Bongani Mlilo started driving for the ride-hailing company Bolt in Thembisa, east of Johannesburg, in 2020. Things were smooth for the first two years. Mlilo earned about 6,000–7,000 rand ($325–$380) weekly, picking up and dropping off passengers for about eight hours a day. But, in 2022, the 35-year-old noticed a decline in his earnings as the power crisis across South Africa intensified.

“I cannot even count the number of gigs I have lost due to load-shedding [controlled power blackouts],” Mlilo told Rest of World. He now finds it difficult to make ends meet and earns barely 500 rand ($27) a day. “For six hours of load-shedding, the driver app becomes numb, [and] clients cancel the gigs because the network makes it difficult to keep in touch with us. Business is no longer easy,” he said.

Fifteen gig workers for Bolt, Uber, inDrive, Uber Eats, and the Johannesburg-based delivery app Mr D Food told Rest of World they now make less than half of what they used to earn in 2021, and are struggling to survive amid the severe electricity shortages in the country.

South Africa has been dealing with an acute power crunch as Eskom, the country’s electricity utility company, has failed to keep up with the rising demand. In recent months, some parts of the country have experienced the worst rolling blackouts since the power crisis began in 2022. In Johannesburg, among other cities, power outages can last up to six hours a day, disrupting internet connectivity as mobile towers run out of backup power and shut down. Last month, after eight power generation units broke down, Eskom announced that it was ramping up load-shedding, which might mean up to 10 hours of no electricity every day.

Members of the e-hailing Partners Council (EPCO), an organization that fights for drivers’ rights, told Rest of World some gig workers in South Africa are struggling to repay the loans they had taken to buy cars for their jobs. “Earnings have gone down by close to 50% for drivers,” said Pule Mvelase, EPCO’s public relations officer. “We have mediated with Uber and Bolt to look at the possibility of at least a reduction of 5–10% on the commissions they deduct from us, [but] so far, our efforts have failed.”

Ride-hailing platform Bolt told Rest of World its operations have been “affected similarly to most businesses when there is load shedding or a power outage.”

“The Bolt app isn’t affected, nor does it lose functionality,” Takura Malaba, Bolt’s regional manager for East and Southern Africa, told Rest of World. “Passengers and drivers may not be able to connect to each other due to cell phone towers going down and affecting connectivity on the app. Additional traffic congestion from traffic lights not working will increase driver arrival and drop-off times, which may cause frustrations for passengers and drivers.”

6 hours How long power outages can last in Johannesburg and other South African cities.

Melithemba Chris Mnguni, a driver and the secretary of EPCO, told Rest of World he was concerned about the high rate of accidents and increased safety risks, particularly after dark. “Unfortunately, the issue of power cuts is beyond our control, and no one can do much when the network is down,” Mnguni said. “As drivers, we are really struggling.”

During power cuts, traffic lights stop working, causing jams on the roads. This means cab drivers take longer to reach the next customer. The increased wait times result in customers canceling trips more frequently and drivers spending nearly two hours stuck in traffic without compensation from the ride-hailing companies, Mlilo said.

Several gig workers told Rest of World they need to switch between network providers in search of a mobile signal during the load-shedding. This constant switching has increased Mlilo’s data costs by up to 50% since mid-2022, he said.

Workers also cope with the power cuts in other ways, such as using load-shedding notifier apps and shuttling between nearby towns in search of better connectivity and access to customers. But spending on extra fuel narrows their profit margins.

According to Mvelase, EPCO has suggested that ride-hailing companies partner with network providers for generators and backup batteries to boost mobile signals, so their businesses can operate during power cuts.

“The current outage schedule does not allow enough time for batteries to charge.”

MTN, one of South Africa’s leading telecommunications providers, told Rest of World its teams are working round-the-clock to ensure connectivity with a rollout of batteries, generators, and alternative power supplies. But increased load-shedding continues to pose a challenge as there is never enough time to recharge batteries.

“The current outage schedule does not allow enough time for batteries to charge,” Mthokozisi Ndlovu, MTN’s public relations and communications manager, told Rest of World. “Battery backup systems generally take 12–18 hours to recharge, while batteries have a capacity of about 6–12 hours, depending on the site category. Consistent outages have a direct impact on the performance and longevity of the batteries, while consistent theft of the batteries themselves means replacements need to be installed.” In addition to the battery rollout, MTN deployed over 2,000 generators in 2022 to counter the impact of load-shedding, Ndlovu said.

A spokesperson from Vodacom, another major South African network provider, told Rest of World the company has spent close to 2 billion rand ($109 million) on batteries for its base stations over the past two years, and nearly 300 million rand ($16.3 million) per year on diesel. “Needless to say, these funds would be better spent on programs that deliver significantly more value to customers rather than simply keeping our networks running,” Byron Kennedy, the company’s head of media relations, told Rest of World.

Casim Jackson, a delivery driver with pizza restaurant Debonairs, told Rest of World his earnings have decreased from 900 rand ($49) per day to 150 rand ($8). “Buying just an apple for 2 rand [11 cents] to keep up my strength while working has become a luxury,” Jackson said. “We are only happy to walk away with 100–150 rand a day, which is not even enough to buy a weekly provision of groceries.” Jackson now finds it difficult to pay rent for his single room in an old apartment, and sending money back home to his family in Blantyre, Malawi has become a struggle. He said he has recently signed up on Mr D Food to supplement his income from delivering for Debonairs.

Gift Gama, another food delivery worker in Johannesburg, told Rest of World he has to pay 700 rand ($38) weekly to rent a motorbike to keep his job. During power cuts, Gama competes for orders from a few restaurants that own generators. But getting those orders is not guaranteed. “It’s now [a] survival-of-the-fittest kind of scenario. These power cuts have killed our business,” Gama said.