With the help of local research collaboration partners, as well as the large ICT company Creative Institute, the research team began the pilot project in January 2018, implementing it in two waves.
During the first wave (‘theory only’ programme), the researchers observed that while the students were indeed acquiring some useful technical skills (specifically in graphic design), their communication and marketing skills were likely to inhibit their ability to succeed in the competitive online marketplace. Therefore, in the second wave, the research team decided to include a post-training internship, with trainers providing additional support to the students in navigating the online marketplace.
The initial findings suggest that online work has exciting potential, but the transition from freelancing student to income-earner is not smooth – it requires financing the significant training programme cost, it takes time to bear fruit (with a large proportion of people not succeeding in earning), and there are a number of constraints. This study demonstrated strong technical skill acquisition, but significant challenges from lack of communication skills (particularly in terms of English language and marketing skills) and lack of infrastructure (an appropriate work environment, reliable electricity, and high-speed internet). The team managed to overcome some of these constraints by establishing a ‘freelancing incubator’, which provided the necessary workspace and infrastructure, as well as the required mentoring to assist in navigating the competitive online marketplace and building a reputation.
Moving forward, the team believe that there is potential for many young rural poor to earn income from online work, but more research is needed on how to overcome the significant barriers in terms of financing constraints, soft skill requirements, and more structural challenges such as access to the necessary infrastructure. The researchers found some promise in the implementation of income-sharing contracts, but making these more financially feasible for the capital provider would require a larger number of students to earn income from such programmes. It would also involve overcoming the significant monitoring challenges to implementing performance-contingent repayments.
The team are currently conducting more research on this, partnering with the Sarah Institute of eGeneration, who are a large, reputable ‘virtual exporter’ that sources work globally, and then hires students to complete the work.