A fortnight ago, this column discussed how India’s entrepreneurs will see semi-urban markets open up to them while the country also sees start-ups emerge from smaller towns. But going by what one start-up in IT services has managed over the years in Africa, diversity of markets for the Indian entrepreneur can go beyond India.

Opinions are varied about why India’s top IT service firms need to look at remaining relevant in years to come. But for an Indian entrepreneur with deep experience in leading off-shoring and outsourcing engagements for a company like IBM, starting-up in the African continent may prove a challenging but satisfying change of scene.

Achieving breadth

ISON Group’s Founder and Chairman Ramesh Awtaney is clear there’s a difference between off-shoring – giving the job to an entity that can get it done cheaper – and outsourcing, which he explains is giving the job to someone who can do it better.

“In the 1990s, work was brought to where the intellectual capital was – India. But we turned that model on its head in Africa. Here we’ve had to build skills since we began in 2010, but we’ve got the people for it. Nearly 99 per cent of ISON’s skillsets are local African,” Awtaney explains.

An early deal with Airtel proved advantageous for ISON. Awtaney says it meant practically copying Airtel’s expansion footprint in the continent.

Today multiple platinum partnerships with the likes of Avaya, IBM, Cisco and Juniper Networks are helping ISON serve clients in BFSI, retail, e-commerce and aviation sectors. Its range of services includes BPO, ITeS and infrastructure management support, cyber security solutions, customer experience management and systems integration.

Rapid ramp-up

In some ways, campaigns like “Startup India, Standup India” don’t gain momentum unless some of it’s already built by people who take all kinds of leaps of faith. And Africa is no homogenous market. It’s a mix of democracies, dictatorships, Anglo- and Franco-phone countries, with unions having a say in some places. Yet, Awtaney harbours unabashedly large dreams.

“Already we’ve grown to 10,000 people here in five years, and if I’m not mistaken, the largest IT service companies in India took way longer to achieve that sort of a size.

“We want to get to 40,000 people by 2017, and mind you, that’s 40,000 billable resources. We’ll get there through a mix of organic and inorganic growth,” reveals Awtaney. The ISON Group prefers to be seen as an enablement partner. Awtaney says, “In one stroke, a large company in the US or a small boutique operation in India can enter the Africa market, even up to 25 countries in the region, by partnering with us.”