Business Process Outsourcing is getting more important, as operators say it provides a way out of Nigeria's troubled economy and massive unemployment.
Consequently, the outsourcing academy, in collaboration with some foreign partners, plan to set up certification centres in some Nigerian universities and polytechnics where individuals with a minimum of an Ordinary National Diploma can enrol and get certified in call centre, customer service and other out-sourced business processes.
Some of the higher institutions targeted for the pilot project include the Universities of Lagos, Nsukka and Abuja.
Experts have warned that the population advantage possessed by Nigeria can rapidly become a burden unless steps are taken to adopt ways of creating employment, and outsourcing is the key.
Process outsourcing is popular in countries like India, and was the topic of discourse at the just concluded, Customer Service & Contact Centre West Africa Conference in Lagos, organised by Aitec Africa, which served as a rendezvous for all outsourcing operators across the industries.
Keeping students engaged
The Chief Executive Officer, Business Process Outsourcing Academy of Nigeria, Obiora Madu, told NEXT on Sunday that certification training would start in January at the centre instead of the higher institutions. "We are not going to disorganise the students' programmes when we enter the campuses, but we want to just plug into their curricula, especially in the final year. They only need to come into the centre for just two hours every day for a period of three months."
"Candidates need to have keyboard skills with a minimum of 240 words per minute, and we would also train them on that.
We are looking at a minimum of 2,000 certified people in Nigeria before the end of 2010. We would be reaching out to government agencies, and are now looking for local partners in order to realise this revolution."
He said the tuition and certification would cost $500. "Elsewhere in the world, governments are supporting their BPO industries, even the World Bank voted $50 million for BPO in Nigeria.
We need to build capacity in order to make our youth employable. When companies know we have the right talents for BPO, the industry will experience a tremendous growth," he added.
Hope for the unemployed
For Sanjeeva Shukla, the Executive Vice-President of BPO Certification Institute (BCI), USA; "the choice of young people for employment in the BPO industry is informed by the fact that they are the ones who are looking for jobs; they are the ones who have the energy and can be trained very quickly to assume the roles of call centre agents."
He told NEXT that the raw talent in India and elsewhere can be found in Nigeria, but that what is missing is the requisite training and certification. "If you want to compete better, you need to train and certify people - that is the bottom line.
If you reach out to universities and colleges, and embed the BPO training programme in their curricula, it becomes easier for the industry to hire these agents.
"In India, there are BPO certification programmes added to schools' curricula. We (BCI) are working across 2,800 colleges and universities in the country, and by next year we would have about ten or fifteen thousand people getting trained and certified. As a matter of fact, there are about 60,000 BCI certified people working across industries in Asia."
Mr. Shukla said individuals would be trained in Customer Service, Finance & Accounting, Back Office Transactions and Technical Support, through the BPO Academy Nigeria. "In this way, we are preparing agents not only for the call centres but for other forms of BPO that actually fetch more money."
Ifeanyi Obiora-Okafo, Customer Service Director at Starcomms Plc. agrees that outsourcing is an opportunity for Nigeria to solve the problem of unemployment that is prevalent today. "There are people here in the country who have the competence and can deliver. If we do it right, I see a future when Nigeria becomes the next destination after India."
The managing director, Customer Contact Solutions, Ikenna Odike, also told NEXT that working as a call centre agent is no ‘rocket science.' "The important thing is getting good quality education. With First School Leaving Certificate and WAEC, individuals should be able to cope with call centre jobs provided they can speak English language well."
On the issue of attrition (the voluntary and involuntary terminations and employee retirements that result in a reduction of the employer's workforce), which he identified as a major problem facing the call centres, he said it can be reduced by recruiting students or those without university degrees. "Worldwide, it is said that the life span of a call centre agent is about 3-4 years. So if you employ an agent who is still a student, chances are that he/she would stay with you longer than the one with a degree.
But the unemployment situation in the country today has made it that even graduates are very willing to take up call centre jobs.
"In a country like South Africa, most of their call centre agents are not college graduates. You hardly find graduates even at managerial positions. Individuals with Matric (which is equal to our own WAEC) can go and enrol in call centre schools, get certified and with that can get jobs. It does not necessarily have to be something that must be channelled through the university system. It should be a separate institute that certifies people regardless of whether they have graduated from the university or not. So, those who want to pay their way through university can get a certification, get employed, and in that way achieve their goals," Mr. Odike added.
The situation today
NEXT gathered that the Federal Government has ignored outsourcing despite the grant offered by the World Bank, and the successes recorded in India and other countries. Mr. Odike said the World Bank is working with Outsourcing Development Initiative of Nigeria (ODIN) to see ways of growing the outsourcing industry in Nigeria. "Honestly speaking, the Nigerian government is not doing much in that area, we are not seeing any meaningful support from them (government).
There should be a conscious effort by the government to acknowledge this significant source of income, as India today is making billions of dollars from BPO alone."
Mr. Obiora-Okafo argues, "I would want to excuse the government since they have a lot of problems facing them today, which might explain why they have not paid attention to BPO."
However, stakeholders in the BPO industry are clamouring for the establishment of an all encompassing association, which would serve as a platform for setting standards and promoting the industry. Mr. Madu notes that there is the need to lay down standards and policies that would encourage BPO, and practitioners who want to offer outsourcing services must meet certain required standards. "A lot of banks and telecom companies build their own contact centres instead of outsourcing it, from the fear that their sensitive information and data will not be protected."
Mr. Obiora-Okafo agrees, "there is every need to standardise the practice; there is every need to create confidence in the public place about the industry. I have had this discussion with a couple of companies and everyone is saying they choose to build their own contact centre in order to protect their data."