x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Hello, this is Kenya, can I help you?

Outsourcing is in its infancy in this part of Africa but one company has taken giant steps to tackle the dominant Indians head on.

Frederick Mobe has worked at Kencall, Kenya's largest call centre, for eight months. He is one of 300 employees working at any given time.
Frederick Mobe has worked at Kencall, Kenya's largest call centre, for eight months. He is one of 300 employees working at any given time.

NAIROBI // Inside a cavernous warehouse in a bustling industrial area of Kenya's capital, 250 young professionals sit at rows of computer terminals answering phone calls at Kencall, Kenya's leading outsourcing company. Large clocks on the wall show the time in New York, Los Angeles, London and Nairobi. Boniface Gathu, a customer service provider wearing a headset, fields calls from customers of Orange Kenya, a branch of the telecommunications giant.

"Welcome to Orange, my mane is Boniface. How can I assist you?" he says. The customer, who identified himself as Isaac from the central Kenyan town of Molo, wanted to know how to change the ringtone on his mobile phone. Mr Gathu explains the steps. "Thanks, that was very helpful," Isaac says at the end of the three-minute call. At the same time, Maureen Wanjira, a quality analyst, listened in on some of her team members' calls and offered advice to improve their phone voice.

"This is just customer service," she said. "A lot of times you get an irate customer on the phone. You have to listen to them. Empathise with them. Get into their shoes and see how you can help." With its bustling call centre, Kencall is at the fore of east Africa's outsourcing industry, a market long dominated by India. Though the financial crisis has hit the industry hard, executives hope a new fibre-optic cable linking Kenya to the world through broadband will make outsourcing here more competitive.

India has 60 per cent of the offshore outsourcing market with revenues of about US$10 billion (Dh367bn) and nearly a million employees, according to the Indian chamber of commerce. Kenya has only a fraction of the market, but strong government co-operation through tax incentives, subsidies and marketing has encouraged growth in the industry. "Africa's outsourcing industry is very young but continues to grow slowly and gradually begins to attract global attention," Selorm Adadevoh, an outsourcing consultant, wrote after last year's east Africa outsourcing conference in Nairobi.

"It is obvious that in Kenya, a lot has been done from a government perspective to boost the outsourcing industry." Launched in 2005, Kencall is the largest of a handful of Kenyan companies that provide outsourcing services to local and international clients. Services include answering customer phone calls and inputting data. The company's founders, Nick and Eric Nesbitt, are Kenyan brothers with business and technological experience.

When they started, no one in Kenya had heard of business outsourcing. "It was a real roller coaster for us in the first year and a half," says Eric Nesbitt, the chief operations officer. "It was a lot of work to make it happen. People had to give us contracts based just on what we told them." Kencall soon landed big clients such as Earthlink, the US internet company, and Cell Fish Media, the US mobile phone application company. While international companies still look to India for most of their outsourcing needs, Kenyan firms think they can offer quality service at competitive prices.

"We will never compete with India in terms of volume, but we do compete in quality," Mr Nesbitt said. "We recruit for voice and can provide a better quality of English." Mr Nesbitt also says the company can provide services in other languages, including Arabic. The global financial crisis has meant that many of Kencall's international clients have scaled back their outsourcing needs. Orange has become the company's major client.

But the outsourcing industry here is poised to receive a boost from a connection to a fibre-optic cable that recently reached Kenya and will connect the country to the global broadband network. Kenya currently uses slow and costly satellite connections, which are fine for phone calls, but are cumbersome when processing data. Kencall had a hard time attracting clients because it used a satellite connection, Mr Nesbitt says.

"A manager would be ready to go with us, but the tech guys would put the brakes on it," he says. "That excuse is now off the table." The company plans to double in size this year, expanding into another 800-square metre warehouse next to the present call centre. Other plans include a helpline for farmers hit hard by a drought. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the help line will allow farmers in drought stricken regions to call Kencall and connect to agricultural specialists, who will answer technical questions.

Nick Nesbitt, Kencall's chief executive, was invited to present the helpline idea at last month's World Economic Forum and received a positive reception. "The idea took off like wildfire. This has never been done before," Eric Nesbitt says. "At heart, we're an agricultural nation. Everyone on the call centre floor has a farmer in the family." Like all companies during the economic downturn, Kencall is finding creative ways to stay afloat.

"We have a wide scope of vision," Mr Nesbitt says. "Since we started growing, we have never looked back." mbrown@thenational.ae