For the past nine years, Collins, a 27-year-old freelance writer, has been making money by writing assignments for students in the U.S. — over 13,500 kilometers away from Nanyuki in central Kenya, where he lives. He is part of the “contract cheating” industry, known locally as simply “academic writing.” Collins writes college essays on topics including psychology, sociology, and economics. Occasionally, he is even granted direct access to college portals, allowing him to submit tests and assignments, participate in group discussions, and talk to professors using students’ identities. In 2022, he made between $900 and $1,200 a month from this work.
Lately, however, his earnings have dropped to $500–$800 a month. Collins links this to the meteoric rise of ChatGPT and other generative artificial intelligence tools.
“Last year at a time like this, I was getting, on average, 50 to 70 assignments, including discussions which are shorter, around 150 words each, and don’t require much research,” Collins told Rest of World. “Right now, on average, I get around 30 to 40-something assignments.” He requested to be identified only by his first name to avoid jeopardizing his accounts on platforms where he finds clients.
In January 2023, online learning platform Study surveyed more than 1,000 American students and over 100 educators. More than 89% of the students said they had used ChatGPT for help with a homework assignment. Nearly half admitted to using ChatGPT for an at-home test or quiz, 53% had used it to write an essay, and 22% had used it for outlining one.
Collins now fears that the rise of AI could significantly reduce students’ reliance on freelancers like him in the long term, affecting their income. Meanwhile, he depends on ChatGPT to generate the content he used to outsource to other freelance writers.
While 17 states in the U.S. have banned contract cheating, it has not been a problem for freelancers in Kenya, concerned about providing for themselves and their families. Despite being the largest economy in East Africa, Kenya has the region’s highest unemployment rate, with 5.7% of the labor force out of work in 2021. Around 25.8% of the population is estimated to live in extreme poverty. This situation makes the country a potent hub for freelance workers. According to the Online Labour Index (OLI), an economic indicator that measures the global online gig economy, Kenya accounts for 1% of the world’s online freelance workforce, ranking 15th overall and second only to Egypt in Africa. About 70% of online freelancers in Kenya offer writing and translation services.
John Kamau, who has offered contract cheating services since 2014, disagrees with Collins’ assessment. “Work will still be there because even editing the AI-generated text to avoid detection takes a lot of time and effort,” he told Rest of World. “So, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying, with AI, students in the U.S. will just do [the assignments] themselves.” Kamau, who doubles as a sales agent with a Nairobi-based construction supplies company, expects more schools will limit and block the use of tools like ChatGPT as AI tech improves. “Academic writers will still have their work. But it will have a positive effect [on] writers who can collaborate with ChatGPT and use it as a guide,” he said.
Alfred Ongere, founder of consulting company AI Kenya, told Rest of World that the rise of large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT will disrupt the supply of academic writers in Kenya. “On one hand, writers and other freelancers have realized the powerful capabilities of LLMs such as ChatGPT, and are using them in their work,” he said. “This means they can now spend more time being creative, and have better articles because of the time ChatGPT saves them. On the negative side, this will mean [fewer] jobs as their clients and origin of supply shift to ChatGPT and other AI tools to have their work done.” So far, higher education institutions in the U.S. have avoided outright bans on the use of ChatGPT. Instead, colleges, including Yale University, have issued guidelines and recommendations for staff on the use of AI, leaving it to teachers to decide how ChatGPT will be used in their classes.
Wade Brian, a third-year finance student, provides contract cheating services on the side. He told Rest of World he does not use ChatGPT to write entire essays, as that might cost him his credibility — and future assignments. Instead, he restricts its use to sourcing content, much like Google.
Brian agrees that lately, work has been slow. “When I started last year, as a literal amateur, in the first month, I did 30 assignments,” he said. “As I got better, I was doing up to 60 assignments a month. The most I made in a month last year was 40,000 Kenyan shillings [$296].” In March, Brian got barely 10 assignments. “It’s not that I haven’t been looking [for gigs]. I didn’t even hit 10,000 Kenyan shillings [$74],” he said.
The rise of generative AI tools has made the work of educators harder. Christopher Kanan, an associate professor in the department of computer science at the University of Rochester, has started giving in-person, in-class quizzes due to the popularity of ChatGPT.
“It just becomes harder to sort out who knows what and who’s getting help from things like ChatGPT,” he explained on the university’s website, even as he made it clear that AI tools are not going anywhere and would rapidly evolve.
Others, like Ethan Mollick, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, have chosen to take a more open approach to ChatGPT in class. “The truth is, I probably couldn’t have stopped them even if I didn’t require it,” he told NPR.
Meanwhile, the freelancers in Kenya who help American students cheat now compete for a smaller portion of the pie.
“The first quarter of the year used to be part of the high season because students are back in college for their semesters, and they have a lot of assignments,” Adrian Nyanga, a freelancer who’s been in the industry for four years, told Rest of World.
“But I’ve seen a dip in the assignments available this year, so there are no longer high and low seasons. It’s bad,” he said. “Remember, there are so many writers who have joined the industry in the past few years, and it was already getting harder to get gigs, but there are even fewer now, especially with AI.”