CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt has set its sights on grabbing a share of the multi-billion dollar Indian-dominated call centre market and is looking to an unexpected corner for a helping hand — India.
As it makes its pitch to the world, touting a multilingual workforce over India’s English-speakers, a time zone shared with Europe and proximity to the US, Egypt is marketing its edge over India to India itself.
The government has sent a high-level delegation to India to convince the IT behemoth to sub-outsource its outsourcing to Egypt.
Several cooperation agreements and memoranda of understanding were signed between the two countries, and Indian industry giants such as Wipro and Satyam have signed agreements to set up support centres in Egypt.
According to the Yankee Group, a US-based technology research and consulting firm in IT outsourcing, Egypt is 15 to 20 years behind India, which has boomed to dominate 60 percent of the overall offshore market.
But the south Asian giant struggles to maintain an adequate supply of skilled workers, and handing some of the pie to Egypt could be mutually beneficial, Egypt says.
The Information Technology Industry Development Agency (ITIDA) was set up by the government of technocrat Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif in 2004 to guide Egypt’s burgeoning IT industry and propel it onto the world stage.
The government hopes to entice major IT players to set up their call centres, accounting and payroll management — known as business process outsourcing (BPO) — in Egypt, pumping resources into an industry it hopes will elevate the national economy.
“This sector will lead to a renaissance in Egypt,” ITIDA CEO Mohamed Omran told AFP.
So will Egypt become the new India?
“Absolutely not,” said Omran. “We cannot compete with India, we don’t want to compete with India, we want to cooperate with India.”
“It’s what makes the most sense,” said Mai Farouk, an independent IT analyst, currently researching Egypt’s outsourcing industry.
“It would help the industry grow and elevate its standard,” said Farouk, but she fears that the lack of a formal analysis of Egypt’s IT experience so far could send the country down the wrong path.
“There has been no thorough analysis of the Egyptian experience,” she told AFP. “In Egypt, if a type of business is successful, everyone jumps into it. It is an individual and business trend here.
“We need to study and learn from other’s mistakes,” she said.
One problem facing India is the country’s poorly planned roads making it difficult for staff to reach some of the outsourcing centres, something Egypt has picked up on.
Far from the clutter of Cairo, the government has allocated a vast expanse of desert to the highly marketed “Smart Village,” a gated compound built with state of the art technological services.
The lush techno park already houses industry giants Microsoft, Vodafone, Ericsson and Alcatel among others.
At the high-tech Vodafone Egypt offices, employees have already tasted some of that renaissance mentioned by Omran.
Staff have access to their own restaurant, cafe and gym.
Sherif Bakir, head of retail at Vodafone Egypt, says the Smart Village has been very enticing for investors as well as new recruits.
“Young graduates in Egypt are attracted by so many factors in the IT industry: the prospects of a career, the salaries (which are four times that of an average starting salary) and the opportunity to work somewhere like Smart Village with all its benefits,” he said.
“And in Egypt, being a call centre agent is not seen like being a telephone operator. It’s not a dead end job, it’s seen as a stepping stone to a career in the IT industry.”
But critics say Egypt’s outsourcing “boom” won’t develop into more than a boutique industry, with the much-touted multilingual and skilled human resource pool amounting to a tiny percentage of Egypt’s 76 million population.
A high level of illiteracy, dire poverty and a very large rural population mean that most won’t touch the benefits of a booming IT industry.
Omran, of ITIDA, says the figures speak for themselves.
“A tiny percentage of a huge population is a lot of people,” he said. “We’re talking millions. And IT is like blood, it gets into the veins of all industries and sectors.”
He is eager to showcase his agency’s pride and joy: Xceed, one of the largest contact centres in North Africa and the IT arm of the government-owned Telecom Egypt.
At the 16,000-square-metre (170,000-square-foot) space equipped with “cutting edge fault tolerant IT infrastructure,” 1,200 agents offer customer and technical support to General Motors, Microsoft and Oracle among others, in eight languages including English, French, German and Hebrew.
According to Xceed, in 2005, nearly 70 percent of total outsourced Egyptian workstations were supporting local customers.
“However, by 2010 this will be nearly completely reversed with 65 percent of Egyptian outsourced workstations servicing foreign end-users.”
The ministry of communication and information technology is trying to attract foreign companies with a special focus on call centres, by offering five to 10 year tax exemptions, branding Egypt as a safe oasis in a troubled region.
But there is enormous political uncertainty in the country as to who will succeed 79-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for over a quarter of a century.