Creating a snowball effect
Interview with Ms Annie Samuna Tuluka, managing director, and Mr Fely Samuna, general manager, of Congo Call Center. One of its shareholders is the African Rivers Fund, in which BIO is an investor.
Annie Samuna Tuluka: "In 1990, I graduated from the Institut Lucien Cooremans in Brussels as one of the three best students of my year. The university provided us with guidance to apply at certain companies - I was ranked second. However, when I went to present myself in person and they saw the colour of my skin, all of a sudden, the function had already been taken. I went back home, bought a one-way ticket to Kinshasa and told my future husband that if he loved me, he should follow me. He joined me four years later."
Fely Samuna: “I told myself I would go there to get married and then go back to Belgium. But when I saw the possibilities and the challenges in the DRC, I decided to stay. Besides, I wasn’t going to convince my wife to go back."
It has not been not an easy ride, but it has been a great journey.
Fely Samuna, general manager Congo Call Center
Congo Call Center is a company that provides customer service for companies and individuals through its contact centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The company specialises in delivering telecom and cloud services, offering fixed and mobile services, internet connection, and other services such as texts, VoIP and cloud storage.
The Samunas tried several projects and learned from their failures. The initiative of the couple to put in place a customer service for local companies took shape in 2005. Congo Call Center SARL cautiously started its activities in 2006, with a call centre of 12 employees. After several years, they finally landed their first big client in 2009, the telephone operator Tigo, ensuring their growth.
After Orange acquired Tigo in 2016, Congo Call Center took charge of the two call centres and a complete outsourcing. It was important to find a site that could welcome this new configuration and allow them to comply with Orange RDC’s standards. They looked for financing at Rawbank, a commercial bank, but the conditions and the amount of the loan were unacceptable.
They then went to XSML, an impact investor. After 12 months of negotiations and discussions, they came to an agreement. Thanks to XSML, the number of employees increased from 50 to 350 and their turnover from USD 47,000 to about USD 200,000 a month.
Today, the company has about fifty customers, mostly international organisations. It has obtained a solid experience in managing green lines. These lines are open to victims of criminal activities, and involve directing callers to medical, psychological and legal service providers.
Annie Tuluka: “Because of our experience with green lines, we were tasked to manage the governmental line in case of epidemics, natural disasters, etc. During the covid pandemic, we managed the covid line for the entire country, together with UNICEF.
It was a real challenge, considering the limited time available to set everything up and train the recruited staff. The platform was set up in fifteen days and the phone lines were open to all provinces. We started with ten employees and eventually reached fifty to answer the stream of incoming calls. We also put in place a medical cell on the platform to take care of callers with serious symptoms.”
Fely Samuna: “Congo is eighty times bigger than Belgium, but a thousand times less equipped. For example, there are villages in the province closest to Kinshasa that are still 600 km away, and it takes fourteen hours on the road to get there. Telecom allows us to shorten the distance, providing these remote villages with access to information, assistance, advice, etc.”
Hiring and training young people
Annie Tuluka: “Today, we have about 350 employees. While, initially, we mainly had to go look for them in universities, today, they come to us. We pay them a salary of about USD 300, which is higher than the average salary paid in Kinshasa. We are a real niche for supporting young people and creating jobs for them. This allows them to pay for their education, to become responsible, and progressively get autonomous.
In general, young people find it difficult to find their first job because they lack experience. Thanks to Congo Call Center, they have the opportunity for a professional experience of two years where they pass through a basic customer service training and acquire job discipline and punctuality, which is essential in the sector. A job in a call centre is very demanding and asks for precision, the performance indicators need to be respected. Courtesy, politeness, a smile and discipline are key to succeed in this job because revenues are generated through productivity.
While in the beginning, they hate the required discipline, after a while, they realise that all these tools are necessary in their future careers and they are happy with the experience . When they leave to find a job elsewhere, they’re different people.
You can only work in a call centre for two to three years. That’s why we created an incubator called Ingenious City to support our employees and help them become entrepreneurs. We train them and help them find financing. We have a programme with Orange Corners - an initiative of the Dutch embassy - which finances the incubation of fifty emerging enterprises a year.”
Ms Tuluka gives the example of Makala Bio, a project of a previous employee of the Congo Call Center, Ray Mawa. Makala Bio transforms organic waste into ecological coal which is sold in four shops in the city and counts the US embassy amongst its customers. Lukapharma is another example, an app providing information on pharmacies, helping you find out their location and business hours. Finally, she mentions Pascal Kanik, who created Schoolap, a service offering access to more than 21,000 educational resources based on the national programme of several countries.
Fely Samuna: “We helped Pascal participate in Seedstars, a global competition for start-ups that takes place in Switzerland. Pascal won the prize of best educational project and received EUR 50,000 and additional support. We then helped him find an investor who contributed a further USD 500,000. As business angel, we invested USD 20,000 and made a profit of USD 10,000 on an activity that lasted two years. We reinvested the USD 30,000 in other young people, that’s how we’re creating a snowball effect.”
Fely Samuna and Annie Tuluka have also created a coworking space of about 5,000 square metres in Kinshasa for some sixty people, offering them adequate surroundings and basic services to develop their enterprise. To guide them, they have founded the Kinshasa International Business Angels Club (KIBA), in 2014, the first of its kind in Kinshasa.
Ms Annie Tuluka is the managing director of Congo Call Center and Mr Fely Samuna, her husband, is its general manager.
Congo Call Center has received financing from the African Rivers Fund, a private equity fund focussing on SMEs in Central Africa, in which BIO is an investor. ARFis managed by XSML.
African Rivers Fund
Equity € 4,118,275.00 (2016)Sub-Saharan Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda
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