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The ‘downloaders’ of Yaoundé: the digital economy transforms informal jobs in Cameroon – by Patrick Awondo

Shireen Walton9 July 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Kennedy avenue in Yaoundé

Among the material elements that mark the smartphone economy in Yaoundé, there are shops and sales counters that resale low-cost phones, predominantly from Asia. There are also houses and buildings in the same stlye and colours of the operators of local phone companies ; yellow for  South African MTN, Orange for French Orange, red for Korean Nextel, and blue for Cameroonian Camtel. There are also more discreet kiosks. Sometimes these are mobile, but mostly they are  sedentary. They often contain simple tables, where a laptop is installed and speakers are held by a young man between the age of 20-30 . At these kiosks, you find working persons known as ‘downloaders’, whose job it is to assist with people with their digital queries and technical needs for a fee.

Downloaders’: old jobs, shifting technologies

Once called ‘engravers’, downloaders are not a new body of tradesmen in Yaoundé. They appeared in the urban landscape with the invention of the compact disk (CD) in the 90s. At that time, young working men here established the act of burning CDs for people (actually a large majority of the urban population), who had no computers to copy music and other films and data via digital media. they They also recorded music onto cassette tapes. The CD gave way to downloading and streaming, and  uses of USB sticks, and eventually smartphones. Downloading has since become a central business in Cameroon in the informal labour economy.

Among the changes that have taken place around this business is the increased presence of downloaders themselves, due in part to the needs and technical dynamics of the smartphone itself – which is very widespread among the population. While in the 1990s/early 2000s, only a few main intersections of Yaoundé housed kiosks, today the number of downloaders and kiosks much higher. They are numerous and present in the commercial center of the city – particularly to be seen at Kennedy Avenue (see image), which  is the iconic street of computer and digital life in Yaoundé.

A downloader in Kennedy avenue. Image (CC BY) Patrick Awondo

In this avenue, named after the American president John Kennedy, computer hardware stores and small start-up offices are present, existing alongside the informal facilities of downloaders and other resellers of smartphones.

The price of downloading a song to a smartphone is 50XAF (0.067GBP), and 100XAF (0.13GPB) for a video. Depending on the traffic volume and density in the street or junction, downloaders earn between  XAF 3000 (GBP 4.3) and XAF 7000 (£ 9.41) per day for workdays starting at 9am, often ending around 8pm. The majority of downloads are to smartphones according to our informants, but also to laptops and USB sticks. Some customers ask that they be sent downloads to their email inboxes so that they can then save them on to the media of their choice. Informants described how teenage and young women are as inclined to download music and video clips as the young men (16-25). People over the age of 30 are also customers of the downloaders, but for this age group, their needs seems to be less about mastery of the features of the smartphone than issues such as how to increase download speed.

A 21-year-old female student in Yaoundé explained in an interview how she had mastered the use of her smartphone, but her budget for “Internet credit” did not have enough download speed to access the kind of cultural goods (music and videos) she wished to obtain. A 30-year-old man  described how he found downloading times far too long. Owning an iPhone, he was indignant at the control and security procedures installed within the device, especially because he had to go through itunes, which according to him is “too expensive”. There are, therefore, a variety of explanations concerning the use of downloaders here – something I am continuing to explore in the Cameroonian capital.

A downloader engaged in installing

In the city of Yaoundé, the activity of downloaders is part of the informal work economy, which constitutes 85% of employment activity in Cameroon. The young men who are the bearers of this activity are often in precarious socio-economic conditions; they are either students, or children from poorer classes who have been out of school early and many are living away from home. In most cases, they are between 20 and 30 years old and have computer skills acquired on the job. In a few rare exceptions, they have been trained in technical fields related to electronics. In these specific cases, their activity can be combined with those who repair mobile phones for a living.

Present on intersections crowded with passers-by, downloaders occupy space outside buildings, and/or on popular sidewalks. In the former instance, they pay rent to the owner of the building or house whereupon they settle. In the latter case, downaloders must come to an arrangement with the municipal services and state patrols in charge of public order on the streets. Sometimes, a young person who does not have the opportunity to buy equipment or set up an appropriate workstation (including the computer, sound amplifier, speakers etc.) is hired by an owner of such appliances, who in effect becomes his employer. In this case, the trading transaction, between the boss and his employee, is built on the basis of mutual trust. After consulting on the daily or weekly income, the owner of the appliances requires his agent to provide a photocopy of his national identity card, said one 39 years old, who was introduced to me by one downloader as his boss.

As an informal presence occupying the street, downloaders’s status within the  urban / labour community appears ambivalent, sometimes falling within, and sometimes outside of official protocols. Since the 2000s, public life has become increasingly disciplinary. Assisted by policemen, agents of the municipal brigade carry out daily observations of the streets, and where they deem necessary, do not hesitate to use violence against  young people  occupying parts of urban space and engaging in a variety of commercial activities (Ottou, Forthcoming).

To escape the harassment of policemen (called awara meaning those who take your thing by force), downloaders, like other young people follow a kind of survival strategy in urban space, mobilizing two modes of action: in one way they run when and where they can,  in other respect, they pay their taxes and comply when and where they are asked to.