Microwork and Virtual Production Networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia

As use of the Internet and mobile technologies in the developing world continues to grow at a high rate, there is potential to provide real income opportunities to poor and unskilled workers. Microwork and new virtual job opportunities in the digital economy include: -moderating content posted to social media sites; -categorizing products in online shops; or, -translating online content into other languages. A recent World Bank study estimates that the market for microwork is worth approximately $3 billion a year, and it suggests that even the least-developed countries could benefit from this emerging virtual economy. Private and donor-funded initiatives are experimenting with these new Internet-enabled business models and tapping into an affordable labour force in developing countries to service customers in more developed economies. These models are also referred to as "paid crowdsourcing." Amazon's Mechanical Turk, for example, enables workers to choose and perform simple tasks online, report directly through the online platform, and receive payments in exchange. A task can be as simple as labelling photos or writing product descriptions and reviews. Other examples include businesses such as Samasource, oDesk, and microWorkers that have realized that entry-level workers can be efficient and effective. Anyone with access to the Internet can seek these employment opportunities. This project will explore this emerging phenomenon and the potential offered by virtual production networks in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. More specifically, the research team will: -examine how virtual production networks in Africa and Asia are structured; -assess their positive and negative effects on workers; -explore the factors that would mitigate the negative effects and increase the potential of positive effects; -provide opportunities for exchange with policymakers and practitioners; and, -inform programs that seek to unleash the developmental potential of virtual work activities. The Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Pretoria will collaborate to investigate virtual production models in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. The research team will seek to better understand how they function. They will look at the positives and negatives for workers, and establish solutions to mitigate the negative effects. Finally, the project will fill evidence-based knowledge gaps in this area, and inform investments and practice in the future.

Project ID


Project status


End Date

Thursday, September 7, 2017


36 months

IDRC Officer

Ellie Osir

Total funding

CA$ 468,600


North of Sahara, South of Sahara, Far East Asia


Networked Economies

Project Leader

Dr. Mark Graham


The Chancellor Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford

Institution Country

United Kingdom

Institution Website