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An Interview with Kencall’s Nicholas Nesbitt – Part 1

Nicholas Nesbitt, CEO, Kencall
Nicholas Nesbitt, CEO, Kencall

This week, I had the opportunity to interview Nicholas Nesbitt, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Kencall, Kenya’s first and most successful international contact center. Kencall is focussed on providing world-class Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) services for East African and Global Clients through a broad range of offerings. Here is the first part of the interview:

What is your background prior to founding Kencall?

I finished my high school education in Kenya and then moved to America and stayed there for over 20 years. I did a Masters Degree in Engineering and later did an MBA. My career there was in consulting, business development, marketing, sales, and product management. I worked in the manufacturing sector and then went into telecommunications, where I worked for over 10 years before deciding to come back to Kenya. I was right at the beginning of the Internet in America. I came to see how it could transform businesses. We were trying to create the first online catalogs where we literally scanned printed catalogs page by page and then created PDF versions of 200 or 300 pages on web sites. It was way back in those early days.

In my last job in the US, I was the head of channels, i.e. third-party sales. I was in charge of everybody who was selling on our behalf worldwide. It was during that time that I got to see a call center in India and thought that if in 2001/2, if they could do it in India, which at that time an emerging market, we could certainly do it Kenya. I could see it happening right here in Kenya.

I was in America looking for an idea to bring to Kenya. So, finally when the Government changed in 2002, I realised that was the time to do it. So I came back to Kenya with a large number of ideas and decided that I would focus on one of them. The big idea was to create a new form of employment, and a new industry in Kenya and possibly make a decent amount of money for myself, and do what I wanted to do – which was to bring lots of knowledge and transfer it to Kenya. To do this, I believed the best way to would be hands on, which is not by going to seminars, but rather by doing it, day in and day out. Basically, If you could transform the way people work, hundreds of them, if not thousands of them, you can begin to make a dramatic change in the culture that can lead to massive economic benefits. If we could do that, we would have a great outsourcing industry in Kenya and we could achieve our goals. That’s how we started.

What challenges did you face in setting up Kencall?

The first major challenge was regulatory. We weren’t allowed to do any communication over phone lines using a third party provider, we had to use Telkom Kenya and they would charge us US$ 48,000.00 per month for a 1 Megabit link. So, we had to convince the regulator to allow us to use a third party provider directly where we lowered our monthly bill to US$ 7,000.00. There we’re also no call centers in Kenya at the time. The telecommunications regulator had to invent a license for us. Then they said we would have to set-up in a the Export Processing Zones so that they could monitor our activities. So, regulatory issues were very difficult.

Another challenge we’re the technical issues because we were on a satellite link. We had to get specialized equipment to run the call center. It was very difficult to find the right equipment and the right people who could tune it. So, when we started, American clients were pissed off because of the noise, the echoes, and the internet was occasionally down, so we would lose clients.

The other challenge was legal. We signed contracts with sub-contractors in America or in England, and sometimes they didn’t pay. They made us work for months then in the last month they stop returning your calls and then they stopped paying you altogether. Then you realize you can’t pay salaries, you can’t pay your bills. So, the legal issues of having to sign contracts with people abroad, was very challenging, as well as finding the right clients. Since I didn’t have a reputation in this industry, I couldn’t rely on my own name. Kencall was not a recognized brand name then, and Kenya was not a country that was recognized in the business, as well. So what we would get were briefcase people who would come and give business to us. And the briefcase people would come to us and say, you are going to work for me and then I will pay you once I get paid. We would then ask, “How much are they going to pay you?” Then, they would say, ‘Don’t worry about how much they will pay me.’ The contract would say within seven days of receiving my money, we will pay you. How do you know when they’ll get paid?

Training was also a challenge. How do you get your employees trained to world class levels? There we’re no training institutes here, so we would import people from India, America, Canada, Britain, to come and train our people for us. Then another issue we had is where we are in our location and our building. It’s a nice building but in India and in the Philippines, their buildings look better than in Nairobi. Transportation was also an issue. You’ve to got to transport your employees home. Since there is no readily available transport to our location, you have to take people home – then, you run into security problems too. We pretty much got over all these issues – but it’s been costly for us.

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10 Comments

  1. Abdi
    August 15, 2009 at 2:08 pm — Reply

    we are in the process of setting up a call center in Kenya. Exactly these are some of the questions we had, luckily enough the situation is somewhat different with the arrival of fiber optic but still the initial hurdles are still there.

  2. August 17, 2009 at 6:49 am — Reply

    Interesting aspect about the call center is that in the future we will experience the ability to work location independent where people can work at home using their laptops.It will be interesting to see how the farmers project will work as explained by Mr Nesbitt at the Hay festival

  3. […] An Interview with Kencall’s Nicholas Nesbitt – Part 1 […]

  4. […] In the first part of the Interview with Nicholas Nesbitt, he talked about where Kencall has come from, from a vision and to realities and challenges of setting up. In the second part of the Interview, Nicholas talks about the key factors that have made Kencall a success, and what keeps them going. From his role as a leader, to having the right team, and their plans for the future: […]

  5. Lemuel Kinyanzwii
    September 17, 2009 at 4:54 pm — Reply

    i am an employee at Kencall center and add to what our CEO commented in the interview. Kencall has grown massively to provide hundreds of employment, stability and above all world class work experience. I personally am great full to the Kencall fraternity and to the founder for the creative idea.

    kencall live indefinitely

  6. imwas
    October 4, 2009 at 5:08 pm — Reply

    A man with a vision from the beginning!

  7. January 25, 2010 at 2:25 am — Reply

    amazing pioneer. this guy deserves all his awards.

  8. Samira
    September 2, 2011 at 4:08 pm — Reply

    I am inspired very much by the great achievements of Mr.Nesbitt.I wish that more Diasporas and foreign companies would invest in Kenya.Kenyans have the capabilities and enthusiasm to do business.It seems like the future is bright for Kenya and Africa in general.

  9. mathers
    January 12, 2012 at 2:45 pm — Reply

    the ideas are great but haveing worked at kencall without pay for months goes to say to pull such an act you must be really smart and have smart minds around you which is what kencall lacks,

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