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Kenya takes on India in bid to be call center capital

From David McKenzie for CNN
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Outsourcing to Africa
  • CEO Nicholas Nesbitt started Kenya's first call center in 2005
  • KenCall is now a multi-million dollar company with international clients
  • Nesbitt cites Kenyans' work ethic as one reason for the company's success

CNN's Marketplace Africa offers viewers a unique window into African business on and off the continent. This week the show takes an inside look at Kenya's first call center, a growing business that is challenging Asia's long-held dominance of the international outsourcing industry.

Watch the show on Wednesdays 1845, Fridays 0045, Saturdays 0715, Sundays 0615 (all times GMT).

(CNN) -- A trailblazing Kenyan call center is taking on India and the Philippines, trying to persuade international businesses to outsource their customer service to Nairobi.

When Nicholas Nesbitt started his outsourcing business in 2005, people found it hard to take the idea of an African call center seriously.

"When I first pitched Kenya, some people literally laughed in my face," Nesbitt, CEO of the Nairobi-based KenCall outsourcing call center, told CNN.

"When they thought of Kenya they thought of beaches, giraffes, bones," he said. "They didn't think of serious business."

Five years later and nobody's laughing. KenCall is Kenya's biggest outsourcing company, and Africa is taking a larger slice out of the multi-billion dollar international outsourcing pie than ever before.

After working as a senior executive at a telecommunications company and living in the United States for 20 years, Kenyan-born Nesbitt says it was the growth of the outsourcing industry in India that got him thinking about starting a similar business in Africa.

"It kind of got the competitive juices going," he said.

If they can do it in India ... we can do the same in Kenya.
--Nicholas Nesbitt, CEO KenCall
  • Kenya
  • Outsourcing
  • Africa

"If they can do it in India -- certainly with our accents, the hard work ethic, the number of unemployed and under-employed college graduates -- we can do the same in Kenya."

But potential clients were initially wary of a call center located in Africa, rather than well-established outsourcing locations in Asia.

"Mentally, for somebody to outsource to Kenya when you have India or you have the Philippines, [they] really have to take a risk, to stick their neck out," said Nesbitt.

In its early days KenCall had to contend with a tough Kenyan regulatory environment and astronomical overhead costs stemming from the country's lack of fiber-optic infrastructure.

Without fiber-optic lines, KenCall was forced to rely on satellite phone calls, spending tens of thousands of dollars on monthly phone bills, which nearly put the young company out of business.

"There were many times in the life of KenCall when I have been very worried, and the best part of my day was at night because that would mean we had lasted another day," said Nesbitt.

The completion of a fiber-optic network in East Africa in 2009 slashed the company's costs and brought much-needed international credibility.

Today, KenCall is a $6-million business that has clients in the United States, the United Kingdom and Asia.

Harvard Business School has even developed a case study on KenCall's success.

Part of the reason for this success, according to KenCall saleswoman Florence Mathange, is the more Anglo-friendly accent of African call center employees. On the phone to a potential customer in England, Mathange sounds more like a neighbor than someone calling from thousands of miles away.

"If someone is [speaking] from England, then building a rapport with the customer is quite easy," Mathange told CNN.

"They feel more at home, and you have credibility at home, so it is quite easy speak to someone who believes you are from the same place as they are."

But while the accent helps, Nesbitt believes the success of KenCall has more to do with the abilities and attitude of Kenyans in general.

He said, "What I saw in the Kenyan people was a real desire to succeed, and I could see beyond what people might have already thought as stereotypes."

Nick Thompson contributed to this article