Botlhokwa Ranta had never flown before, and she was frightened of both the flight and what awaited her when she landed. By the time the wheels of the aeroplane touched the tarmac in Nairobi, she was drunk. She was 26, and it was her first time outside South Africa.
Ranta’s faux-leather handbag was filled with small packets of sauce. In Johannesburg airport she had panicked about the food she might encounter in Kenya, a country she knew little about. So she scurried around the airport’s fast-food outlets, stuffing her bag full of reassuring flavours: mini-sauces from Nando’s and McDonald’s.
In Nairobi, she slept during the car ride through the morning traffic to Embakasi, a district of tightly packed tenement blocks with washing erupting from every window. The roads were jammed with matatu minibuses sporting cartoonish liveries, and trucks billowing black smoke into the dazzling African light. A steady stream of people, unable or unwilling to pay for transport, were walking by the roadside on the bright red earth — backs straight, pace brisk — to jobs as maids or security guards, or to try their luck as day labourers in factories or on building sites.
The apartment Ranta found herself in was modern, if spartan. Later — after she was told to find her own accommodation — she would come to appreciate that this first home, in a gated complex, had afforded a somewhat cosseted existence. Beyond the gates, she’d complain of the racket, the smells from the sewers, the unpaved roads. Most of all, she complained about the cows.
Before the British made Nairobi a rail depot in 1899, the swampland that is now the Kenyan capital was known in the Maa language as “cool waters”. Even today, in the dry season, Maasai herders bring cows to graze on the roadside verges in the shadow of Chinese-built flyovers.
Nairobi had fewer than 150,000 people in 1950. When Ranta arrived in 2021, it had become one of Africa’s most frenetic cities, a tangle of expressways and an escalation of billboards and high-rises, with nearly 4.5 million residents. It has some of the continent’s plushest neighbourhoods and its most desperate slums. But despite all the construction and the asphalt, the dingy housing blocks and sleek skyscrapers, Nairobi is a green city, with a forest and a national park at its boundary and foliage pushing wantonly from every crevice.
Ranta was underwhelmed. The promise of a job working at the “cutting edge of AI” had lured her some 2,000 miles. But in her new apartment, there was “cold-ass chicken from Chicken Inn” on the table and she couldn’t get the microwave to work. “These people who brought us here didn’t even call to ask if we arrived safely,” she complained of her new employer.
The ad she had responded to was for a content moderator. She’d been suspicious at first: “I said, ‘Oh no, it looks like human trafficking.’” But a friend who had also moved to Nairobi reassured her. Besides, Ranta was unemployed, having recently lost a job in retail, and she had a young daughter to bring up on her own. With job prospects dire in South Africa, where one in two young people is out of work, she took the plunge. It was only later she discovered that, indirectly at least, she would be working for one of the biggest companies in the world: Meta, the owner of Facebook.
For the time being, her five-year-old daughter would remain in South Africa in the care of Ranta’s grandmother. History was repeating itself. As a child, Ranta, who was born in 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela became president, was sent by her separated parents to Rustenburg, in rural North West province, to live with a great-grandmother. There were good things about it, such as the homemade bread “so soft it just melts in your mouth”. But Ranta felt abandoned.
At the age of 10, she was yanked back to hardscrabble Johannesburg, where she settled in Soweto with her grandmother. There, she lived in a cement-brick “RDP house”, one of millions of subsidised dwellings built after the end of apartheid. At school, she started selling clothes, jewellery, make-up and a bit of weed. Her grandmother’s small house overflowed with merchandise.
“I’m going to be honest, I have always loved money,” Ranta said in her raspy voice. “I grew up in a family of hustlers. Everyone in my family is doing something, legal or illegal. I was like, ‘I want things. I want new jeans, I want shoes.’ If you want all these nice things, you can’t go to your mum and say, ‘Buy me.’ That’s where most kids fall into dating sugar daddies. That’s the South African logic. So you get teenage pregnancies.”
