Learning and Literacy

The transfer of skills and upgrading of human capital

YouTube is like a tutor.”

Doris, Craftswomen

Summary of Findings:

  1. Direct Learning: Micro-entrepreneurs receive varying levels of training and advice from e-commerce, ride sharing, and online work platforms
  2. Peer Learning: micro-entrepreneur-developed online support groups
  3. Consumptive Learning: Proliferance of self-learning through YouTube
  4. Offline Learning: In-person training still plays an important role in upskilling micro-entrepreneurs
  5. A-B Iterative Learning: Through trial and error, micro-entrepreneurs figure out how to use the platform for business

This section, one of four detailing “platform practices”, describes how the 27 micro-entrepreneurs we interviewed use the information and services available on (and off) platforms not only to buy and sell but also to learn about buying and selling.

We observed a number of channels, both on and off platforms, through which micro-entrepreneurs learn new skills and literacies: Platforms directly offer information and training to their users; advice and training is offered through third party platforms (YouTube videos, Facebook, and WhatsApp groups, etc.); support is provided offline through friends and family; or micro-entrepreneurs are self-taught. While our first section discusses direct support, the sections 2, 3, 4 and 5 highlight third-party, self-taught and offline learning and literacy practices. These sections draw attention to gaps and point to needs of micro-entrepreneurs that platforms are not currently meeting.

1. Direct Learning: micro-entrepreneurs receive varying levels of training and advice from e-commerce, ride sharing, and online work platforms

We observed direct support delivered by e-commerce, ride-sharing, and online work platforms. By direct support we refer to platforms that not only provide the channel for skills acquisition and learning, but also designing the content. In comparison social media sites, while providing support channels through the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp groups, don’t directly design and deliver the literacies and livelihood skills themselves. While Facebook shares guidelines (albeit only for buying and selling on their Marketplace which is yet to launch in Kenya) and commerce policies for their groups, these are designed to protect users rather than upskill them. We therefore tackle the use of social media support groups in the peer-learning section.

Training and Support from e-commerce platforms

The relationships e-commerce platforms have with micro-entrepreneurs is, to varying degrees, a matter of upskilling these small enterprises and enabling them to thrive across their platforms. While Jumia offers comprehensive digital and in-person training, and OLX takes a more light-touch approach, e-commerce platforms as a whole want microenterprises to grow and prosper.

Jumia guides sellers through various best practices from how to run a promotion to how to package products. This training is delivered online through generic emails, targeted messages, and in-person training. Either online or offline, it appears that detailed advice and support is on offer across all lines of the business. As Robert, a Jumia merchant, succinctly told us:

“When it comes to Jumia…[their] training is perfect.”

Jumia’s stringent quality-control procedures, and penalties, also encourage merchants to refine their product offerings and, in turn, improve their online business. Robert explained that items are rejected, and merchants are penalized if they don’t match their online descriptions:

“Sometimes I used to take the correct items but maybe the color is different so once the item is rejected you are charged five hundred shillings, so from there is when I went back, I settled my mind then from there I started my verification process, so from that time now I could deliver the correct item.”

We also observed that through the use of algorithms some e-commerce platforms guide users on how to best use their platform to conduct and generate business. Tips like “use more colorful descriptions”, or suggestions to include more photos in posts were sent to some of the micro-entrepreneurs we interviewed if their posts did not attract many views or clicks. Once they incorporated these suggestions, they often saw more views and, in most cases, were able to generate some business.

For example, both Jumia and OLX use backend data analytics to deliver programmed advice to micro-entrepreneurs on how to improve posts and adverts. Dorcas, a baker, shared how OLX offered tips on marketing across the platform:

They send you a message when they see your ad does not have so many views…they told me that, if you want to post something about food, you don’t write “chapatti”, you write ‘food’, the overall word for that so that when people are searching for that, they get it.”

Similarly Wambui, an artisan who sells her goods on e-commerce platforms, after receiving no clicks on her initial OLX post, was nudged by the platform to use more images to help bring the item to life. This resulted in more activity around her posts.

The fact that training and support is on offer highlights  these platforms’ desire to support their merchants. However, in general, OLX takes a much more hands-off approach than Jumia in terms of merchant support and upskilling. This is evident in the communication channels they open up to their merchants. Having recently moved their offices and customer support center out of Kenya, OLX is only contactable via email. As Robert told us:

“Nowadays you just write an email (to OLX), from the email you cannot call them directly because they moved their office from Nairobi to South Africa.”

