Moving up the BPO value chain

Moving up the BPO value chain
Moving up the BPO value chain

Ramesh Awtaney heads the iSON Group, Africa's largest technology and BPO specialist with a presence in 29 countries, including India. The businessman, who is passionate about replicating the Digital India model in Africa, shares his views on the emerging trends in IT/ BPO space in India, Africa and globally, Donald Trump's impact on the industry and iSON's growth journey. What is your analysis of the Digital India programme The Digital India programme has picked up remarkable pace over the last few years. As an NRI with significant business interests in digital, telecom, and innovation, I view the Digital India initiative from two critical aspects - broadband connectivity and applications. Connectivity has improved a great extent thanks to the roll out of LTE and 4G networks. In what would be the world's largest rural broadband connectivity project using optical fibre, the Government of India is connecting 250,000 village panchayats through its high speed digital highway, Bharat Net. India's state-owned telecom company BSNL is replacing 30-year old exchanges through Next Generation Network (NGN), an IP based technology to manage all types of services like voice, data, multimedia and other packet-switched communication services. Besides such advancements on the connectivity side, the speed at which governance is adopting digital is very heartening. Today, there has been a multifold increase in the number of services that are available on demand. MyGov.in has emerged as a platform for citizen engagement in governance, through a “discuss”, “do” and “disseminate” approach. Aadhaar Card based UID is being strengthened as the backbone of all services at a trail-blazing speed, which will redefine the fundamentals of how citizens engage in the democratic process. eSign off, eVisas, Digital Locker, Digitize India platform, federal MOOCs program SWAYAM and the massive digital literacy program PMGDISHA, are among the several other such initiatives, which reaffirm the immaculate planning and execution that India is showcasing to the world. I am sure that Digital India is on its way to become a global case study that will inspire many countries. Through my latest venture, iSON Innovation, I am contributing to a similar vision for a Digital Africa, wherein I want to support and incubate innovative digital start-ups that will propel the continent towards faster growth. How do you see the IT/BPO sector evolving in India, Africa and globally Over the past more than 25 years, India has established itself as the global hub of outsourcing companies and has garnered a huge chunk of the world BPO market. However, as the industry matures, the wages of the workforce are also increasing, which means that India must move up the “value chain” towards higher-value adding Knowledge Process Outsourcing (KPO), which is more cerebral and offers a better price. This wage parity opens up new opportunities for other low-cost destinations to tap into their labour arbitrage more effectively. Africa is poised to grab a large share because of its significant advantages such as a large employable youth population, lower average age compared to India, multi-lingual support in French and Arabic beyond just English, reasonably good telecom infrastructure, time-zone advantage particularly suitable for UK and Europe, and a strong domestic demand for outsourcing. Especially Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has emerged as a strong contender for the IT/BPO sector. North African countries like Morocco and Tunisia too are witnessing a sharp increase in the wages, which opens up more opportunities for SSA in French-speaking BPO. I predict that Africa can replicate India's growth story in IT/ITeS in just 10 years. We saw this opportunity early and have been investing in new centres across Sub-Saharan Africa over the past seven years, which have helped catalyse the ecosystems for growth in these countries. Today, iSON has presence in 25 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. At a global level, emerging technologies and robotic process automation (RPA) have gained momentum, especially in the past two years. For the most part, the work that gets outsourced to remote locations is the bottom-of-the-pyramid work, and as RPA capabilities advance, those processes will be first to be shifted to RPA for minimising effort or to remove human intervention altogether. For better or worse - better for cost savings, speed and efficiency and worse for all the jobs that will be lost to RPA - this capability is slowly making its way into all industries and all types of business processes, and will redefine the jobs of the future. However, this trend also presents an opportunity for the BPO sector to move to high-end work, which would make this business more lucrative. Are there areas where India and Africa could work closer in the IT sector The IT and ITeS industry in India is very evolved. India can export this Process Intellectual Property to Africa, which will create capabilities and capacities onshore. This will be a winning proposition for Africa too, which will benefit from immense skilling and employment opportunities. Africa cannot absorb an offshore model so skill transfers is the only way to bring productivity and quality in a cost-effective manner. Through our “IP to Work” model, iSON has proved that such an onshore model can effectively facilitate skills transfer in select areas of call centres and some IT services. We have created more than 10,000 livelihoods in Africa using this model, out of which 99.5 per cent are African locals - including 90 per cent youth. This workforce is gaining exposure in working for leading African clients such as MTN, Etisalat, Orange, Airtel, Zain, Kenya Tourism Board, GT Bank and AXA Mansard, as well as global clients like IDEA, Vodafone, Alcatel-Lucent, Pepsi, GE, Toyota and Standard Chartered. This also helps Africa earn more foreign currency, which strengthens the economy. The next wave of growth in India-Africa partnership will be to usher in skill transfers in advanced aspects like analytics, big data and artificial intelligence. Over the years, once the onshore skills are created and the local market matures, Africa can also start offshoring selectively to destinations such as India. Does the Trump-led administration pose a threat to the global IT industry There is more hype than substance in this perceived threat. Industry has always followed the economics and while in the short term there would be some noise, in the medium-to-long term, businesses would compel logic to prevail and the global IT industry would refocus on its growth trajectory. As with any change, there may be a need to make some minor adjustments to strike a balance between off-shoring and on-shoring. On a personal level, what have been your highlights with iSON Group The biggest achievement for iSON has been to prove to the world that it is economically viable to bring IP to work. As Africa's governments, companies and entrepreneurs search for innovative solutions to move away from commodity-dependence, iSON has emerged as a thought-leader in harnessing the potential of ICT as the next frontier of Africa's growth. Besides creating mass employment and rapid economic growth in Africa, iSON has become the largest technology and BPO specialist in the region, with a geographic footprint across 29 countries, including India and the Middle East, and more than 12,500 employees. Today, we have partnership with over 15 leading product and software companies and more than 30 large customers across seven industry verticals. We are powering global clients through our headquarters in in Lagos, Nigeria and Nairobi, Kenya. Our unique “IP to Work” business model has helped iSON win several accolades. As a key partner in Africa's tech-revolution, iSON has inspired several industries in the continent to outsource for the first time. iSON has helped African telecom providers reduce customer service costs by 50 per cent, cut down customer care wait times drastically, and register tremendous growth in customer penetration. iSON is also helping telecom carriers to use 'customer experience' as their competitive edge by surpassing Africa's conventional service levels by far. We are also setting up state-of-the-art facilities in Category B cities of Sub-Saharan Africa such as Ilorin, Abeokuta, Ibadan and Kano in Nigeria, and in countries like Liberia, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Chad and Niger. We have invested over $20 million in Africa in the last seven years and are now investing an additional $20 million to set up four new centres which will create 4,000 more jobs and will positively impact the lives of more than 16,000 people. Ramesh Awtaney is the Founder & Chairman of the iSON Group of companies

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