Ranta mostly avoided the sugar daddies. “There was a nibble here and there,” she recalled, with a raucous laugh. “But nothing ever went too far. They’re like, ‘Oh you’re so light and so cute in your school uniform.’ You take the money and go to McDonald’s and buy yourself a king-sized meal.” At university, where Ranta was studying to be a teacher, she did get pregnant. Her father was furious and stopped sending her allowance. She dropped out. As a single mother, she worked the floor of clothing outlets such as Mr Price and Cotton On. Eventually, she saved enough to build a couple of shacks in her grandmother’s yard, which she rented out for extra income.
Now she was up for a new challenge in a new country. Leaving her daughter behind was only temporary, she told herself. As soon as she could, she would bring her to Nairobi. “I never wanted my child to feel like she’s not wanted.” She had, after all, given her an auspicious name, Humang. In Ranta’s mother tongue, Tswana, it meant: “Be Rich.”
The day after Ranta arrived in Nairobi, the phone rang. The voice at the other end told her to report for training next morning. The job she had landed was with a company called Sama, a San Francisco-based data-labelling outfit that also moderated Facebook content. Ranta was quite taken with her first sight of the office. The building, boxy but modern, was on an industrial estate just off the thunderous Mombasa Road. Outside, a sign read “Samasource: The Soul of AI.” (Samasource was Sama’s previous name, but the old branding remained.) Inside was a yoga room and a canteen. Her initial reservations eased. “It looked nice. I thought, ‘This is refreshing. They really care about us.’”
Ranta was one of dozens of young Africans recruited from across the continent to work in Sama’s Nairobi hub. This army of moderators would help filter some of the internet’s most distressing content, the sewage that gushes daily through our digital pipes, unseen by almost everyone. For their work inspecting the worst of the effluence, they would be paid around $2.20 an hour, after tax, a wage Sama says was good by Kenyan standards. Ranta was trained on a system whose log-in page bore a peppy message of thanks for keeping the internet safe. Training material taught moderators to identify and label unacceptable content. Ranta and more than a dozen other moderators interviewed for this article said the images and videos they saw during training were tame by comparison with what they would encounter when the system went live.
The job consisted of processing a “queue” of potentially concerning content. Though artificial intelligence can weed out some material, a lot still gets through. Moderators were confronted with an unending stream of sexual abuse, torture, violence and beheadings. They were trained to watch the first and last 15 seconds of a video and to scroll rapidly through the rest, stopping at potentially problematic parts. An efficiency target, known as an AHT, or “average handling time”, meant dealing with each “ticket” in 55 seconds. At that pace, they could get through roughly 500 a day, although Sama denies the existence of specific quotas.
Growing up in Soweto had toughened Ranta up. “I can usually handle murder and stuff like that,” she said, breezily. “But there are certain videos you look at and think, ‘I’m going to be scarred for life.’” Those of a sexual nature affected her most. Anything involving children was the worst. “As a mother, when you see paedophilia, it is not OK.”
The constant feed of atrocity took its toll. Many of the moderators said they had been left shells of themselves, with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to sleep or to interact normally with other people. Some shunned crowded spaces, associating them with bomb blasts, drone attacks or acts of random killing. Fascia Gebrekidan, who studied journalism in Tigray and had come to Kenya to escape the war in Ethiopia, was horrified to watch a daily diet of her countrymen killing each other. “Seeing people being droned every day,” she said, “that really made me question my faith in God.”
By 2023, as part of a legal suit that Ranta and her co-workers would bring against Sama and Meta, the moderators alleged that exposure to such harmful images, without what they deemed adequate counselling, constituted a violation of their human rights. While Sama has said the company harnessed the power of markets for “social good” and that it had helped lift thousands of people out of poverty, lawyers acting on the moderators’ behalf submitted court filings that said otherwise. They conjured images of a “digital sweatshop” and, in conversation, compared the content moderators toiling in the bowels of the internet with industrial workers of a previous age labouring in dark Satanic mills or chiselling coal beneath the Earth’s crust.
Sama called that description hyperbolic — a “gross mischaracterisation of the work we do”. It said that its workers received one-on-one professional counselling sessions, wellness breaks and attention from a “wellness team” who proactively walked the floor. It said it capped the working hours of content moderators at 37.4 hours a week and offered health insurance benefits that included psychological care. The company said it had received positive feedback from third-party evaluations of its labour practices.