Training and support from ride-sharing platforms

Ride-sharing platforms also offer a variety of support and guidance to their micro-entrepreneurs. Some ride-sharing platforms, such as Taxify (now Bolt), send both SMS and in-app messages to their drivers. These are generic (see image 1), personal (see image 2), or targeted (see image 3) messages, with the latter triggered by things like bad behavior.  Topics covered include ways to reach more customers, improve their customer service, increase their ratings, and benefit from the promotions and deals on offer. While we only gathered insights around information and advice sent to Taxify drivers, we heard of similar levels of support on offer through other ride-sharing platforms in Kenya.

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Online work platforms

Online work platforms, such as Upwork, iWriter, and Uvocorp, also help upskill their workers. For example Uvocorp, a freelance writing platform, gives new writers a mentor for one or two months or until they are able to complete jobs by themselves. The mentors are designed to coach users through best practices in completing assignments as well as understanding business etiquette in managing relations with clients. This support ranged from tactical support like teaching grammar and the importance of syntax to business support like how to manage different types of clients. As Mary discussed:

“Yes, they give you a mentor, who gives you jobs…they show you your mistakes, in which after like two months, you can graduate and become an independent writer.”

Other channels used by these platforms include free online skills tests and online training centers. Along with this on-platform support, off-platform advice and training can be found on Facebook and WhatsApp groups. We discuss this in greater detail next section.

2. Peer Learning: micro-entrepreneur-developed online support groups

While the previous section focused on direct support and training offered through platforms, this section (and the two subsequent sections) highlight bottom-up improvisations. These aren’t platform observations in terms of highlighting what platforms are doing for micro-entrepreneurs but rather what platforms should consider doing.

Online support groups developed across social media platforms appear to be a popular skills and advice acquisition channel for micro-entrepreneurs. As mentioned above, while this may be viewed as a direct platform training practice, we view the use of social media groups for upskilling as a third-party practice. Rather than the platform itself designing and delivering the training, social media platforms simply provide a channel through which users can develop their own content. This focus on user-led upskilling is evident in Facebook’s recent Mentorships program.

We observed micro-entrepreneurs leveraging the network effects of social media to develop support groups across various business sectors. For example Naisula, a cook, told us how she visits a Facebook group to search for recipes and cooking tips:

“I go to ‘How to cook Kenyan meals’. Yeah, there you can find everything…it teaches people how to make new meals…everybody is a teacher there.”

Similarly, on Instagram, Faith connects with a business coach who gives her advice on how to grow her fresh juice business:

“She has helped because nowadays… I don’t give out debts. If you’re buying, just buy and if you don’t want, just leave it. It’s not about taking juice and then you pay tomorrow. That is how she has helped me.”

Beyond Facebook and Instagram (as mentioned in the Search, Promo, and Discovery Section) the network effects of WhatsApp have enabled micro-entrepreneurs to come together in smaller more intimate groups. These online support groups, or what we call “digital trade unions”, have enabled important lesson sharing among micro-entrepreneurs working within a given sector. For example Odeke connects with fellow bottled-water distributors through a WhatsApp group; they discuss prices and share advice.

In WhatsApp mostly, people post business opportunities so you can tell people, I am making profit in this thing, you can just try it and see what you do.”

Organizations such as TechnoServe and FIBR have also begun to leverage the power of WhatsApp through TechnoServe’s Smart Duka Program and FIBR’s micro-consulting pilot.

Example of Facebook group dedicated to online work platforms

Micro-entrepreneurs working on online work platforms (such as Upwork and iWriter) also use social media groups for support (see image). Daniel and Mary joined a number of online writing groups on Facebook and WhatsApp to better understand the nuances of joining the growing gig-economy. Through these channels they were able to figure out how to build a suitable and enticing profile for Western clients, learn how to satisfy different types of client demands, and in some cases search for mentors to coach them through the process. Some advice is learned simply by browsing the thousands of messages posted in these groups and noting the dos and don’ts, while more specific and tailored advice is obtained by directly messaging different contributors.

The unregulated nature of these groups results in advice ranging from  the ethical to the potentially unethical when it comes to tips on how to ‘game the system’. This theme is discussed further in the Credibility and Digital Side Hustle sections. The organic nature of these support groups also presents risks to users. We heard time again that it’s dangerous to trust unverified strangers on Facebook; we also heard stories of micro-entrepreneurs being cheated out of money. The more discerning micro-entrepreneurs tend to be cautious in whom they engage over Facebook and, if they seek out personal advice, ensure it is from someone who has been verified and validated by others through positive comments and Facebook “Likes”.

