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Towards “working abroad at home”

Nik Nesbitt, the founder and CEO of call-center company KenCall, focuses his talk “Not about my company, but about the company I keep.” Much of his talk is a photo tour of Africa, starting with Kilimanjaro, showing disturbing photos of the disappearing ice cap, and talking about the environmental implications for farmers on the slopes of the mountain. He shows a shot of the Pyramids and wonders why there’s so little to show for what people have done in recent centuries on the continent.

He looks at African success in sports – the strength of long-distance runners from Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea and South Africa. They get noticed by the sporting world, sponsored by Puma, Nike and Reebok, and are given the opportunity to compete globally. He talks about rally drivers, and the skills one learns driving in very dangerous countries.

He points to the diversity of people, thinking and ideas, mentioning that there are Africans that are staunch rightwingers, and other Africans who think that Nik, who is light-skinned, isn’t an African. Indeed, Nik is a fourth-generation Kenyan, the great-grandson of English engineeers who came to build railroads 120 years ago. After a great life – moving to the US, attending Harvard, working for consulting firms and later Qwest – he decided it was time to come home and create some jobs. The business he’s building is a call-center, allowing Kenyan to “work abroad from home.”

It’s been a tremendous financial challenge – Nik tells a story about having so little money after credit was cut off that he literally couldn’t check out of a hotel in Cairo. He notes that, “Nobody gets fired for moving their call center to India – they do get fired for putting their call centers in Africa.” But people are starting to understand – Tom Friedman recently met with the company and seems to acknowledge that Kenya is part of the world becoming flat.

Chris takes Nik to task for using the language of aid agencies in talking about his business. “Until you can talk about this in terms of profit, you won’t succeed.” Nik admits that he came back to Africa for bleeding-heart reasons – he’s only started to succeed as he’s learned to be a hard-nosed businessman.

Erik Osiakwan, the secretary of AfrISPA, the African ISP association, takes the stage to tell people about the price of African bandwidth. It costs 40 times as much for bandwidth in Africa as it does in North America – “Why should the poorest people be paying more?”

Eric wants to know how the $500 million Africans spend on internet communications can be spent internally. Because of the nature of networks in Africa, email from one side of Burundi to the other goes through the US; a phonecall from Tanzania to South Africa goes through London. The problems are political as well as infrastructural, Eric argues – it’s absurd that as a Ghanaian, it’s hard to get a Tanzanian visa. But these are the problems Africa needs to solve to have the sorts of cheap bandwidth to make Nik’s project possible.

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