Born into an era of blistering change, with the internet at their fingertips, Ranta and her peers from across the continent were drawn to Nairobi by a combination of frustration and ambition. Her face, like those of millions of talented young people in fast-urbanising African nations, had been pressed up against the glass of a modern, consumerist society. Yet in most African countries, outside a narrow elite, that world remains largely inaccessible. Even the big cities cannot generate enough well-paid jobs to keep the majority of ambitions alive. In Nairobi, Ranta and her fellow strivers had to settle for second best. They became cogs in the international tech machine, sifting through the detritus of a world that kept its rewards mostly beyond their reach.
At Sama, Ranta met other aspiring young people. One who stood out was Pacific Lubega, a young Ugandan man with an electric smile. In the office he was chirpy and friendly. He had joined Sama at the age of 24, in April 2019. By the time Ranta arrived, he had learnt to view images without registering any obvious emotion, but what he saw on his first days on the job was drilled into his brain. Each time he closed his eyes, the images would surface.
It was not always the obvious scenes that haunted him most. One that stuck in his head was a Chinese man “having sex” with a tilapia. “Up to this day, I don’t eat that fish,” he said, without any trace of humour. The worst recurring scene was the execution of a woman by an Islamist group. “They tied her up and they slit her here,” he said, moving his hand slowly across his throat. “Her daughter was sitting there. I’m telling you, I was a man who grew up with a lot of problems. I thought I was strong until I saw that video.”
Lubega’s problems began when he was 10. One day he was fetched early from school and, when he got home, his mother’s corpse was laid out in the front room. It took him months to realise she was not coming back. He went to live with his grandmother in Mpigi, outside Uganda’s capital, Kampala. “The worst thing is to grow up without parents,” he said. “Even if Bill Gates adopted me, there would be that missing part.”
In Mpigi, he went to a local Catholic school, where he won a bursary — he assumed because of his ability to enliven school performances. In school holidays, he would hitch a ride into Kampala and hawk shoes on the street. At 19, with his educational prospects at a dead end, he moved into a shack in the capital and took up selling shoes full time. “That became my official hustle.” A few years later, a relative living in Nairobi suggested he try his luck there. It was a tough city, but there were opportunities. So he took the nine-hour bus ride and, before he knew it, he was selling shoes on new streets in a new country. He spoke almost no Kiswahili, but he was a born salesman.
He found a room to share with a Ugandan friend. It wasn’t much. They had a tin roof and no running water. The outside bathroom was shared with residents from 15 other houses, and Lubega lined up each morning for a shower. But the rent was just Ks1,500 a month, about $10. After paying for food and his push-button phone, he was selling enough shoes to save about $2.50 a day. “I thought, ‘God, God, through these shoes I will go back to school.’”
Not knowing much about Kenya’s educational system, he devised a plan. He would count the hoardings advertising private universities. “The college that has the most billboards, that’s the college I join,” he told himself. In Nairobi, as in other cities across the world’s most rapidly urbanising continent, there are nearly as many universities promising a brighter future as there are churches. Half of Kenyans are younger than 20 and education is the quickest route out of poverty. Private colleges of varying quality have sprung up to meet the demand. The one with the most billboards turned out to be the Kenya Institute of Professional Studies. Lubega went along to speak to the enrolment officer. “I told the lady, ‘I’m a Ugandan hawking in Kenya, but in my mind I will have a diploma.’”
He cleared out his savings to cover the admission fees. But he’d need to sell a lot of shoes to make it work. Each morning, he took up his spot on the flyover over the Mombasa Road and laid out his wares. “The sun hit me all day, then in the evening I ran to school. Everybody there was smelling nice. But when you’ve been in the sun all day . . .” He wafted his hand across his nose.
The diploma in shipping and logistics had three ascending levels. After two years, he had attained the first and started applying for jobs. Out of the blue, something came up. A recruiting firm was seeking people who spoke Luganda, his own language. He applied and was invited to an interview. When he arrived, there were about 50 other Ugandans sitting in reception. His heart sank. “I cannot be the best,” he thought. But the interview seemed to be more about his personality than his qualifications. Did he get on with people and could he think on his feet? He got the job.
