iSON Group is one of Africa’s largest IT and ITeS companies, with a strong presence in 25 African countries, and a staff team of over 10,000 in the continent. iSON caters to a host of clients in sectors such as Telecoms, Banking and Financial Services and Insurance (BFSI), Government, Retail, Oil & Gas, and Aviation. iSON is split into three operating arms: iSON Technologies, which concentrates on IT solutions; iSON BPO which provides call centre and process outsourcing services; and the newly-launched iSON Innovation and Investments, which is an initiative for driving consumer internet business in Africa.
Ramesh Awtaney is the Founder and Chairman of the company, and has maintained a strict vision of the company since its inception: “Fifteen years ago, the words ‘outsourcing’ and ‘offshoring’ were used like synonyms,” he explains. “Whenever a US based company was sending work to India, the Philippines, or Bangladesh, they used to call it ‘outsourcing’, whereas the reality was that they were offshoring the work. Off shoring is mainly about labor arbitrage while outsourcing is about ‘let me give the job to somebody who can do it better, faster, and cheaper than me’. We do not use the two words as synonyms. iSON does outsourcing, not offshoring.
“Africa is a developing continent with tremendous growth potentials, and availability of educated youths who lack relevant abilities and technological knowhow. We have used skills found in India, which is very mature in the IT and ITeS services industry, and applied this knowledge base to Africa to achieve optimal advantage. My motto is ‘let us not bring work to intellectual property, but take intellectual property to work’.”
Awtaney and his team are forming a unique and attractive business mix, and as such, the company has provided 10,000 jobs in Africa of which 99.5 percent are handled by locals, thus building an entire gamut of skills within the short space of five years.
“What you have to remember is that Sub Saharan Africa is not one country but 46. What we have done is created a 17-country delivery model, each fully equipped with a skill development center. We hire mostly fresh graduates who then undergo a company-sponsored skill development programme for six weeks, and upon successful completion, they are offered jobs in our call centers.”
iSON began in Nigeria, consciously deciding on the most populous African country but avoiding its larger cities. “We chose to do this because these cities are more marginalized in terms of employment and in a bid to be more socially responsible, we decided to take business to the smaller cities,” Awtaney says.
“We employ over 4,000 people in Nigeria, and less than 100 of them are in Lagos. We have a high turnover of call centre agents because it is a strenuous job, and many people are able to manage for only a short duration. However, having 10,000 people in this role at any time suggests that there is a demand for employment in this business. The agents that choose to leave are trained and better equipped for another job in other services industries.”
Many company leaders would baulk at the concept of training their staff for future jobs, but not Awtaney, who is actually proud of this contribution to the African economy: “We are probably the largest services company which is creating employment and skills for those people and for society. We are very passionate about this and feel that we make a difference by changing the lives of people now and for posterity.”
In addition to the focus on local employment, iSON is passionate about gender diversity, maintaining a ratio of 46 women in every 100 employed by the company, which even by global standards is exceptional.
iSON employs information technology graduates and postgraduates, as the skillset required above call centre level is more complex. These graduates are trained in Big Data, Analytics, Call Centre Technology, and mobile applications that enable a high level of efficiency in the operations of the company’s blue chip clientele.
For Awtaney, Information Technology is about utilising a platform to create partnerships. iSON boasts of some impressively large clients – MTN, Airtel, Etisalat, Millicom, GT Bank, Nakumatt, Fast Jet, Aga Khan Hospitals, Kenya Tourism Board, Ministry of Finance- Kenya, Crown Beverages Uganda etc. iSON enjoys premium partnership privileges with A list companies such as Oracle, Avaya, IBM, Cisco etc. Owing to the company’s expertise, client and partner support, iSON expects that its staff numbers will grow exponentially by 2020.
“It took India’s largest IT company 18 years to get to 10,000 and over the next five years they grew from 10,000 to 100,000. We have hired 10,000+ in less than five years and believe we are poised to hit a 100,000 by 2020,” Awtaney says. “We’ve set a precedence and the market is confident about the company, so everybody wants to come and talk to us about doing their work efficiently and cost-effectively.”
Innovation and Investments
The company has also created a platform called iSON Innovation and Investments, which is enabling entrepreneurship in Africa. iSON provides local entrepreneurs with capital, but more importantly enables them by sharing a deep understanding of each local market’s nuances – ranging from regulation, local laws, and currency management, to local logistics.
Another important aspect of this is mentorship and guidance; young entrepreneurs have an opportunity to interact frequently with Awtaney and his experienced management team, which is able to provide insights on scaling and managing sustainable growth in different markets across Africa. iSON Innovation has already made 2 investments in Africa: one of them is a leading taxi aggregation company called Mondo Ride, which is now live in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, with expansion plans to launch in 15 additional cities in Africa over the next six months. The second investment is in a mobile digital recharge platform called Oliza, which is expected to launch services this month.
“The company operating system is an enablement platform,” says Awtaney. “Start-ups and large companies alike want to utilise our know-how; they want to build their Africa strategy on the back of our success and our presence. I truly want to monetise the Innovations and Investments platform for use of other companies to assist everyone’s presence in Africa. For example, one company came to us asking if we could bring them to Africa – it was live in Kenya within 45 days, and would go live in ten other countries in six months.”
iSON follows a strictly onshore market – “for Africa, in Africa” as Awtaney says – and Africa is 90 percent of the company’s revenue: “For most other large companies in Africa, it is 1 or 2 percent. We are focussed and committed to Africa. We do not have the kind of overheads a US company or even an Indian company would have, ensuring that we can concentrate on the business and the continent. These are a few things that set us apart, and we have got to the scale where there is nobody in the market even a fourth of our size. Once one gets to a particular level, the scale and the processes that have been built rigorously enable delivery of the highest standard of service in the most cost-efficient manner.”