While learning English is quickly becoming de rigeueur in many parts of Latin America, it is the finer intonations of French that many Haitians are seeking to master as the country slowly attempts to become a services center for French-speaking markets. With funds from the United States and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the Haitian government is building, in its northern province bordering Dominican Republic, a huge business park with enough space for global outsourcers to set up call centers.
If everything goes according to plan, there will be more than a dozen international call centers in the Caribbean country by the end of 2015. “We don’t have any global call center in Haiti today, but the government is quickly putting infrastructure in place to attract foreign outsourcers,” said Anupam Govil, Partner with Avasant, a global management consulting firm advising the IDB on the ways to boost Haiti’s potential as a nearshore outsourcing hub. The IDB and the U.S. government have reportedly provided over $220 million in grants to the impoverished nation since 2011.
The business park alone is expected to provide 2000 call center jobs in just over two years, said Govil, insisting that he is confident the Haitian government can manage the steps necessary to produce services jobs. Business parks have proved to be a major tool in attracting call center operators in many violence-prone nations in Latin America, says Govil.
Haiti’s French Backlinks
In Haiti, the aim is to seek investment from outsourcing clients in France, and French-speaking regions including Canada’s Quebec (the francophone province), Belgium and Switzerland, says Govil.
“Haiti has a huge potential to act as a call center service provider to French-speaking countries. I think the Haitian government must focus on French-speaking markets in Canada,” said Peter Ryan, a Montreal, Canada-based research analyst for Ovum.
But Ryan warns that Haiti has many obstacles to overcome on its way to become a call center hub. He went on to say “corruption and financial mismanagement is dogging Haiti’s growth. The Canadian government has recently frozen aids to Haiti.” (Ryan’s assessment of Haiti as an outsourcing hub was published in Nearshore Americas a little over a year ago, following the celebrated “Invest in Haiti Forum” – featuring Bill Clinton and other luminaries.)
The biggest problem, according to Ryan, is security. The U.S. State Department has recently urged Americans visiting Haiti to be cautious, saying there has been an increase in incidents of murder, robbery and kidnappings. Govil says he is also concerned about growing rate of criminal incidents but says the Haitian government is aware of the problem and trying to bring things under control.
Violence and Insecurity
Haiti’s key advantage is that it it one of a very few French-speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere, and its labor costs are relatively low. Moreover, analysts say, there is no French-speaking country nearby to compete with Haiti. The biggest call center in today’s Haiti is run by the country’s telecom giant Digicel. “More than 500 agents are working over there,” Govil said.
Philippe Koutchenkov, an M.Sc student in Universite de Montreal, says there is no doubt that Haiti has great potential to serve the outsourcing needs of French-speaking regions. “Anyone who went to school in Haiti after 1982 (following the education reform) knows at least two languages –– Creole and French. And the schools rely heavily on support from the United States, Canada and France, so the curriculum is very similar to the clients of the outsourcing firms,” Koutchenkov said.
Setting up outsourcing centers in Haiti is a bold move, but it could work. In the past, Canadian companies such as Gillan (textiles) outsourced some of their production activities to Haiti, he pointed out.
“The product (T-shirts and other apparel found here in Canada) were of the same quality, so it is clear that the Haitian workforce is able to accomplish the given tasks,” he added.
Koutchenkov, however, warns that Haiti must not rely heavily on the Canadian province. “Quebec is a small market and it is one of the most taxed jurisdictions in North America,” he said.
In Haiti, outsourcers can easily hire qualified people at a competitive rate and they can also retain their employees for long. But, Koutchenkov paused and said “finding them might not be very easy.”