Doing Western students' homework is big business in Kenya
- By Halima Gikandi
A student works on the steps of a classroom building on the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, US, Sept. 20, 2018.
It was 5 p.m. on a Thursday in Nairobi, Kenya, and the streets were crowded with people rushing to get home for dinner. But Philemon, a 25-year-old science researcher, was just getting ready for his second job as an academic writer.
Philemon is part of the global industry of contract cheating in which students around the world use websites to commission their homework assignments. He asked that his full name not be used for privacy reasons due to the sensitive nature of his work.
Service providers like Philemon don’t like to call it “cheating” — they prefer the terms “academic writer” and “online tutor.”
“My clients have been coming from various regions in the world,” Philemon said. “I have worked for a client in Australia, in the US. In Kenya? Very rare.”
Philemon began academic writing in 2017 when he was a university student seeking a flexible part-time job. Today, Philemon can make as much as $1,000 a month — as long as he gets good grades for his clients.
“You have to make sure he gets an A, so that in the future he will refer his or her friends to you.” Philemon, academic writer
“You have to make sure he gets an A, so that in the future he will refer his or her friends to you,” Philemon said.
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In recent years, contract cheating has become a lucrative, albeit informal, business in Kenya, which has become one of the largest sources of academic writers in the industry.
“If we look at where writers are based, Kenya is at the top of the list,” said Thomas Lancaster, a professor at Imperial College London who studies the industry.
“There are incredibly qualified people in Kenya. Very high levels of English. Very able to write essays quickly and when they want to, to a high standard.” Thomas Lancaster, Imperial College London
“There are incredibly qualified people in Kenya. Very high levels of English. Very able to write essays quickly and when they want to, to a high standard,” he continued.
Lancaster began studying contract cheating more than a decade ago when he noticed one of his own students posting assignments online. “I found one of my students who was putting up my assignment up for tender on an internet site. So, people were bidding different amounts of money to complete that computer programming assignment,” he said.
By contracting original homework assignments, students could bypass the detection of anti-plagiarism software developed in the 1990s.
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Today, Lancaster estimates the global contract cheating industry is worth more than $1 billion , but academic writers in Kenya typically see a small share of it.
“The contracting industry takes the elephant's share of the money,” said Charles, an academic writer in Kenya for more than 10 years who also asked that his full name not be used.
Websites promoting tutoring services and homework help serve as middlemen between students seeking to outsource their work and academic writers seeking cash. In much the same way as eBay or Craigslist, students set up online profiles that keep their identities anonymous and post details about their homework assignments, from the number of pages to the due date.
According to Philemon, these websites can take more than 30% of the cut for a commission. Charles vouched for that, saying that in his experience, if a student is willing to pay $40 per page for an essay, a Kenyan writer might only receive $6.For experienced writers like Charles, the ambition is to get rid of the middleman completely by establishing direct relationships with clients that continue throughout college.
Writers who manage to establish direct, regular clients have to take care to circumvent website administrations, as the golden rule of the industry is protecting the anonymity for cheating students.
“In fact, if you are found from the writer’s side [by the platform], contacting a student, consider yourself fired in almost all cases.” Charles, academic writer
“In fact, if you are found from the writer’s side [by the platform], contacting a student, consider yourself fired in almost all cases,” Charles said.
More entrepreneurial academic writers might try subcontracting out their homework assignments or sharing accounts.
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“One fairly unique behavior in Kenya has been groups of writers clubbing together to buy access or gain access to a writing account with a contract cheating site, and then sharing out the work in that account,” said Lancaster, from Imperial College.
Two years ago, Philemon bought an account for $800 — about 80,000 Kenyan shillings. The account was well-established with more than 200 completed homework assignments and a high rating. The account gives Philemon a better chance at bidding on more expensive, highly rated or more rigorous homework assignments, and allows him to subcontract out the work.
But subcontracting comes with its own risks. A few days before speaking with The World, Philemon had bid on an econometrics assignment posted by a student from an American college who was only willing to pay $30.
When Philemon failed to negotiate for a higher price, he decided to subcontract the work.
“I needed someone who was cheap, who could do it at a cheaper cost,” said Philemon, who posted the assignment on a private Facebook account used by Kenyan academic writers to trade and sell assignments and accounts on contract cheating websites.
Just a few hours before the assignment was due, Philemon’s subcontractor told him he wasn’t able to complete it. “I found a person who could do it, but then he let me down. They found it too complex,” said Philemon, whose account on the contract cheating site was consequently suspended temporarily.
