Kenyan academics are working gruelling 12-hour shifts writing essays for hundreds of thousands of British and American students, a MailOnline investigation reveals.
Slaving away in ‘essay factories’ in Nairobi, the highly educated experts earn as little as a dollar an hour while their millionaire bosses cream off the profits – and cheating Western teenagers take the credit.
The essays are delivered anonymously by email, on time and free from plagiarism, with higher prices charged for a 2:1 or a First. Politicians have called the companies a ‘cancer’ that is ‘undermining our universities brick by brick’.
For the first time, MailOnline gained access to the secretive firms at the centre of the £100 million industry, lifting the lid on one of the most corrosive trends in academia.
James Waitutu Karuri, centre, an essay factory entrepreneur, poses with his staff at his offices in downtown Nairobi, including his full-time chef (left)
Freelancers at a workspace in Nairobi where students and academics often go to write essays
A communal workspace in Nairbobi popular with freelance essay writers
The office block where the headquarters of Mambo Microsystems is located
At first glance, the grimy office block in downtown Nairobi seems to have little connection to the outside world.
All the young, educated workers hurrying in and out are Kenyan, as is their 36-year-old boss, James Waitutu Karuri, who rolls up each day in a different luxury car.
But this is the headquarters of Mambo Microsystems, a major player in a thriving network of companies that produce written-to-order essays for British and American students.
Kenya rules the world in this type of work
Dr Thomas Lancaster, expert in contract cheating
Kenya, which has large numbers of educated graduates but rampant unemployment, has established itself as the centre of the academic cheating universe.
Posters advertising ‘academic writing jobs’ can be seen in the streets, and the vast majority of university students work for essay factories on the side.
‘Like most people, I started my essay writing business while I was at university,’ the boss, Mr Karuri, told MailOnline at his penthouse office.
‘Over time I began to employ other people to do the work and my business snowballed from there. I expanded into different markets.
‘I remember clearly when I made my first million. I felt a great sense of achievement, like all my hard work was paying off.’
The gold panelling and private chef at Mr Karuri’s downtown premises, where he employs 15 admin staff and 80 freelance writers, underlines the money that is to be made in this shadowy industry.
In a country where 41 per cent of the population has no running water, Mr Karuri owns a fleet of luxury cars and lives in an exclusive Nairobi suburb that looks more like Beverley Hills than East Africa.
Mr Karuri poses in his office. He is thought to be worth about $6 million, a huge sum in Kenya
An exclusive suburb of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, where Mr Karuri lives a life of luxury
One of Mr Karuri’s fleet of expensive cars in the underground car park below his offices
In Mr Karuri’s neighbourhood, residences like this mansion are commonplace
Meanwhile, 41 per cent of Kenyans are impoverished, living without running water
Millions of people in the east African state live on less than two dollars a day
HOW CAN THEY GET AWAY WITH IT?
Although universities have strict policies against cheating, essay mills are not illegal in Britain and are widely advertised.
Posters and leaflets can be found on campuses and an internet search will bring up thousands of firms.
Many of these companies exploit a legal loophole, offering disclaimers saying they are to be used as a ‘study guide’ only, while simultaneously advertising ‘guaranteed grades’ and ‘plagiarism free essays’.
All a student has to do is give details of their assignment, a word count and deadline. They can even choose their grade: a 2:1 undergraduate essay from the cheaper sites costs around £30, but others can charge thousands.
One firm offered to create a 30,000-word PhD thesis for £22,416. Almost all of these companies are based abroad, with many in Kenya but others in Eastern Europe and India.
New Zealand, Ireland and Australia have all banned essay factories from advertising, reducing cheating. There are calls for Britain to do the same.
Mr Karuri blocked MailOnline from questioning his employees about their earnings and working conditions. But one of his former colleagues, who asked to remain anonymous, said that writers spent years working 12-hour shifts for paltry sums.
‘A Kenyan student starting this work might get 50 cents per page for a school essay, when the original fee might be $50,’ the source said.
‘As writers get more experienced and prove themselves, they get more difficult assignments that pay more.
‘After a few years, for technical writing at PhD level, an experienced writer could earn $2,000 per job – still a small amount of the total but very good money for Kenya.
‘At that level, writers subcontract the work, paying peanuts and keeping the lion’s share. But on average, most writers just earn about a dollar an hour.’
Mr Karuri – who calls himself ‘James Karuri Essays Kenya’ in messenger apps – claims to have discontinued the essay writing part of his business in 2017.
But it is still advertised on his website, Amexwrite.com, and his sales representatives offered the service on two occasions to a reporter. They also falsely insisted that they were based in New York rather than Nairobi.
