Nicholas Nesbitt, CEO of KenCall Africa's Primier Call Center, Calling the World

Nicholas Nesbitt, the proprietor and CEO of Kencall Kenya has run one of the most successful call centres in Kenya today and was one of the winners of the inaugural Pioneers of Properity awards organized by Legatum company last year. Protus Onyango interviewed him and brings us his story.

(Please note, this story was published in the December - March 2009 edition of Business Woman Magazine. You can purchase a copy of this magazine at your local bookstore!)

Business Woman: When did KenCall Start?

Nicholas Nesbitt: KenCall started in late 2004 just before Christmas. We spent two years working on the idea before we raised the capital and took another year to build the facilities before going into live production.

BW: What motivated you to start the business?

NN: I went to the US for university and had always been looking for the right reason to come back home once I graduated, but always had yet another reason to stay on. I became very intrigued by the call centre industry while running a large division of an American telecommunications company called Qwest Communications. I saw how successful India was in creating massive employment and building a whole new sector of the economy. I realized that this call centre/BPO industry was something that I could successfully bring to Kenya given all of the raw human capital available and my experience in telecommunications and corporate America.

So I gave up my life in America and moved back home to Kenya to start the business.

BW: Where did you get the seed money?

NN: We raised the capital to start the business several rounds. I chipped in a lot of my own money to start through the exploratory stages and then relied heavily on friends and family for the rest once we saw the viability of the company. We also were fortunate that NIC Bank believed in our initial vision and lent some of our initial capital and then Diamond Trust Bank came in later to help us as we grew out of the incubation stage and became a more solid business.

BW: How did the market respond to the idea of oursourcing?

NN: Out initial target markets were the USA and the UK. Potential clients in those countries had never even contemplated that Kenya could become an international call centre destination. In fact, some of the prospects even laughed in my face at my initial proposal saying that giraffes and bones were what came to mind when they thought about Kenya. They certainly never though about Kenya as a serious business destination where they could rely on world-class service.

The potential clients in East Africa were very wary of what we offered and many hadn't thought about outsourcing their customer service departments, if they even had one. At the beginning, it was very slow going and difficult to convince international and local clients that we could serve them in Kenya as well as any outsourcer could service them elsewhere.

BW: What role do you think outsourcing plays in the business world today?

NN: Outsourcing has been around since time immemorial. People have always relied on specialists to do certain tasks on their behalf. This particular kind of outsourcing in which one company outsources to another one across the world using IT to connect the companies recognize that specialists can provide more value to their sales and service delivery models than they can. Outsourcers are becoming increasingly sophisticated doing more than the traditional customer service and telemarketing work and venturing into process redesign, research, analysis and even R&D. The advanced providers are beginning to replicate entire American offices in cheaper locations such as India, for less money, quicker turn around times and with higher quality.

BW: What challenges did you face at the initial stages of your business? What about now?

NN: Our initial challenges were vast and often overwhelming. We needed regulatory approval from the CCK and licenses from a host of ministries. We needed to learn the call centre industry from scratch and understand why clients outsourced their work and at what prices. We had to learn how to transmit voice and data traffic over satellite dishes with no technical hitches. We had to recruit, train and develop a large number of staff that was unfamiliar with almost everything we were teaching them. It was all a very big challenge.

Today, our issues revolve around managing our rapid growth. We have solved all the basic technical issues, but now worry about where we will find the talent to manage the numerous opportunities coming our way. We have to find more efficient methods to manage over 1,000 people and all of their personal performance details. We worry about how to grow with new clients as they expect us to open offices in other countries with them and we are trying to evolve our service offerings into higher value services without abandoning our core business so early in our history.

BW: What measures do you think the Kenyan government can take to make the business environment conducive?

NN: The Kenyan government can improve the image of Kenya as a place to do business locally and internationally and aggressively promote Kenya as a professional business destination. It can start off by improving the roads and the whole transport system. It can stop all "poverty tourism" and begin to shed the image of Kenya as a beggar state that can't help itself. It can make it easier for expatriates to work in Kenya and transfer their skills and it can also allow dual citizenship, especially for the Diaspora.

We need to give economic incentives to Kenyans living abroad to come back and work in the country. We need to get away from the idea of "scarcity" and think in terms of "abundance." There is so much money and opportunity out there in the world, yet many of the government business policies focus on restrictions, as demonstrated by all of the licenses, permits, red tape and official interference, as if there is not enough opportunity for everyone.

BW: How many employees does Kencall have?

NN: Today, KenCall has close to 700 employees and is growing every month. We expect to double out size in the next 12 to 15 months.

BW: What do you do to motivate your employees?

NN: We motivate our employees in financial and non financial ways. We give them short-term incentives to drive hourly or daily performance. These incentives could range from free giveaways for movies to dinner vouchers to cash. We give everyone monthly targets against which they earn commissions and bonuses based on their performances. As a long-term incentive, we have also given a few dozens of our employees shares in the company in appreciation for their contribution to KenCall's growth.

Regarding non-financial incentives, we have a very non-collegiate atmosphere at KenCall and try to promote teamwork, fun and camaraderie within a framework of intense performance expectations.

BW: You won an award in the Pioneer of Prosperity awards sponsored by Legatum and OTF Group last year (2007). How has this affected the way you run your business?

NN: Entering the Legatum competition forced us to take a good look at the way we do business. The judges scrutinized us intensely and therefore we had to ensure that everything we did every day was documented and replicable. The process "set the bar" for our own Standard Operating Procedures. We made the procedures an integral part of our business and have lived up to the objectives and expectations of the award ever since.

BW: What are your professional qualifications?

NN: I received two Bachelor of Engineering degrees from Dartmouth college in the USA, a Masters in engineering from Dartmouth and an MBA from Stanford University in California. I have also taken many professional training courses and attended many seminars in the USA, the UK and France.

BW: Any other Comments?

NN: I went to America to study and stayed for many years to find my fortune. The irony of my situation is that, despite all of the advice of everyone who was trying to leave Kenya because there were no opportunities, I came back to Kenya to actually find or make my fortune.

My message to all of the diaspora is that Kenya needs people who have seen the rest of the world to come back and help to build the nation. There is so much opportunity and such a great need for people to turn all those opportunities into reality. We need the help immediately.

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