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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 May, 2003, 05:21 GMT 06:21 UK
Ghana enters telesales era

By Briony Hale
BBC News Online business reporter, Accra, Ghana

Telesales person
The call centre is an experiment
West Africa boasts its first ever call centre in Ghana, set up to sell mobile phones to people in the US.

West Africa's only English-speaking call centre has the hushed atmosphere of a scientific experiment rather than the expected hubbub of telephone salesmen at work.

But then this is an experiment. In an upstairs room of an internet incubator firm in Ghana's capital Accra, the pioneering call centre has just completed its first week of operation.

Four sales staff are watched over proudly by one of the firm's founders, Karim Morsli, who explains what is happening in an awed whisper.

The sales agent dials up over the internet, and tries to sell a mobile phone plan for German mobile operator T-Mobile to a random selection of people in the US who have recently arrived home from work.

"As far as we know we're the first people in Ghana to do this," Mr Morsli says.

He adds that it has taken more than a year to explain to the Communications Ministry what voice-over-internet technology is all about.

Changing legal history

It is the internet that has made the outsourcing of call centres possible, cutting out the cost and vagaries of international phone calls and enabling the cheap labour of developing countries to be exploited.

While it is legal for US citizens to call Ghana over the internet, it is illegal for people or internet cafes to offer that same service in reverse.

Karim Morsli
I guess I've got a different perception of risk to many other people
Karim Morsli
Ghana, like many other African countries, is afraid of the revenue it will lose if the state telecoms firm gives up its monopoly on international phone calls.

We had to keep repeating that if the government forced us to work through Ghana Telecom then we were going to India instead, Mr Morsli explains.

The threat of losing business to India worked, and Rising Data was eventually granted its licence to use voice-over-internet technology via satellite.

A risky profile

That long battle with bureaucracy and the high cost of connectivity via satellite makes the business somewhat of a risky venture for the pioneers.

Foreign investors couldn't be tempted to put up any money, and the start-up capital came primarily from friends and family.

"I guess I've got a different perception of risk to many other people," says Mr Morsli, who describes himself and his Malian partner as "children of the World Bank".

They met at school in Washington and their parents' careers meant that they have travelled extensively.

"In Africa I saw lots of talent and not enough opportunities to make use of it all," he says.

Window of opportunity

It may be difficult for many Westerners to get excited about the fact that Africa is jumping on the bandwagon of the dreaded telemarketing that disturbs many a peaceful evening.

A view of the call centre
The centre hopes to expand from 20 to 5,000 in five years
But from an African perspective, call centres could give the continent the chance to use some of its untapped potential and allow it to muscle its way into the global outsourcing business.

"There's no reason why Africa can't catch up with the rest of the world," Mr Morsli says, saying that the big cats won't come to town until the smaller guys take the risks and test the territory.

But more cautious observers are sceptical as to whether Africa will really attract large-scale businesses and fear that the window of opportunity has already been lost.

Fearful firms

"There's been a cloud of confusion and uncertainty over call centres," says Gregg Pascal Zachary, a research fellow for Ghana at the International Computer Science Institute.

"The government needs to reassure the private sector that there are clear rules. The last thing a big American firm wants to do is break the law in a developing country," he says.

But, even at this early stage, Mr Morsli is confident that his model works and can be duplicated throughout Africa.

He plans to grow his 20-strong employees into a workforce of 5,000 telemarketers within the next five years.

"If we fail it will be because of external factors, and that will give investors a very bad message about Africa," he says.

In the next article in this series, BBC News Online examines how technology is enabling Africa to participate in the global textiles industry. "Powering the global village" will appear on Tuesday 27 May.

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