Mr Karuri, who made his money from the essay writing industry, poses in his Nairobi office
A screengrab from Amexwrite.com, one of Mr Karuri’s websites, which offers ‘custom papers written from scratch on a wide variety of topics’ and claims to be an American company
An advertisement for essay writers in Nairobi, worded obliquely. When MailOnline telephoned, the advertisers confirmed that they were recruiting staff for an essay factory
Demand for essays is too huge for many Kenyan businessmen to ignore. Latest estimates suggest that 115,000 British students buy essays each year, with the true number believed to be far higher.
‘Everything to do with cheating is more widespread than we know,’ said Dr Thomas Lancaster, a computer scientist and expert in contract cheating. ‘From my research, Kenya rules the world in this type of work.’
Most British students give little thought to whose work they are appropriating. Even if they did, the company websites are opaque, often falsely claiming to be based in the UK or the United States.
Every student’s essay commission is filtered into an ecosystem of major writing factories, smaller independents, eBay-style websites, brokers and individuals advertising on Facebook.
It is all done online, like a computer game. When your rank goes up, better commissions are unlocked
Alex Kamau, Kenyan essay writer
The process is dominated by middlemen, each of whom take a sizable cut. In a further web of deceit, there is even a secondary market in selling access to the most lucrative essay opportunities.
Alex Kamau, 33, an IBM expert with two degrees in computer science, has been writing essays from his Nairobi home for two years. He told MailOnline that he has paid tens of thousands of dollars to buy access to better-paid commissions.
‘If you want to make big money, you need to pass academic tests and work very well for many years to improve your ranking,’ he said. ‘It is all done online, like a computer game. When your rank goes up, better commissions are unlocked.
‘The quick way is to buy a high-ranking account from a broker. But that is very expensive.’
With two children to support and unable to find a legitimate job despite his expertise, Mr Kamau was desperate.
He formed a syndicate with six friends, who used their life savings to buy a top account for $2,000. This allowed them to log on at home and cherry-pick the most profitable essays, like Masters’ dissertations and PhD theses.
‘It is very pressurised because if your work is rejected or contains plagiarism, your account is shut down,’ he said. ‘That is how the company maintains quality. But it is not easy for us.’
Due to mismanagement, Mr Kamau and his friends they missed two essay deadlines. The account was summarily closed by the online provider.
Alex Kamau, 33, a computer scientist, has been writing essays for two years
Kenyatta University, where the vast majority of students work for essay factories on the side
Undeterred, they began to save up again. In March, they managed to raise $4,000 to buy an even better ranking account. One of their group now acts as the syndicate’s manager, ensuring that all the work is delivered on time.
‘We now hope to break even in about five years,’ the father-of-two told MailOnline. ‘It is a long road but there is no other way to make money in Kenya.’
Regulation of the industry is non-existent, either in Africa or overseas. Two years ago, the Kenyan authorities vowed to crack down on essay writers and force them to pay tax. So far, however, no arrests have been made.
In March, after pressure from the British Government, PayPal announced it would block payments to essay factories in an effort to clamp down on the cheats. But some entrepreneurs have already outwitted the measure.
Cheating is undermining the academic integrity of our universities brick by brick. It’s a cancer
Back at his penthouse office in downtown Nairobi, Mr Karuri described how he launched Mambo Wallet, an alternative online payment platform that allows users to sidestep PayPal’s restrictions.
‘We are really pushing Mambo Wallet now,’ he said. ‘It offers a big opportunity to take over from PayPal in Africa, and it will mean a bright future for us.’
Lord Mike Storey, a Liberal Democrat peer, has tabled a private members’ bill to pressure the Government to make the advertising of such services illegal in Britain.
Similar legislation has been introduced in New Zealand, Ireland and Australia, he said, and this has greatly reduced cheating at universities in those countries.
Last year, he was joined by 46 university vice chancellors who wrote an open letter calling for cheating websites to be banned. But the Government has said it wants to consider other approaches first.
Lord Storey told MailOnline: ‘Cheating is undermining the academic integrity of our universities brick by brick. It’s a cancer. It’s growing and growing, and eroding the worldwide reputation of our universities.
‘We need to make advertising these services illegal. Obviously this may not stop all the Kenyan sites completely, but it will be a step in the right direction.’
A spokesman for the Department of Education said: ‘Students who use essay writing services are cheating the system, and the Education Secretary has been clear that it is simply unethical for these companies to profit from a dishonest business which exploits young people.
‘We have welcomed the steps PayPal has taken to stop facilitating payments to these companies – and we encourage other payment services to follow suit.’