Lubega thought he had hit the jackpot. Compared to what he had been earning hawking shoes, $2.20 an hour seemed like good money. “We were so excited to meet people from different countries. We met South Africans, we met Nigerians and we met managers who had been trained in Ireland. But they never told us what we were going to do.” In training he began to learn the true nature of the work. It wasn’t the translation job he had expected, but the videos he was asked to watch were not so bad and he thought he could handle it. Only later did he have second thoughts: “I regretted the day I started working for these people.”
By the time Lubega joined Sama, in April 2019, trouble was already brewing. A South African content moderator called Daniel Motaung had started a few months before and had begun pressing for better pay and working conditions. He was trying to register a union and organise a strike. In August that year, he was fired. With his work permit about to expire, he would have to leave the country. Motaung claimed to be suffering from PTSD. He told his story to Time magazine, which published an investigation in February 2022 detailing the working conditions at Sama. Soon afterwards, he launched a lawsuit in Kenya against both Sama and Meta, demanding, among other things, that moderators receive professional mental-health care and have the right to form a union. Sama and Meta have said they have no objection to a union and that moderators did receive professional counselling. In court filings, Motaung’s lawyers, backed by a London-based non-profit legal NGO called Foxglove, claimed the working conditions at Sama amounted to “forced labour and modern slavery”. Sama disputes that claim. It said moderators were given resiliency screening before arriving in Kenya and that it was willing to pay for flights for those who wished to return home.
The legal attack on Sama was mounting. Besides, the bulk of its business was in less controversial data labelling. It decided to get out of content moderation. In January 2023, almost a year after the Time article, senior executives flew from California to Nairobi. Content moderators from both the night and day shifts received a text message summoning them to an emergency meeting. Ranta guessed immediately what it meant: “I knew this meeting was going to bring tears.” As she feared, the moderators were sacked en masse.
On a May morning, four months later, more than 150 content moderators from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Africa and Uganda streamed into the plush Mövenpick hotel in downtown Nairobi. It was International Labour Day. Most of the moderators in attendance had been sacked by Sama at the January meeting. But there were others who were still employed by a second outsourcing company, a Luxembourg-based firm called Majorel. They were working on content from TikTok, ChatGPT and Google.
For Sama, ending its content-moderation business had solved one problem. But it had created another: 184 of the 260 sacked moderators, including Ranta and Lubega, had banded together to start a lawsuit of their own, also backed by Foxglove. They had employed a hotshot Kenyan human rights lawyer called Mercy Mutemi and were suing both Sama and Meta for alleged human rights abuses and wrongful dismissal. Sama denies all allegations and notes that a court order is in place requiring it not to discuss the case details with outside parties. Meta said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.
A few days before the gathering, moderators had received a rare piece of good news: a Kenyan judge ruled that Meta could be sued in a Kenyan court, contrary to the company’s contention that the court had no jurisdiction. Though Meta was appealing against the decision, moderators regarded it as a great victory. A subsequent ruling determined that Meta was the moderators’ true employer. Meta is appealing that ruling too.
There was something else to lift the spirits. They were about to form a union of African content moderators, most likely the first of its kind anywhere in the world. A union, they thought, could help the emerging digital labour force press for better pay and conditions — if not for them, then for the generation that would follow. A DJ was blasting music as the young people took their seats on white folding chairs in front of a stage festooned with placards bearing stirring slogans. One read: “Content Moderators: Brave. Bold. United.”
Lubega and Ranta were there. So was Kauna Malgwi, a striking-looking woman in an ochre-coloured dress from the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri. Malgwi had worked for Sama for nearly four years — by the standards of the young industry she was a seasoned hand. She wasn’t the outgoing sort, but people trusted her. They wanted her to be a representative of the union.
Malgwi told me she was taking antidepressants. Like other sacked moderators, she confessed to a feeling of withdrawal at being deprived of the graphic content she had grown accustomed to. “You watch it today, you cry. You watch it tomorrow, you run out. Then, the third day you sit,” she explained.
