • Low income and high competition — digital jobs in a neoliberal age

    Date Published: 1 April 2016

    Source: Union Solidarity International

    Amir Anwar discusses the impact of digital work platforms such as Upwork on working lives, and debunks the idea that digital jobs are an easy solution to poverty.

  • Technology, power and culture — what’s driving the digital transformation of work?

    Date Published: 31 March 2016

    Source: Union Solidarity International

    Alex Wood discusses zero hour contracts and the impact of changing technologies on working lives.

  • Digital Transformations of work: Digital work & the global precariat

    Date Published: 30 March 2016

    Source: Union Solidarity International

    In the first article of a three-part series exploring "Digital Transformations of Work", Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute discusses the "worrying futures" facing digital workers, as well as outlining prospects for alternatives.

  • As More Work Moves Online, The Threat of ‘Digital Sweatshops’ Looms

    Date Published: 22 March 2016

    Source: Motherboard

    Mark Graham talks about some of the early findings of research on how the internet is shifting work patterns in south east Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

  • Exploring the Flow of Digital Labour

    Date Published: 1 February 2016

    Source: Asia Research News

    Just as online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have rewired our social connections, a wave of digital service platforms is transforming the world of work. Mark Graham writes in Asia Research News

  • Africa: Digital Work Signals a Global Race to the Bottom

    Date Published: 15 September 2015

    Source: allAfrica

    Mark Graham writes about his research with Vili Lehdonvirta into the effect of online technologies on the African labour market. By connecting rich and poor into one labour market, workers' rights could be damaged, he says.

  • Digital Work Signals a Global Race to the Bottom

    Date Published: 15 September 2015

    Source: SciDevNet

    Online technologies could hurt workers' rights by connecting rich and poor into one labour market, says Mark Graham.

  • Micro-travailleurs de tous les pays, unissez-vous!

    Date Published: 1 July 2015

    Source: Usbek et Rica

    Under the title, Micro-workers of the world unite, the French magazine explores the world of micro-working. It quotes Mark Graham, who says that micro-workers can often be victims of abuse. (French language article)

  • Broadband may be East Africa’s 21st century railway to the world

    Date Published: 17 November 2014

    Source: The Conversation

    Similarities and differences in the hopes, expectations and fears surrounding the advent of the Uganda Railway in 1903 and the introduction of the internet to Africa in 2009 have been compared by Mark Graham and team.

  • Google in fight to stop global removal of sensitive links

    Date Published: 23 July 2014

    Source: Financial Times

    Google is braced for a showdown with European privacy watchdogs over the demands for the continent's 'right to be forgotten' online to be extended across the world. Ian Brown comments.

  • Infographic: A freelance working week revealed

    Date Published: 24 April 2014

    Source: Wired.co.uk

    Wired.co.uk reports on Mark Graham’s work on mapping patterns of work as part of a project on virtual labour. He will be visiting eight countries in Asia and Africa over two years to carry out the essential field work.