Trailblazing: Private Sector Solutions in Fragile Countries

An employee receives training at the Congo Call Center © Congo Call Center

Roiled by civil wars for two decades, the Democratic Republic of Congo is not a place that comes to mind when one thinks about customer service, but Huguette Bakekolo and Annie Tuluka are determined to change that.

In 2009, the two entrepreneurs opened DRC’s first independent call center, with a dozen phones and even fewer staff.  Today, Congo Call Center employs close to 400 people, generates annual revenues of $2.3 million and operates hotlines for ten clients, including telecom giants Orange and Tigo, and the national program to prevent domestic violence.  

The call center’s story was showcased at the World Bank Group’s Spring Meetings this week, in Washington, D.C. At a panel addressing private sector solutions in challenging markets, Congo Call Center shared the stage with representatives from textile firm Groupo M, which is creating thousands of jobs in Haiti; the Quisqueya Economic Binational Council, which is working toward the socioeconomic growth of the border region between Haiti and the Dominican Republic; and TCQ Power Ltd., a Middle Eastern company setting up a power plant in Sierra Leone. All companies are supported by IFC through direct investment and through the SME Ventures program

In a discussion led by Zeinab Badawi, an international broadcaster and chair of the Royal African Society, heads of the four companies told a rapt audience about challenges of operating in countries affected by conflict or large-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes and how governments, development finance institutions, and the private sector can sow seeds of economic growth.

All four speakers stressed the importance of putting in place a regulatory framework that enables the private sector to operate. Equally vital is the need for social infrastructure, like education, water, and power. Financial instruments that help companies balance risk and reward and mobilize capital are part of what IFC and other organizations of the World Bank Group can offer through their range of tools.

“Every Monday morning, there are 1,500 to 2,000 people lined up outside our gates seeking a job,” said Fernando Capellan, president and CEO of Groupo M, which operates a textile plant in CODEVI industrial park in northeast Haiti. “We believe that we can create another 200,000 jobs in the next ten years, provided that there is the security and infrastructure that will allow people to live and work in this region.” Capellan urged the World Bank Group to work with governments to develop such services.

Blazing the trail for sustainable business in the region, Groupo M has created a model town for its employees, complete with its own child care facilities and radio station. The company is now working with partners to develop four additional economic centers on the Haiti-Dominican border, where the poorest populations live.

Aside from investment, panelists agreed that the private sector can only succeed when it gives back to local communities. TCQ power, for instance, has scholarship programs to support women engineers, and is undertaking studies to ensure that its plant in Sierra Leone is developed in line with environmental and social standards.

The most tangible, yet poignant way in which the private sector can impact the local community is by creating a sense of hope in fragile countries.

Bakeloko explains, “At the Congo Call Center, we recruit fresh university graduates and train them in client service and other technical skills. These young people, who would often be unemployed, or working odd jobs, can now look forward to a true career.”

Published in April 2016