Her path to Sama at the age of 25 had been as convoluted as any. Growing up as a Christian in northern Nigeria, her mother’s only child, she had been protected “like an egg”. Her father, who lived separately, was a doctor with a job at the World Health Organization. On Fridays, a big car with a long antenna would park outside the school gate to drive her to his house. He was a man of means with two electricity generators. Her private school was one of the best in Maiduguri. Malgwi set her sights on becoming a doctor.
As with many in Nigeria’s precarious middle class, it took a single stroke of misfortune to dislodge her plans. When Malgwi was 12, her father died of a mysterious illness, setting off a bitter inheritance feud with his family from a previous marriage. Court proceedings were interminable. Lawyers came and went, scribbling documents and pocketing fees. On the day after her father’s death, the generators sputtered to a halt. There was no money even to pay for the food that Malgwi and her mother cooked for the funeral guests.
It was around this time that Boko Haram showed up. The militant Islamists, whose name means “western education is forbidden”, had been gaining traction in Nigeria’s poor north-east. Once, Malgwi recalled, she was playing on the street with her friends when a pick-up truck full of men carrying guns and machetes came roaring up. The children ran after it excitedly until terrified relatives shooed them inside. Bomb blasts shattered Maiduguri’s calm. Checkpoints went up.
When she turned 18, she started studying science at a local university. Kidnappings were common, and her mother was seized by a rising dread. To avoid the need for a commute, she sent Malgwi to stay in the university dorm. Not long after she moved in, word went up that Boko Haram was attacking. Students ran helter-skelter. Some broke their legs jumping from the second-floor window. It turned out to be a false alarm, but her mother had had enough. “I’d rather you be uneducated than die,” she said.
Eventually, Malgwi found a place at another university in neighbouring Benin, studying psychology. She graduated and applied for a masters in Nairobi. That was when the money ran out and a job came up at Sama. The position required knowledge of Hausa, her own language. For Malgwi, it seemed like a godsend.
Now, following the lay-offs, Malgwi was unemployed. She had stopped going to church, but there was something of the congregation about the Mövenpick that day. The hall even had stained-glass windows. An MC was calling on moderators to bear witness and, one by one, they rose to their feet. “You can’t take people and treat them like toilet paper, use them and throw them away,” a young man in a blue shirt was saying to applause.
A woman began to recount her nightmares, but she lost her train of thought and the audience grew restless. Another, in a hijab, said she had never been exposed to pornography before she joined Sama. A few titters went up. Mojez Oyange, a serious young man from Kenya who had changed his name from James as an expression of his African heritage, said the content moderators were there at the dawn of a new industry. They needed to organise. “This day gives me hope,” he said.
After an hour or so, it was time to vote. Moderators were invited to raise their hand if they wanted to form a union. More than 150 arms shot up. A mother in a blue turban and a pink shawl lifted the tiny arm of her breastfeeding baby. “I’ll even raise my leg,” someone shouted, to laughter. Once the vote was counted, silver confetti swirled on the stage. One of the white lawyers raised her fist. Later, the moderators voted to establish a committee of eight union representatives. Malgwi kept her head down, but she was chosen anyway. On stage with other newly elected union officials, she was flushed with excitement. “Today is one of my happiest days in a very long time,” she said. “Now at least the world knows we exist.”
On the morning of October 31 last year, Lubega got up and put on a blue blazer he had purchased for a few dollars from a street hawker. He was headed to court. Friends had joked that he looked so smart he could call himself the “senior counsel”. Many of the hearings against Sama and Meta had occurred online. But that day’s proceedings were to be a flesh-and-blood affair at the Milimani Law Courts in downtown Nairobi and Lubega wanted to be there in person.
Back in March, a judge had ruled that Sama must continue to pay moderators their salaries until the case was concluded. Sama had not paid everyone, arguing that the order did not apply to those moderators whose contracts had already expired. An attempt at mediation, begun at the bequest of another court, had broken down. The moderators’ lawyers were asking the judge to find Sama in contempt.
