Outsourcing in Africa

In the past 40 years, advanced computers and communications have transformed one part of the world after another - first, the US and Europe, then Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, and most recently, India, China, and Eastern Europe. Is Africa next?

Despite civil wars, malnutrition, and the anguish of the AIDS epidemic, something remarkable is happening in black Africa: the stealthy rise of a high-technology sector. If not quite representing an African "Silicon Valley," these shoots of high-tech industry nonetheless can and must be nurtured if Africa is to thrive.

Consider what is happening on several floors of a single high-rise office building in Accra, Ghana's capital. There some 1,500 Africans process American health-insurance claims - working around the clock, in three shifts. The Africans speak English, type at least 50 words a minute on a computer, take data from paper claim forms supplied by US health insurers via satellite in electronic form, put it into new digital forms, and ship them back to the US. So connected are these Africans that their forms can be reviewed - as they fill them in - by an American supervisor 8,000 miles away.

Ghana is best known for producing cocoa and gold, but today Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), a Texas company that runs the outsourcing operation, is the country's largest private employer. African "key punchers" earn $4 to $5 a day - four times the legal minimum wage - and receive health insurance, meals, and subsidized transport. A small number of African engineers and professionals earn much more, and receive periodic training in advanced technologies.