The Future of Work Will Be Bootstrapped

April 18, 2024

In our first episode of this series on jobtech platforms and the future of work, we argued that the future of work is a tech-enabled portfolio of work.

But what does a portfolio of work really look like? And what happens next?

We know we need to create more formal jobs in Africa, and we need to boost the productivity of the informal sector. But how do we get there?

Considering the context of the markets in question, the future of work isn’t going to be designed or endowed; it’s going to be bootstrapped. 

00:00 - Intro
01:17 - Bootstrapping Development
01:53 - Bootstrapping a portfolio of work
05:48 - Pathways for jobtech users
06:45 - This is how development happens

Watch the first episode of this series on jobtech platforms here.

Learn more about the Jobtech Alliance.

Check out last year's podcast series on the future of work.

This episode is powered by the Jobtech Alliance.

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Justin Norman: How many jobs do you have?

Raphael: I’m a student, a farmer, a building consultant. 

Jeshelene: I have three jobs currently. 

Joyce: I’m doing the Rwazi app, I’m selling Nip Nap diapers, and also I’m selling sweets as a side hustle.

Raphael: And also work with Tendo, as well. 

Suleman: Actually, I do a lot of stuffs for a living.

Raphael: I have six jobs. 

Justin Norman: In an environment with high underemployment and few formal jobs, where 80 to 90 percent of the work in select African countries is informal, this is what work looks like: a portfolio of work. For some, it’s a preference; for others, a necessity. where even those with a formal job may feel like they are not earning enough to make ends meet. 

Justin Norman: In our first episode of this series on jobtech platforms and the future of work, we argued that the future of work is a tech-enabled portfolio of work. But what does a portfolio of work really look like? And what happens next? We know we need to create more formal jobs in Africa, and we need to boost the productivity of the informal sector. But how do we get there? Considering the context of the markets in question, the future of work isn’t going to be designed or endowed; it’s going to be bootstrapped. 

Justin Norman: Bootstrap: carried out with minimum resources or advantages

Justin Norman: There’s a concept called “bootstrapping development” from the social scientist Charles Sabel at Columbia University. The idea is that imperfect institutions can produce good outcomes by constantly learning about evolving conditions and adapting to them. The prior belief in development economics was that you need good institutions to produce outcomes, but the idea of bootstrapping development turns that on its head. What if it’s actually outcomes that produce institutions? Instead of “preconditions for growth”, there are incomplete and evolving institutions that are “good enough”.

Justin Norman: I think about that in the context of labor markets across Africa where the majority of work is informal and where not enough formal jobs will be created for the continent’s fast-growing population. As a result of these market realities, many people take a portfolio approach to work - they’re bootstrapping. It reminds me of a conversation with Sayo Folawiyo, CEO of the South African home services platform Kandua, from a prior episode of our podcast series on the future of work. 

Sayo Folawiyo: I was talking to a service provider and I started looking at his profile, giving him advice. I'm like, yo, my guy, you're a handyman, a tiler, a pool specialist, and a solar specialist. I'm like, well, just in terms of this platform, focus on one, because that's how you're gonna be able to win customers on our platform. And he said, ah, I'm not sure, maybe I'll come back later, like back to this job later. And I said, so what are you gonna do instead? He said, I've been doing a property course, and I'm now gonna be looking at doing real estate, and he said, yeah well, but I'll be back.

Sayo Folawiyo: And you know that, that kind of mentality of just like getting in where you fit in, finding the flows. Maybe his friend is doing well doing this property thing. He's like, oh, well that's an opportunity there. Let me follow that for a bit. Okay, cool. When pool specialist comes back in summer when people want to get their pools ready and he's seeing of influx, he'll come back to pools. That's the nature of a lot of a lot of work in our environment.

Justin Norman: This is what bootstrapping a portfolio of work looks like. There is a willingness to experiment and try different things and move around depending on where there is demand and opportunity. 

**Shalom Ishimwe: **I really like Kampala. It's… Kampala, it's a city of hustlers.

Justin Norman: That’s Shalom Ishimwe. 

Shalom Ishimwe: I'm a refugee from DR Congo. I've been living in Uganda I think five years, coming to six years now. And I am jobtech lead of Jobtech for Refugees at African Youth Action Network. 