Without their wages, the moderators had struggled to get by. Some had been evicted for non-payment of rent. One had tried to commit suicide by jumping from an apartment window, lawyers said in court. Many feared that, with no job and no money, they would be repatriated. Some had given up and returned to their home countries anyway. Mutemi, the moderators’ lawyer, accused Meta and Sama of “buying time” in a war of attrition with young Africans who lacked the finances to stay the course. Both Meta and Sama denied that allegation. Sama noted that it was normal for such a complex legal case to take time to resolve.
Lubega had been struggling with his rent and his mental health. He had sold most of his possessions, including his new laptop. His mattress had gone too. One night, at 4am, he had found himself sleepwalking in the middle of the city, miles from home. He had no recollection of leaving his room. “I saw the moon. Then my senses came back to me.” He made an appointment at a private mental institution where a doctor suggested he check himself in for treatment. Fortunately, or otherwise, he lacked the funds to have himself committed. “I’m not the Pacific I used to be,” he said. Mostly, he tried to stay positive, but darker feelings occasionally took hold. He had heard the Meta chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, had been challenged by Elon Musk to a cage fight. He had a challenge of his own. “If you lock me in a cage with Mark Zuckerberg now, I feel I’ll die fighting,” he said.
Now there was a flicker of hope. Justice moved slowly, but perhaps the judge would rule in the moderators’ favour. Maybe wages would at last be paid. Lubega took his seat in the crowded courtroom, along with dozens of other moderators.
Malgwi was also there. She had arrived late so was sitting at the back. Unable to cover her rent in the city, she had moved to the small town of Kinoo on the outskirts of Nairobi. It was pouring with rain on the morning of the court hearing. An NGO had sent Ks500 (about $3.20) to her phone to pay for transport. She had taken a matatu bus and a motorbike taxi to the courtroom, but it took nearly an hour and a half to weave through the snarled-up traffic. In court, she wondered whether all these legal proceedings would ever amount to anything. “They know our weakness is money,” she thought. “Sama has already put us in a sort of psychological bondage. Our self-esteem is low. So a little push will just make us surrender.” Sama noted that it had reached resolutions with about 60 former moderators outside of the mediation process.
Setting up the union had proved a slog. Disputes and petty jealousies had erupted and bigger unions in Kenya were trying to absorb the moderators into existing structures. Malgwi wanted to stay on in Nairobi and continue the fight, but she was thinking of returning to Nigeria: “At the end of the day, you have to be alive to form a union.” By December, she had given up trying to survive in Nairobi and had gone back to her home country.
Ranta was not at court that morning, though she did watch the livestream. In the end, the judge deferred the ruling to another day and the case rumbled on without conclusion. She wasn’t putting too much faith in either the union or the court proceedings. She was certainly not falling into the trap of those moderators who were expecting a big payout, already mentally shopping for cars and houses, she scoffed. “Waiting for this court case has become like waiting for the rain during the dry season. I’ve moved on.” She had found a job with an NGO and was hatching plans to set up her own retail consultancy, which would bring some South African pizzazz to what she considered Nairobi’s sleepy retail scene. She had also enrolled at an online university in the hope of completing her degree.
Most importantly, she had fulfilled her pledge to fetch her daughter Humang from South Africa. They were living together back in her old Nairobi neighbourhood with Ranta’s new partner, an IT worker. Humang now had a little sister, Ruang. Like Humang, she had been named with an eye on the future. Her name meant “Build Wealth”.
“I’m still with the cows in Embakasi,” Ranta said. But, in a way, she was grateful she had been fired. “It’s character development,” she said. “I want the moon and the stars above. I had forgotten that I was so ambitious. I had forgotten that I love the hustle.”
At Sama, she said, the first moderators to be employed in Nairobi had been a test case. Perhaps future generations of digital workers would have it easier. A plate of chips before her, she reached for a metaphor: “It’s like when you test the oil by putting in the first fry.” Sometimes the oil was too hot. Only when it was just the right temperature could you put in the rest of the packet. She and her fellow content moderators had been “the first batch”, she said. Some of them had got burnt.
David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor
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