10 November 2000

Top Story

The arrival of Africa’s first VOIP call centre will have an impact that may send ripples around the continent. Firstly it provides a tangible proof that Africa has the potential to service international markets. The call centre offers a service to North American clients who pay in hard currency. Secondly it must have some collateral effect on the debate over internet-enabled phone calls. VOIP (telephone calls via the internet) is banned in most major African internet markets, notably South Africa. ISP owners in Ghana have been arrested for using it. Can this stance be maintained if countries start offering the service to overseas customers? In the article below Jacques Rostenne describes how the call centre was set up and the problems it has encountered.

Togo is the host of one of the most innovative and exciting e-businesses in Africa. With the help of Perwit International from Canada and financial assistance from the World Bank, C.A.F.E. Informatique of Lomé, Togo, has successfully set up what is believed to be the first VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) call center in Africa which is totally dedicated to serving North American clients on a full time basis. This means getting steady revenues in hard currency and incurring costs locally!

The success of the Lomé call center is based on three key factors: first, solving several technical problems related to the quality of the net mediated communication. Second, taking full advantage of the fact that human resources represent 75 to 80% of the total operating costs of a typical call center and that Lomé's labor rate are definitely competitive with those in North America. Third, rather than attempting to market its services directly, the Lome call center relies on Perwit International to intermediate with prospective clients.

As the VOIP technology develops further, it appears likely that there will be room for many more call centers based in developing countries. Right now, there are more than one million individuals working in call centers in North America and perhaps half that many in Europe. Some forecasts estimate that given the explosive growth of this industry sector and the drive by companies to outsource to the most cost effective suppliers, developing countries based call centers may employ more than 500,000 operators in five to six years. Given its labor costs advantages, Africa and African entrepreneurs could pick up a sizable chunk of this pie if they act decisively.

Some of the requirements for establishing a VOIP call center are as follows:

   In most African countries, you must first secure a license to operate an international call center.

   Once you have the license, you will need the connectivity ­ getting bandwidth from your friendly local ISP is unlikely to be a satisfactory solution. To minimize problems you should have either a fibre optic connection or at least your own direct connection to the Internet backbone.

   You will also need the computers and the rest of the equipment.

   Human resources are a key issue, you will need operators who are somewhat computer literate and who can type without mistakes at a reasonable speed.

   Most importantly, you will need operators who are able to speak English clearly and without an accent considered Œforeign¹ by North Americans.

   Command of additional languages (Spanish, French) is a big asset. The ideal candidate is an existing ISP or an institution such as a university which has its own connectivity, plenty of computers and access to a qualified and eager pool of operators.

The author, Jacques Rostenne is President of Perwit International