3. Consumptive Learning: Proliferance of self-learning through YouTube

Beyond Facebook and WhatsApp, YouTube is another popular tool for learning. Micro-entrepreneurs tend to leverage YouTube channels to learn more about a specific craft. For example:

  • Faith learned how to make more complicated juices “by watching tutorials on YouTube.” Through YouTube she also learned about how to plan her day, sell to customers, package her products, and meet health and safety standards.
  • Kerubu taught herself to dance through YouTube, which she now does professionally. “Youtube is so awesome...” she shared.
  • And Wambui taught herself how to make her bracelets and ornaments through the platform. For her, YouTube is like a tutor.”

Even information about farming, a popular side-hustle among many micro-entrepreneurs, is found on YouTube. Kohe, a tax and insurance consultant with a small shamba (farm) watches YouTube videos to get “smart about farming.”

We heard from some of our micro-entrepreneurs that, because of the commentary under YouTube tutorials, they can quickly determine if the video is helpful or not. It is infinitely less challenging than trying to assess the validity of online written commentary on WhatsApp or Facebook where there are many different variables (comprehension, presentation, articulation), outside of the content itself, that can influence the quality of support.

4. Offline Learning: In-person training still plays an important role in upskilling micro-entrepreneurs

Despite the variety of online avenues through which micro-entrepreneurs receive support and training, in-person support still plays a significant role. In addition to formal in-person training, friends, family, and acquaintances support micro-entrepreneurs as they seek to grow their businesses. This type of training is often the preferred method. Among the micro-entrepreneurs we spoke with:

  • Daniel used a friend to help him navigate the iWriter freelance writing platform.
  • Faith, despite leveraging WhatsApp and Instagram for guidance, still found personal advice from friends the most valuable source of information. When asked where she got the best advice, she shared: “From Esther…because its face-to-face and I can tell her this is what I want and this is what I’d like to do and she would tell me no; do this and this.”
  • Chepkirui relied on in-person training for her hairdressing business, indicating that not all skills are conducive to online training: “It is hard for me to follow instructions from a video.”

We discuss in-person training in more detail in our Tech and Touch section.

5. A-B Iterative Learning: Through trial and error, micro-entrepreneurs figure out how to use the platform for business

The more cavalier micro-entrepreneurs appear to develop their own unique processes to generate leads, marketing their products and closing transactions over platforms by trying different approaches. Through this method, each of the micro-entrepreneurs found a unique style that resonated with customers and gave them an idea of what types of posts, messages within posts, and images in posts attracted customers.

Instagram post from Atieno’s Instagram page

For instance, Atieno, the owner of a food condiments company, spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what images resonated best with her customers. At first, she spent lots of time manicuring the image so that the condiment and the place setting looked perfect because she thought that’s what the customer wanted. She was quickly proven wrong as each of these well staged photos received few comments or Likes, the social media proxy for success. After experimenting with different looks and settings, she saw customers reacted best to images where the condiments were in use (see above image).

She subsequently changed her Instagram approach and posted photos exclusively of her interacting with the condiments; her Instagram posts have since netted significantly more sales.

Kioko shows us an advert for his flashdisks, created on photoshop

Kioko, a flash disk salesmen, uses photoshop to create different advertisements that he posts across his different social media channels. Initially, he cropped pictures of his goods using images on the internet and, at times, watermarked photos. He eventually noticed that when he used images with a watermark, customers would not respond so he changed his approach and avoided using watermarked images (see imagep).

We consistently saw behavior like this—whether creating, editing, and adding new content to advertisements, or posting more lifelike photos of goods on Instagram—among many of the micro-entrepreneurs we interviewed. This ability to adapt based on trial and error seems to be driven by the hustle of the entrepreneur. Whereas some, like Asmani, would give up if they were unable to attract interest from a post, others, like Kipchoge, persistently post and make constant adjustments knowing that customers “bite” if the posts are positioned correctly.

Concluding thoughts

As you’ve just read, learning and skills acquisition was a key and common practice among the 27 micro-entrepreneurs we interviewed. Some of this direct learning (section 1) was happening on platforms, designed and driven by the platforms themselves. But the majority (sections 2,3,4, and 5) happens outside platforms.  While there is a gap in platform-driven learning, we believe this presents an opening for platforms to look at practices 2,3,4, and 5 as inspiration to add more value and increase relationships with platform users. Read more about our next step suggestions on this theme in the Policy and Interventions Takeaway section.

Read next: The Digital Side-Hustle