Africa is a more recent convert to freelancing than other regions, but its catching up fast. I’ve enjoyed conversations with many African pioneers of the freelance revolution, builders of important platforms like Andela and Gebeya in tech, African Foresight Group in management consulting and interim management, Pengo Insight in expert networks, and OneCircleHR, a South African startup in the HR space. These freelance platforms are some of the freelance offerings in Africa, and the African freelance ecosystem is rapidly growing in support.
What, though, is the current experience on the ground in Africa: the state of freelancing as described by freelancers? Our Global Survey on Freelancing, a research collaboration of my Agile Talent Collaborative, the University of Toronto, and over 75 freelance platforms, is able to provide some insight on this important question. Among the 1900 freelancers who completed the survey were 200 African freelancers. These independent professionals responded to a series of survey questions including a Client Satisfaction Index. The items are given below with the percentage of both African freelancers and the overall population who strongly agreed or disagreed with the statements. An example: “This client organization knows how to work with freelancers.” (1=strongly disagree, 4=neutral, 7=strongly agree)
Although the Client Satisfaction Index is brief, only containing 10 items, it was able to provide a raft of interesting data that may be helpful to our African freelance colleagues and, perhaps, to other regions that are now accelerating the growth of freelancing as a distinct career path. First off, we found several areas of real strength for African freelancing to build on:
- Clients require top quality work. Clients increasingly get it. Expectations for expertise and top quality work are increasingly global, and clients expect a high standard whether working in Singapore, Chicago or Johannesburg. 70% of African freelancers cited high client expectations, a percentage that’s slightly higher than the global overall trend (68%). Demanding work expectations are a helpful driver in building an industry.
- Freelancers say the work is Interesting and satisfying. 60% of African freelancers endorse their clients for work that is interesting and satisfying. This and the next strength – fair and respectful treatment – are two of five key conditions for freelancer satisfaction that we first described in my book Agile Talent. In both areas, African clients show up strong.
- Fair and respectful treatment. Almost two thirds of African participants (65%) describe their clients as offering fair and respectful treatment. This is another of the key factors freelancers look for in clients. Companies that poorly treat freelancers quickly gain a reputation of “avoid if possible” among the freelance community they depend on. A positive reputation is equivalently helpful.
- Helpful, friendly and fairly competent client staff. Finally, 59% of African freelancers described client staff as helpful and supportive. And, 57% say they have access to the information they need to meet their deliverables.
These four areas are evident strengths to reinforce. But, the findings of our survey, shared below, also identify a number of areas where improvement is needed.
The table identifies 5 specific priorities for change, enumerated in order beginning with the most important needs for improving the productivity and satisfaction of African freelancers, and the value derived by clients:
1. Work more effectively with freelancers. Only 43% of African freelancers see their clients as sophisticated users of freelancers. That will limit growth on both sides of the aisle. It’s in the strong interest of platforms to educate corporates, governments, and not for profits, just as we turned out to support the shift to remote work. In turn, 90% of corporates plan to increase their use of “on demand” experts; those who have a poor reputation among freelancers will have a more difficult time attracting the talent they need. Corporates need guidance in creating the right structure and systems to manage a flexible, blended workforce, and best practice in communication and change management. A recent article of mine in Forbes describes the six critical factors in establishing readiness for freelance work. Smart freelance platforms and freelancers will see this advisory work as an additional source of income and reputation.
2. Train freelance client project managers. An obvious make-or-break in freelancer’s success is the client project manager’s skills working with freelancers. Less than half (49%)of African freelancers feel project managers have those skills. As African organizations depend more on freelancers, platforms should consider an adjacent service in management training and coaching. Training client project managers to be effective managers of freelancers is essential: freelancers see themselves as peers, volunteers, and small business owners offering a service, not subordinates. It’s a different kind of management.
3. Ensure realistic work deliverables and timelines. Less than half (45%) of African freelancers describe work deliverables, milestones and timelines are generally fair and realistic. That’s a problem. Freelancers depend on their success in work past to stay employed in future. So, less experienced African freelancers likely need help in building the confidence and skill to push back on unreasonable client demands. Again, training clients to be more sophisticated users of freelance talent is important. Top performing freelance platforms in Africa and elsewhere will be more educational and consultative until corporates develop a more sophisticated understanding of the flexible, blended workforce.
4. Provide the right client team members. Most of the work done by freelancers is in coordination or collaboration with client team members. African freelancers experience client colleagues as friendly and helpful (59%) but are less confident that client staff are competent (50%). The problem isn’t unique to Africa, of course, but smart platforms and freelancers will conduct their own “due diligence” before signing onto major projects. This is an area where platforms need to stay on top of client data: when a client is consistently troubled by team skills, platforms should know, and should communicate this to its platform members.
5. Pay freelancers fairly. Pay is a tough problem. Only 44% of African freelancers say they are paid very fairly vs. 52% overall. African platforms have got to work together to expand the face and importance of freelancing (it’s a trillion dollar global freelance economy) and provide a “rising tide that lifts all (African) boats.” Platforms can also help by building more relationships with clients outside of Africa, as NS.work has done with South African tech freelancers placed in higher paying EU roles. Platforms must also help freelancers to “fish,” improving networking within the platform, teaching sales and client management skills, connecting related experts to “hunt in packs” and attract larger and more lucrative projects, and offer new revenue opportunities like Germany’s ExpertPowerhouse.com in expert networks, or the UK’s Talmix that provides interim management gigs to clients, or platforms experimenting with adjacent services like executive coaching. Platforms must also help by teaching African freelancers to think like marketers as they establish their reputation and services, and connect early stage freelancers with more experienced coaches or mentors as OMS has done in Europe. This can and must be done at scale. It’s to the advantage of African platforms to work together to grow the pie.
Viva la revolution!