Freelancers are struggling to balance integrity and making money as AI threatens to devalue their work

Onyi, a freelance writer, charges $50–$80 per 5,000 words on Upwork, a freelance platform. The 23-year-old student of Michael Okpara University has been a freelancer on Upwork for three years, ghostwriting academic papers, blog posts and contemporary romance novels for clients in the United States and some parts of Asia.

In Nigeria, freelancing is a thriving market, especially for creative, non-technical skills like writing. According to the World Bank, there are an estimated 17.5 million online freelancers in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, with most of them being from Nigeria. In its 2023 freelancer report, Payoneer, a payment service used by Upwork, also shared that the countries with the highest number of users outside the USA are Bangladesh, Nigeria, and India. Upwork and Fiverr, another freelance platform, provide freelancers the chance to trade in-demand services for some dollars, but the emergence of artificial intelligence threatens to disrupt this flow. 

Since its release in 2022, the chatbot ChatGPT has been widely used in writing. While some writers use ChatGPT to improve their processes, small business owners are increasingly using it to create content, cutting out the need to hire writers. On social media, for example, there are thousands of videos and threads teaching people how to leverage AI writing and designing tools to secure freelance jobs without any prior knowledge or experience. It is increasing competition in an already-saturated freelance market.

Double the hustle for half the pay

According to Onyi, payment rates for simple gigs on Upwork have dropped significantly in the past year as competition on the app is now steep. Clients went from offering about $100 for 10K words to half the amount as there are always freelancers desperate enough to accept meagre pay.

This situation has led Onyi to secure twice as many clients as she would normally take on in order to meet her income target. This is more tedious, but she’s found tools that make her work faster. According to her, about 60% of the words in her drafts, especially the novels, are generated by AI tools.

“I have to write quickly to attend to the next project,” she shared with TechCabal. “Sometimes I have to write something I don’t know about and so I need these tools. If I don’t take the low-paying jobs, others will, and there’s no guarantee that I’ll get the higher-paying ones either. In the time I’d wait for one $100 job, I could have completed four $20 jobs or two $50 jobs.”

Onyi is not alone, as this situation, coupled with global inflation, is placing additional pressure on freelancers to take on more work. In this report which had 2,000 freelancers surveyed from over 120 countries, 55% of them admitted to taking on more work just to meet up with income demands.

Beyond the most popular freelance marketplaces like Fiverr and Upwork, smaller marketplaces also feel AI’s impact on the interaction between talent and clients. Femi Taiwo, CEO of Nigerian freelance marketplace, Terawork, shared that his company has seen a slight decline in the number of gigs available and the rates offered. 

“Apart from the freelancers, I know people who have let their contract staff go because they felt that they were too expensive for the services they were offering,” he said. “After all, why should they pay so much for an analyst when AI can create reports for you?”

According to Taiwo, freelancers on his platform earn more than popular platforms like Upwork and Fiverr, on average, and produce better-quality results.

Toyosi Godwin, a freelance content and copywriter, was forced to leave Fiverr as a result of the paltry pay. Godwin, who has offered writing services for the past five years, shared that, at some point, he was getting offered $5 to $10 per article on the platform. He knew he had to leave to find clients elsewhere. Now, he gets clients mainly from social media, which guarantees significantly more pay.

Godwin is aware a lot of writers use AI tools to save time and take on more work. “When you get paid this small amount for your work, you will likely not want to invest a lot of your time and effort into it,” he said. 

The bulk of gigs on platforms like Upwork and Fiverr are targeted towards freelancers from the Global South, and this is evident from the low compensation offered. A 1,000-word article can receive as low as $20 as payment. A sizable number of clients who cannot afford or are unwilling to pay for full-time staff outsource on these sites, specifically targeting talent who are desperate enough to accept these rates. In this global freelancers report

by Payoneer, freelancers from Africa and Asia have lower hourly rates on average, compared to their counterparts in North America and Western Europe.

Projects with higher price tags are more expensive, in terms of time, money and qualifications. According to Onyi, these gigs with higher pay typically state clearly that only writers from certain countries like the United States, are welcome to apply. 

“Getting good projects from Nigeria is difficult, and most clients immediately lose interest as soon as they realise that you’re Nigerian or black,” she shared. 

These gigs also cost a lot to secure for new freelancers. On Upwork, users need “connects”, which are essentially tokens used to bid on job opportunities. One hundred and fifty connects cost about $30, and the higher the job’s pay, the more connects you need. 

“If you can’t afford to pay for connects to secure better jobs, then you’re stuck with the low-paying ones,” Onyi said.

Redefining the value of work for freelancers

Jasmine-Jade, a freelance writer for over five years, typically has a lot of clients and doesn’t need to use freelance marketplaces. According to her, the bulk of her freelance opportunities come from referrals and inbound marketing, as opposed to what she calls “sitting on platforms and waiting”.

Because a lot of these clients come to meet me, she’s able to set her rates which are higher than if she were on a freelance marketplace where the price already was specified and hundreds of people are already bidding.

While she’s had several friends and colleagues lowballed by clients on these marketplaces, it’s not something that she has experienced herself.

Despite market realities, Taiwo believes that freelancers can still get paid decent rates depending on how well they position themselves and offer value.

“Now, freelancers, especially in Nigeria, have to provide more value beyond what they were doing before that will make them stand out,” he shared. “There are AI tools for graphic design but people still employ graphic designers because they know that the result they’ll be getting is more unique.”

According to him, while AI is threatening the value of freelancers, the effects of the 2023 layoffs make up for this decline, and more businesses are laying off full-time staff to employ freelancers as they have realised that it’s a less-expensive alternative.

“Some freelancers might be losing jobs and getting paid less but some are seeing more opportunities now,” he said. “If you have a track record of doing good, quality work that people can see, then people will always see your value.”

Pamela Ephraim, a journalist, understands the concept of value as a freelancer on Upwork. The writer and editor who started using the platform in 2022 had a hard time finding well-paying gigs at first. After two projects which paid her $10 each, she reached out to someone with more experience navigating the platform who put her through a series of Zoom meetings, profile optimisation tips, and YouTube tutorials. She updated her profile to show all her work qualifications and added useful writing samples, and she was strategic about applying only for projects within her niche and a certain pay range, as that gave her some exclusivity.

“In about a month, I landed my first $150 gig which was for a 1,000-word article,” Ephraim said. “I’ve been on the platform since then.”

Ephraim no longer has to apply profusely as she did in the beginning and her profile now brings in gigs she didn’t apply for. According to her, apart from writing convincing proposals and optimising your profile, one of the most effective tips she can share is to treat freelancing as one would a full-time job.

“Initially, I treated it as a part-time hustle and didn’t put a lot of effort into it,” she said. “You need to treat it as you would an actual job and also ask clients to leave good reviews. Platforms like Upwork thrive on good reviews.”

When asked if she wasn’t bothered about being phased out of employment by AI, she said she didn’t think it would ever happen. The future of freelance storytelling belongs to creatives who cannot be replaced with AI, she said.

Get the best African tech newsletters in your inbox

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like