Jamaica’s rich history as a hub of commerce and trade goes back centuries, and its image as a paradise for holidaymakers is well known worldwide. In the course of the past decade, however, the country has made strides in diversifying its economy and chasing growth by focusing on the ICT and business process outsourcing (BPO) industries. Faced with high public debt, 13.2% unemployment in 2015 and a GDP growth rate of 1.9%, one of the slowest in the developing world, Jamaica is relying on these strategic sectors to deliver growth and job creation.
“It has been a challenge of low growth or no growth,” says Anthony Hylton, Jamaica’s minister of industry, investment and commerce, describing the past few decades. The country has run a fiscal deficit almost every year since its independence in 1962 and currently has a 140% debt-to-GDP ratio. In an attempt to reverse this, the government has embarked on a wide-ranging set of reforms in exchange for substantial support packages from the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.
“We had to engage with macro-economic reforms, fiscal and tax incentives, and business environment reforms, and the numbers demonstrate that we have successfully met these requirements,” says Mr Hylton.
Indeed, measures to improve the private sector environment have enhanced confidence, lifting Jamaica to 58th place in the World Bank’s Doing Business Survey for 2015, up 27 places from 2014. However, continued economic recovery requires further work. “We have to be much better integrated into the globalised economy and FDI is a critical component of that,” says Mr Hylton. “One of the first things we have to do is look at the competitive advantages of the Jamaican economy and how we can leverage our assets as opportunities for FDI.”
A new phenomenon
Of those assets, one that is making noticeable bounds is Jamaica’s budding BPO sector. While call centres and accounting services may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of Jamaica, a range of multinational outsourcers have come to the island do business, and it is now hard at work to raise its profile in the industry.
“The BPO sector is a new phenomenon of the past 10 years,” says Diane Edwards, president of Jampro, Jamaica’s national trade and investment promotion agency. “In 2009 the sector had about 11,000 employees and now the number is just under 18,000, so in the past five years it has grown by 63%.”
The industry now generates about $300m a year and hosts some 45 outsourcing companies, the majority of which are international. “Several factors have led to that – we have a young workforce, a strong tertiary education system, six universities and English as our official language,” says Ms Edwards. The government recently implemented a mandate to double the size of the industry to 32,000 employees by 2020. “That is our goal,” she says, “and I think we’re on track.”
Working their assets
“The question is not ‘why Jamaica?’ It is ‘why not Jamaica?’,” says Karl Graham, chief executive and founder of Jamaica-based contact centre Fullgram Solutions. “Our strongest asset is our people, and our hospitality background gives us a natural affinity for services,” he says.
One challenge, Mr Graham observes, is getting Jamaica’s name out there and breaking the stereotype of it being little more than a beach destination. “We want to let the world know we are very good at BPO. Agencies such as Jampro have been instrumental in getting the name out there,” he says. Fullgram started in Kingston in 2010 with 44 employees and now has more than 500, providing contact centre services for seven local and international clients, three of which are Fortune 500 companies.
Massachusetts-based digital health services company Medullan first came to Jamaica in 2014, attracted by a number of advantages that the country offered. “Jamaica is in the US east coast time zone, it is geographically proximate to the US and has a well-educated population with many cultural similarities,” says Gordon Webster, Medullan's programme director. “A key aspect of our work is that openness – it is just a good match culturally.”
Jampro’s Ms Edwards concurs, describing Jamaicans as “Afro-Saxons”; a heritage of US and British cultural affinity goes a long way in building strong customer relations, she says. “You also find a lot of the voice work is coming to Jamaica because of our accent – that picture of Jamaican warmth, confidence and customer service has made a tremendous difference,” adds Claude Duncan, Jampro’s vice-president. “There are many businesses here whose customer satisfaction scores have topped all their other areas worldwide.”
“I think Jamaica has an absolutely fantastic labour pool,” says Leroy Reid, country director at Xerox subsidiary Jamaica ACS, an IT outsourcer and Jamaica’s largest private employer, with 7000 staff. “Our labour pool is about 1.3 million, and 60% of people are in the services sector. And our client testimonials say Jamaica’s talent pool compares favourably with that of anywhere in the world with respect to intellectual capacity, productivity and ability to meet evolving client needs.”
Mr Reid and numerous other BPO players point to the country’s training and education infrastructure, through which entities such as the Heart Trust/NTA, Jamaica's national training agency, and the Ministry of Education design and fund programmes to ensure young Jamaicans are equipped with vital industry skills across a range of sectors. “In the 16 years that Xerox has been here, we have never missed a hiring target,” says Mr Reid.
A team effort
Companies cite Jamaica’s business environment as a further attraction. “The government has been very proactive in providing excellent telecoms infrastructure,” says Gloria Henry, vice-president of Montego Bay Free Zone (MBFZ). “It also provides a range of incentives to help attract FDI in BPO and service work – tax-free benefits to investors, exception from customs duties, VAT and so on.”
“A remaining challenge is infrastructure development,” she adds. “However, the government has made BPO a priority sector in the national growth agenda and has earmarked funds through the Development Bank of Jamaica to facilitate the construction of purpose-designed buildings, making us more marketable in the BPO sector.” By 2020, Ms Henry expects MBFZ – which currently hosts 18 companies, three of which are Jamaican – to have at least 10,000 employees. It currently occupies 55,750 square metres of space, but there is room for at least 35,000 square metres of expansion, which is already attracting interest from investors, she says.
The free zone recently built a BPO incubator with help from the Inter-American Development Bank. “It’s a 200-seat fully equipped facility supporting BPO growth and development. It covers everything – all the investor has to do is provide the bodies,” says Ms Henry. “It has so far been very successful in helping new investors come to Jamaica and test the environment.”
The scope of the clients serviced by Jamaica’s multinational BPO community speaks for itself – companies such as Amazon, AT&T and Netflix represent global standards of customer service. And the fact that most of the international BPO offices are headed by Jamaicans is a testament to their work performance. “We’re in this for the long haul,” says Ms Edwards at Jampro. “We see the whole outsourcing category expanding and there is an opportunity to interest more local entrepreneurs and create more local companies that can really secure the industry.”
“Everyone knows Jamaica for tourism,” says Jampro’s Mr Duncan. “But it is the stepping up of marketing and outreach internationally that is absolutely critical to our success in this space. So, while we tick all the boxes in terms of ICT infrastructure, human capital, talent and cost, we have to break out of being unknown.”
Jamaica’s biggest challenge will be establishing its name as a global outsourcing destination – and it seems the groundwork is well under way. Now it is time to tell its story.