By Xian Bu, AUGUST 28, 2016
The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, DC
Contract Cheating’s African Labor
On the outskirts of Kenya’s capital city, behind a shopping mall near a highway, stands a six-story apartment building where, in a unit on the top floor, Solomon and Eunice have just eaten breakfast. While their young daughter sits playing, the couple share a table in the living room, each on a laptop, performing academic work for hire.
Solomon, 32, and Eunice, 27, grew up in the countryside and attended universities here in Nairobi. Solomon, who studied physics, became an intern at the Kenya Bureau of Standards. But after eight months without pay, he says, living in the Mukuru slum, he gave up on a job at the agency. A friend invited him to train as an academic writer, to learn how to do research and write in accordance with American and European standards.
Two months later, in 2011, Solomon passed the tests in grammar and writing given by the company for which his friend worked, and began writing papers for students in the United States, Britain, and elsewhere. Eunice, a bank clerk earning less than $500 a month, soon saw the opportunity. Others have, too. “In every apartment building in Nairobi,” says Solomon, “you could find two, three writers.”As the field gains popularity among Kenyan college graduates, competition is fierce. The network of academic writers here is a hierarchy governed by the companies that control the work, as well as local rules. After passing the tests, beginner-level writers usually complete several papers free to demonstrate their skills. They then start to earn $2 to $5 a page. Those with premium accounts on essay-writing websites can fetch $7 to $11 a page. In a local twist, they often subcontract to trainees, paying them a fraction of the wages and editing their work.
A representative at the company for which Solomon now writes confirmed that it produces academic papers for college and graduate students and said it was based in New York. Solomon doubts that, but if clients ask, he is supposed to tell them that he is American or British. A web administrator has warned him: Do not reveal that you are African.
Solomon, who declined to give his last name because of the sensitivity of his work, has risen in the ranks. Orders come through the companies’ websites, and sometimes a dozen writers will vie for one. Whoever acts fastest gets it. So Solomon uses fiber-optic internet access and a laptop with only three applications installed — Google Chrome, Microsoft Word, and a PDF reader — with no antivirus software, which can slow the machine down. “Even if it takes a microsecond,” he says, “that is too much for me.”
Grabbing as many assignments as he can on his premium account, Solomon distributes them among four trainees, all college graduates. He checks their papers word by word, he says, making revisions, citing sources, and correcting references. He doesn’t want any mistakes to threaten his livelihood. On a private Facebook group — not even its name is public — Kenyan academic writers exchange information. They number more than 20,000. Some, looking for a shortcut or a quick payout, arrange to buy and sell accounts on the companies’ websites. An intermediate one might go for $1,000 to $3,000, Solomon says — he has sold a few. He would consider an offer of $10,000, he says, for his premium account, one level from the top.
Kenya’s per capita gross national income is about $1,300 a year. With Eunice also having become a premium writer, the couple can make about $5,000 a month in slow seasons, Solomon says. In peak seasons, that income doubles. Their monthly record is $14,000. The company makes direct deposits to his bank account every two weeks, he says.
Although the pay is good, the work is not easy. Sometimes Solomon completes assignments for Ph.D. students. Business and medicine he likes better than history. He won’t touch computer programming, which he says he knows nothing about. To communicate with clients, he often wakes up in the middle of the night. In the United States, for example, the Eastern time zone is seven or eight hours behind Nairobi. “If the customer sends you a message, and you’re asleep, you reply after eight hours, the customer will get mad,” he says.
In writing papers, or editing trainees’ work, Solomon and Eunice must absorb a lot of information and guard against plagiarism. “For you to get paid, the customer has to pass, to get a good grade. So you have to be really, really smart,” he says. “It’s very stressful.” An incorrect reference or a missed deadline can mean not only docked pay, but a fine. The couple generally log 10-hour days, researching and writing and pausing to look after their daughter. When dinnertime comes, Eunice takes a break and cooks. On some Saturdays they work, but Sundays are always family time. They live modestly, sending money home and investing in new businesses, like used-car sales.
Solomon describes his work as “capitalism”: The companies take a cut before paying the writers, and the writers take a cut before paying the trainees. And he doesn’t seem to blame his clients for cheating on their assignments. “They don’t do it because they’re lazy,” he says, “but because of the circumstances.” Some are busy with other assignments they believe are more important, he says. Some have language barriers or difficulty typing. Others struggle with personal issues. He recalls a mother whose work he did while her baby was in the hospital. In a country with high unemployment, he will take on that work, he says. “You have to do whatever to survive.”
Xian Bu has reported, in English and Chinese, from the United States, China, and Africa.
A different version of this story first appeared in January on the Initium Media website, in Chinese.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2, 2016 issue.