Justin Norman: A premise of jobtech platforms is that they’re inclusive, and refugees are one of many different groups of people using jobtech platforms to build their portfolio of work. 

Shalom Ishimwe: You see them, they're interpreting here on the other side, they want data collections, they run there, they do that. And then in the evening, you see them moving around, hawking with their jeweleries and all that. You see on their status, they're telling you how they do make-ups. If you want make-up, I can do that.

Justin Norman: There’s an inherently experimental, even entrepreneurial, approach to building one’s portfolio of work. 

**Shalom Ishimwe: **You can have a passion of being a teacher,  but hey, being a teacher is not going to pay all the bills required for you to live in Kampala. So that's why you say, okay, yes, I'm a teacher, but I think I'm also a good makeup artist. Let me be doing this in the weekend. As you're doing makeup artist, you find that the people that you always do that a makeup artist with, they always struggle to get clothes. They always struggle to get someone to dress them. Say, oh, by the way, I also have a good taste of dressing. Let me also do that. Those are already three jobs that you're doing. Why? You need money. Where can you get money? Try different ways. 

Joyce Mwangi: I had downloaded so many apps, something to gain extra cash.  

**Justin Norman: **That’s Joyce Mwangi, from Kenya, a user of the market intelligence and data mapping platform Rwazi. 

Joyce Mwangi: So November last year, I came across a reel in Facebook about Rwazi. As usual, I downloaded the app. 

**Justin Norman: **And while the primary consideration for users of a platform like Rwazi is earnings, there are other considerations too, like flexibility, skills development, and access. 

Joyce Mwangi: Rwazi has given me an opportunity to at least interact with different people, different outlets. And you were able to identify new opportunities. Like, I was able to discover that the outlets are not getting sweets, the suppliers for sweets, and I was able to buy some sweets and sell it on my own. So as much as you are gaining cash with Rwazi, you are able to get the opportunities, what else the outlets needs. And if I was to start a business right now, I'm much more aware of what I can go through.

**Justin Norman: **The problem in African markets is lack of demand, which compels users to bootstrap their portfolio of work and in some instances, like Joyce, to extract other value from a platform beyond earnings itself. And it raises a question around how platforms should be thinking about what pathways look like for their users. In a panel at this year’s Africa Jobtech Summit in Nairobi, Uber’s Head of East Africa, Imran Manji, shared how the ride-hailing company thinks about this question:

Imran Manji: What we see is that there’s two entry points. There’s a driver that has their own car, driver that doesn’t have their own car that wants to drive on Uber. What we see over time and tenure on the platform in terms of number of trips is a driver could start renting a car per day… after a few months they could commit to a lease-to-own model. At the end of that 2-3 years, they now own that vehicle, so they now have a significant asset that can help them generate wealth. And a lot of our most tenured drivers on the platform will be vehicle owners themselves… many of them come to the end of their repayment, they now own the vehicle and then they will place that vehicle with somebody else and say now you pay me every day for this vehicle, I’m going to go get another loan for a second vehicle, and then compound that forward. 

Justin Norman: Underemployment looks like a driver renting a car, but the aim is for drivers to ultimately own their own car, which increases their profits from the platform. So bootstrapping development looks like this gradual evolution that Uber is taking its drivers on. Perhaps we need not worry too much about the job. If platforms can continue to generate demand, the bootstrappers will work out how to take advantage of the opportunity - making a dent in a portfolio of work is valuable and a seed, or a pathway, to growth.

Justin Norman: That’s how development happens. Instead of wishing for formal jobs to appear overnight, bootstrapping creates pathways to formalization and standardization. And jobtech platforms have a role to play, particularly by using technology and data to better organize informal markets and to unlock opportunities like access to finance. Instead of trying to remake Africa into what it should be, it’s imperative that we don’t wait for a set of conditions. 

Justin Norman: For more on this topic, check out the future of work podcast series we published last year - which we’ll link to in the show notes - and check out the work that the jobtech alliance is doing at And one more thing, if you enjoy the show and want to support the content that we create, please hit that subscribe button. It only takes a second, but it will mean a lot to us if you do.