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Merchants brings contact centre to Soweto community

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 05 Oct 2022

Business process outsourcing (BPO) company Merchants yesterday officially launched its new contact centre in Jabulani, Soweto.

Thecontact centre, according to Merchants, is the result of a public-private partnership and year-long collaboration with Amandla Social Enterprises, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) and the Gauteng Department of Economic Development.

Speaking at the launch event yesterday, Merchants MD Zain Patel said the development isn’t about having a contact centre in a township, it’s about social impact and change that businesses can participate in.

“When I think about what Jabulani and this contact centre means for us, it’s massively important because it’s a catalyst for change; not only for those that are working there, the community itself – they are learning capabilities for the community and to expand digital capabilities for everybody.

“This is a first for Merchants and we hope that it’s not going to be the last.”

Located behind the Jabulani Mall, the contact centre is a start in the journey to creating an ecosystem whereby people don’t have to travel long distances to work, Patel noted.

The recruitment process for the centre was facilitated through Merchants’ MyCalling platform, which matches job-seekers to suitable roles through behavioural profiling rather than traditional factors like educational background.

The contact centre accommodates 75 agents, with 21 other agents working from home. In total, it employs 96 agents, with the average age between 20 and 25 years old.

Merchants agents provide back- and front-office customer care and support to Makro clients from the facility.

Patel stated: “Soweto is capable of delivering services as good as any big metropolis and hopefully this will become what we want it to be in different geographies – parts of Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal as well.

“Taking jobs to communities is part of building the success of South Africa and addressing the unemployment challenges that we face as a country.”

Employment catalyst

Compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, SA’s joblessness has escalated at alarming rates, and youth remain vulnerable in the labour market, with an unemployment rate higher than the national average.

The official unemployment rate was 33.9% in the second quarter of 2022, according to Stats SA, with the youth unemployment rate at 46.5%. Soweto, which accounts for 40% of Johannesburg’s population, suffers from 53% unemployment.

Given the rise in unemployment, SA’s BPO sector – also known as the global business services (GBS) sector – has been tipped as a catalyst in the fight against joblessness, particularly among local youth.

In addition, South Africa’s BPO market is projected to reach $3.6 billion by 2027, growing at 13.2% during this period.

Dr Sydwell Shikweni, transformation director at Merchants, points out the BPO sector has contributed 40 000 jobs to the South African economy since 2018.

“The BPO industry is an important industry for job creation in South Africa, as we can hire impact workers who have no previous experience or tertiary education, and upskill them for success, equipping them with important skills like problem-solving, empathy and interpersonal communication.

“We are both proud and excited to be adding this new centre to our network, as we continue to work hard on building a strong talent pipeline for the country.”

Shikweni said Merchants decided on a township strategy as one of the focus areas for its business, adding the contact centre in Soweto is a first for the BPO company.

“We decided to do this because it is a social imperative…we’re looking at our employees: where do they come from, where do they reside, etc. If we consider where our employees are coming from, the majority are coming from the townships.

“We considered that we needed to make a meaningful contribution to the economic development of our townships, where people are coming from. For example, if an employee stays in Soweto and works in Randburg, they have to take two or three taxis to get to work. If we localise our operations…we bring the office closer to home and it makes such a difference in terms of the time they commute to work.”

Merchants isn’t the first BPO specialist to provide contact centre solutions from a township. Last year, Sigma launched its first contact centre in the Cape Flats area in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town.

Social impact collaboration

Florian Zech, founder and joint-MD of Amandla Social Enterprises, expressed excitement at seeing this centre become operational.

“Everything we do at Amandla is geared toward making access to opportunity more equitable for young people. This centre will do exactly that – and it’s made possible because dedicated partners have decided to put their talent and resources behind an ambitious vision for thriving township economies.”

Carey Lucas-Jooste, head of innovation at the DBSA, added: “The launch of the centre is a great example of how partnerships and collaboration can unlock sustainable development solutions that provide spaces within underserved communities for economic inclusion.

“The BPO sector is a key focus area for the DLABS programme nationally, and this collaboration with Amandla and Merchants, as well as the support of Harambee and PPGI, contribute to the shift of the needle towards shared prosperity.”

The Gauteng Provincial Government believes the expansion of the GBS sector into townships will create decentralised employment opportunities and foster an inclusive economy.

In addition, job-seekers will receive practical on-the-job training and gain the soft skills needed to navigate the modern workplace. The contact centres will open opportunities to work with international companies and receive work remotely, according to Gauteng MEC Parks Tau.

“Gauteng has already rolled out GBS infrastructure projects. Additional opportunities have been identified in other townships to attract more domestic and international GBS operators. We are on a right path in implementing pragmatic programmes and projects that seek to deliver shared prosperity for the citizens and communities of the Gauteng City Region.”

Shikweni concludes: “We believe this project serves as a real opportunity for other South African corporates to take part in bringing about this change and to jointly invest in the township economy and the communities where their goods and services are used.

“As a BPO provider, we are well placed to assist others to be part of the solution to job creation for our youth in South Africa.”