For the students who commission out their homework, the perils are more obvious. While contract cheating presents a way to avoid anti-plagiarism software, it isn’t foolproof. Especially when there's a discerning teacher.
Professor Christian Moriarty, who teaches ethics and law at St. Petersburg College in Florida, remembers when he caught one of his own undergraduate students cheating in a mandatory ethics class. “The plagiarism software did not come up with anything,” he said.
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“But I was highly suspicious. I invited her to my office, and I just asked plainly, ‘Did you write this?’” said Moriarty, noting that the student’s essay was of a higher standard than assignments she had submitted previously. “She said ‘no.’”
When Moriarty worked with the student to redo the assignment, he realized that while she didn’t set out to cheat on the assignment, she didn’t feel confident about completing it herself. “The student didn’t want to cheat, and she knew cheating was wrong. But at the time, she didn’t see an alternative,” he said.
For Moriarty, who serves on the board of the International Center for Academic Integrity, this is an example of why teachers should be more empathetic when dealing with students who cheat. He argues that institutions should focus on learning why students cheat in the first place.
“What I could see from her is that no one really taught her how to study. No one really taught her how to take notes,” Moriarty said. “We don’t want to think of ourselves as police, or groups of people trying to catch the bad guys.”
Still, higher education institutions around the world have tried to crack down on contract cheating by targeting providers of contract cheating.
More than a dozen US states have legislation against the practice, and in Australia, lawmakers are considering new legislation that would make it an offense to provide or advertise cheating services. In the UK, higher education institutions have urged Paypal and Google to lock payments and advertisements for contract cheating websites.
But legislation has failed to quell the practice, which shows no signs of slowing down.
Moriarty argues that legislation alone isn’t sufficient to address contract cheating, and suggests that institutions do more to teach about integrity, and communicate the value of education.
“The No. 1 argument they respond to more than anything else is that if our institutions become known for tolerating cheating, that students can get away with cheating here, then what is the value of your degree at that point? Students want their degrees to be seen as valuable.” Christian Moriarty, St. Petersburg College in Florida
“The No. 1 argument they respond to more than anything else is that if our institutions become known for tolerating cheating, that students can get away with cheating here, then what is the value of your degree at that point? Students want their degrees to be seen as valuable,” Moriarty said.
Communicating the value of education has been a perennial challenge for higher education institutions, especially in the age of admissions scandals and heated conversations about equity in education.
For academic writers like Charles, the intention is not to compromise the value of higher education institutions. In fact, many academic writers in Kenya end up in this line of work because despite having degrees, they are unable to find jobs in a troubled economy.
“There’s a lot in the industry that is instigated by need. There is a need to earn,” said Charles, who has a bachelor's degree in education, but has completed assignments ranging from essays on nuclear medicine to PhD dissertations.” Still, the irony that a Kenyan hundreds of miles away is doing work for American students isn’t lost on him.
“You don’t have a job in Africa and you are writing an article about missing jobs in Atlanta,” he said.
But Charles doesn’t blame the students whom he helps earn degrees. In his mind, the value of education and learning goes beyond certificates and degrees.
“The society has construed the purpose of learning for academic purposes only and you get certificates,” said Charles, who is working to complete a master’s degree in Kenya and would like the opportunity to study abroad one day.
“Here, you don’t get a certificate, but the information is quite interesting.”
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The Kenyans who are helping the world to cheat
If a student in London or New York goes online to pay somebody to do their essay, the chances are the work will actually end up being done by somebody in Kenya. BBC Trending reports from Nairobi on the ghost writers helping foreigners to cheat.
Kennedy used to work as a teacher but for the past five years he's made his living in a very different way. "I do academic writing," he says.
He's part of a truly global online industry, which is booming in Kenya. But what Kennedy and many other Kenyans call "academic writing", the rest of the world calls cheating.
If you're a student or a school pupil who is struggling with an assignment, or you just can't be bothered, then Kennedy and his team of writers will do it for you - for the right fee.
You then hand it in, pretend it's your own work and hope you don't get caught.
The middle men in the transaction run so-called "essay mill" websites, on which cheating students post jobs they want doing. The profile pictures of writers for hire on these sites are a sea of white faces. They give the impression the piece will be written by an academic in the West.
But like a lot in this business, the pictures tend to be fake. In reality, if you order an essay online it's highly likely to be written by someone in Kenya - often by a student or graduate there.
