Tech entrepreneur bets big on the youth of Africa

June 3, 2016
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Ramesh Awtaney / businesstoday
Ramesh Awtaney / businesstoday.in

, Ramesh Awtaney is the Founder and Chairman of one of Africa’s largest IT services in companies. Headquartered in Nairobi, iSON Group operates managed IT services and BPO services in 30 countries across Africa and the middle-east with a staff of 13000 employees.

The tech entrepreneur has over two decades of experience working for MNCs like IBM, Ericsson, Jain Networks and Escotel in executive positions before venturing into entrepreneurship. Notably, Awtaney pioneered an IBM-Bharti IT outsourcing partnership on a revenue-share arrangement that has become a case study used by Harvard Business School and discussed in over 50 boardrooms.

Awtaney speaks to Capital Business on his illustrious career, iSON’s belief in Africa and banking on the youth of the continent for a better future.

There has been a recent narrative of Africa rising. Is Africa on the rise? What challenges (and opportunities) do you see in the continent?

Africa is indeed on the rise and the continent has a strong potential to change the trade and investment landscape positively for visionary investors. It’s the second largest and most populous continent in the world (next to Asia), with the highest number of youth populace. In 2012, the median age in Africa was 19 years as compared to the world’s median age of 30 years. This represents a veritable pool of energetic and exuberant workforce waiting to be tapped.

This burgeoning talent pool can be harnessed for future growth of the individuals and the eco system they operate in. Also, with increasing urbanization, better macroeconomic policies cutting across the African nations, improved governance, an expanding better-educated workforce and growing disposable income, Africa is becoming increasingly attractive to investors.

The challenges of safety & security, law and order situations, corruption and political instability are still core issues hindering progress however; many individual countries have undergone massive positive socio-economic changes, in recent times.

Technology especially telecoms has made a big leap in Africa. What is the case for using tech to address Africa’s challenges?

Telecommunications is crucial not only for the betterment of citizens’ lives, but also to the economic growth of any country. In Africa as with other continents, it enables business growth by providing connectivity, access to global markets and supporting trade communications. It has further brought on innovations in e-business, e-payments, e-learning, e-health and e-government, propelling private consumption. With digital technology, governments could improve transparency and public service delivery, teachers and students could gain access to educational content and training via tablets and e-books, remote diagnosis and treatment could be provided to those with lack of access to a health clinic, farmers could access up-to-date weather and market information, and more people could gain access to finance via mobile and online banking. As the continent becomes more connected, social and economic growth will accelerate, transforming lives in the process.

As an employer of thousands of young people in Africa, what would you consider to be the biggest skill gap and how is ISON helping bridge this gap?

The biggest noticeable gap is that of technological know-how due to the fact that ICT is still in its nascent stage in Africa.With a lower employment rate than the world’s average, migration of Africa’s youth in search of job opportunities is straining the already stretched urban areas. Our long-term vision is to create a Digital Africa and to contribute to Africa’s economic empowerment through inclusive growth. Due to our passionate commitment to this vision, within a short span of just five years, iSON has created thousands of jobs, boosted local industry and the overall ecosystem therefore improving the quality of life. iSON Group in general and in particular, the BPO arm, with a plethora of youth, emphasizes  ‘Skill Development’ strongly and we have become synonymous with this. Each Call Centre facility we establish in the continent comes complete with a Skill Development facility where exhaustive training regime is carried out ceaselessly. One of the major contributions we are making to the development of Africa is in upskilling talent amongst others. When we, therefore recruit literate youths (high school graduate equivalent), we train them for a 6 weeks period during which they are fully paid staff of the organization i.e. we pay them as we train them. This training is a continuous methodical process which happens periodically to elevate them to next levels in their career progression plan.

BPO business has high staff mobility and while other businesses may be dissuaded from investing financial and other resources in training their staff that are gone the next day, we remain undaunted. As a matter of fact, we believe this is one of our unique practices that underscore our long term vision and commitment to inclusive growth of all stakeholders in whatever community we have footprint.

You became a senior manager at a relatively young age. What are some of the qualities that led you to these executive positions?

This involves a combination of many factors, some of which are not directly within one’s control i.e. opportunity and time. However, it’s always advisable to be expectant of such opportunities and to prepare, so that opportunity can meet preparation.

The place of hard work can never be over emphasized, and one who is desirous of success must be committed to going beyond the brief to achieve results. Working hard and smart is very important so resources are not needlessly dissipated. Passion and drive must be evident to ensure inevitable challenges become surmountable and stepping stones for greatness.

One must also be challenged to always be innovative and think outside the box. If something has been done by others in a certain way, it’s important to think of the value addition one can bring to the table to make a difference. Finally, attention to details always pays off. The difference between a good job and a great one is the amount of attention paid to the details.

As someone with vast experience in strategy and implementation, what would you say are the basic components of a good strategy?

It’s always important firstly to begin with the end in mind. This will ensure the desired result is achieved almost always the first time. It’s also advisable to obey the time-honored rule of being SMART in strategy and implementation. Simple (unless you need to re-invent the wheel), Measurable because evaluation is an essential thermometer of success, Achievable and also overarching plans need to sit side by side, Realistic and Time bound parameters are also necessary to consider in good strategy setting.

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