September 7, 2016 / 5:11 PM / 3 years ago

AFRICA BUSINESS - Move over, Manila? Congo call centre gives glimpse of what might be

* Economy heavily dependent on mining sector

* Cell phone subscribers treble between 2009-14

* Centre is rare employment opportunity for young Congolese

* African call centres have mixed track record

By Aaron Ross

KINSHASA, Sept 7 (Reuters) - In a renovated warehouse in Kinshasa, dozens of young Congolese wearing headsets sit in rows of identical orange cubicles, fielding phone calls in six different languages.

Congo’s first call centre gives a glimpse of how the central African country could follow a path already taken by the Philippines and India, which have long hosted low-cost offshore operations for U.S. and British companies.

Serving companies, aid agencies and even churches, the Congo Call Center (CCC) handles queries from 8,500 people each day on everything from problems with phone bills to spiritual anxiety and domestic abuse or sexual violence.

CCC isn’t new - it was founded by two Congolese women with European telecoms experience in 2005 - and so far it has had only a handful of overseas clients, usually on short-term contracts.

Nevertheless, its business is growing fast and Democratic Republic of Congo - which remains far poorer and less developed than the Asian countries it wants to emulate - needs a services sector to cushion itself against a slump in the mining and oil revenues that usually account for 95 percent of export earnings.

As a Francophone former Belgian colony in the same time zone as Western Europe, Congo could be well-placed to become a telecoms hub, including for tele-services in French and other languages.

“In terms of language, we manage well,” co-founder Huguette Samu said at CCC’s new headquarters, its walls plastered with inspirational quotes by Winston Churchill, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela.

“Whether it’s in English or French, clients don’t really notice the accent over the phone,” she told Reuters. “Europeans find that Congolese have a quite acceptable accent.”

The company also works in Congo’s four national languages - Lingala, Swahili, Tshiluba and Kikongo - and employs 350 agents, almost all in their 20s and 30s. It hopes to expand to as many as 600 within three years.

But alongside the commodity slump, which led to a 22 percent cut in this year’s budget, political uncertainty has further deterred investors in Congo as President Joseph Kabila looks likely to defy opposition demands that he step down at the end of his term in December.

Against this gloomy backdrop, an expanding telecoms sector, - fuelled by a young population and annual economic growth of around 8 percent in recent years - offers hope.

Overall, the services sector’s contribution to GDP growth increased from 28 percent in 2014 to over 40 percent last year.

In April, French telecoms giant Orange paid $160 million for Millicom’s Congo subsidiary Tigo DRC, noting that Congo is the largest mobile phone market in west and central Africa after Nigeria.

Long-term, CCC’s managing director Faly Tamuna Lukwaka is optimistic. “The Congolese market has 70-80 million people,” he said. “We’re pioneers but we think it’s a sector that is developing rapidly.”

CALLING IN

CCC has ridden Congo’s infant tech wave, with revenues jumping from $400,000 in 2009, when it landed its first major corporate client, to $2.7 million last year. Foreign clients have included Altai Consulting in France and Access Bank Ghana .

The average monthly salary for an agent is $300 - not a lot but an attractive proposition to most young Congolese. According to 2012 African Development Bank research, of 9,000 graduates from Congolese universities each year, fewer than 100 find work in the formal sector.

Most growth is from the domestic market, spurred by a tripling of mobile phone users since 2009 to 53.5 percent of the population in 2014, according to the World Bank.

Domestic clients include two of the largest telecom providers, banks, the local operations of U.N. agencies such as the World Food Programme, churches and a government hotline for rape victims.

LONELY LIGHT

However, CCC is a rare success story. While some big Congolese firms have their own call centres, no one else has set up a stand-alone operation.

CCC executives say this is partly a lack of familiarity with the concept but it also points to broader weaknesses in Congo’s business climate and previous government failures to diversify away from resources.

Congo ranks 184 out of 189 countries on a World Bank index that measures the ease of doing business. It has a byzantine tax regime, high domestic borrowing costs and a decrepit power grid that makes private generators a costly necessity.

More broadly, African countries have struggled to live up to hype casting them as “the next India”.

KenCall, Kenya’s leading outsourcing company, has suffered repeated losses since it was created in 2005 despite a well-educated, English-speaking labour force and efforts by the government to sell the sector abroad.

South Africa and Mauritius have fared better, though South Africa’s call centres have had trouble attracting foreign clients, according to research by Chris Benner of the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research.

The Congo finance ministry wants increased investment in agriculture, infrastructure and energy. “The recent crisis ... recalls the necessity of working to diversify the economy in order to reduce its dependence on the extractive sector,” the ministry said in a response to Reuters questions. (Additional reporting by Neha D. Wadekar in Nairobi; editing by David Stamp)

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