Many of these sites are based in the US and Eastern Europe and their cut can be as much as half the fee. How much the customer pays varies depending on whether the assignment is a simple essay or, at the other end of the scale, an entire PHD thesis.
Researchers who study the business of what's been termed "contract cheating" say Kenya is a key hub. The reasons are simple: Kenya is an English-speaking country with a good education system where there are often poor economic opportunities, particularly for young people.
For those struggling to get by, there is money to be made regurgitating knowledge for foreigners who they will never meet. And for Kennedy, joining this industry was a no-brainer.
"How much I used to earn as a teacher, it was so little compared to what I earn right now," he says.
The 30-year-old makes around 150,000 Kenyan Shillings (around £1,000 or $1360) a month - a little bit more than the average wage.
He says the writers he employs can complete up to 200 essays or online exams a month. "You log on for a student and do the exams for them," he adds.
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But how does he feel about the fact that he's helping undermine the integrity of education around the world?
As a former teacher he admits feeling "morally compromised" but says he works for the money. "I care, but what do I care about more than my own life - at times you have to survive first to think about the morals," he says.
Kennedy is well aware that his work may help a customer to fake their way to a degree that lands them a job earning many times what he earns. "Then you realize it's not a competition against them. Sometimes it's a competition against poverty."
While there are essay writers for hire in other countries, those in Kenya have developed their own subculture.
There are "academic writing" groups on Facebook and Telegram where jobs and software are traded. Some have tens of thousands of members. They range from middle class professionals dabbling for some extra cash, to students still in education.
David is one of 10 people in his final year university class who he says are financing their studies this way.
"My parents are unable to sustain my staying in school," he says. "So I just saw that I have to look for a way to sustain myself and also maybe to contribute to the family at large."
In the past two years, David has juggled his own degree work with writing around 360 essays for British and American customers. He can churn out 15 pages a day at 250 shillings (£1.65 or $2.28) a page. "I might work from Monday to Friday both night-time and daytime, but on the weekends I put it aside for my studies."
He's making enough to rent farm land in his home village and is hiring labour to grow crops - which he says is an investment in his future.
David is sub-contracted by somebody more senior in the industry who has a writer's account on one of the big foreign essay mill websites. But getting an account isn't easy. Some companies insist on applicants passing academic tests.
Accounts with lots of five-star customer reviews are valuable commodities and are bought and sold in academic writing groups.
This is how cheating students may actually get deceived themselves. They may think they are getting their essays done by a writer with glowing testimonials. But in reality it may actually just be somebody who bought an account with a good reputation.
"I have bought more than 10 accounts," says Kennedy. "Some cost up to 500,000 Kenya shillings (£3,300 or $4550). There's no other way of getting clients."
Owning an account is something that David aspires to after he graduates. At just 23 he's already bringing on the next generation. He trains novice writers and passes on easy jobs to give them their start. "Out of it we've made friendships and we help each other. So it is an industry that is growing."
Others are not so positive about the profession. John got into academic writing after graduating. He's hoping to leave it behind after landing his dream job in the media.
"There are people who do assignments in nursing. I wouldn't really want to go to hospital to be treated by someone who paid someone else to take the exams. You know it's really dangerous. It actually gives you goose bumps," he says. "It should be abolished."
Dr Gladys Nyachieo, a sociology lecturer at Nairobi's Multimedia University, believes the greatest responsibility for tackling contract cheating lies with the wealthy countries whose students are the main customers. Without such a demand there wouldn't be a supply.
"If they could do something about it, in terms of making it outlawed on the other side, then it would reduce," she says.
Some countries are taking action. Last year, Australia banned essay selling services. Similar legislation is also being considered in England. But it's not yet clear how effective this will be in stopping a trade that crosses international borders so easily.
In the meantime Dr Nyachieo is trying to do what she can closer to home.
"I tell my students it's not ethical. It's not right," she says. "But that's all I can do. It is a matter of survival for some people. So it is kind of a dilemma."
Some of the names in this story have been changed.
Listen to BBC Trending: The Kenyans who help the world to cheat on the World Service. Download the podcast or listen online.
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AI is taking the jobs of Kenyans who write essays for U.S. college students
Ghostwriters say the meteoric rise of chatgpt has coincided with a drop in income..
- Kenya is a major hub for the contract cheating industry, where freelancers help American students write essays and handle classwork.
- The proliferation of AI tools like ChatGPT is reducing the earnings of Kenyans involved in contract cheating.
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.
“The most I made in a month last year was $296. In March, I could barely get 10 assignments … I didn’t even hit $74.”
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.”
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