By Clay Browne
Once a sleepy backwater of Central America, and known more for its beautiful beaches than the strength of its economy, English-speaking Belize is beginning to spring to life as a 21st century outsourcing destination.
Belize’s economy has long been dependent on agriculture, but tourism has grown significantly over the last couple of decades to become the largest foreign exchange earner in the country. The BPO industry in Belize is still quite young. Yet there are clear signs that private industry and public agencies are seriously examining how to create the right ecosystem to foster long term growth.
The call center industry is, not surprisingly, where the action is for Belize. The country employs an estimated 1,500 agents, mostly around Belize City and Belmopan (about 90 minutes from Belize City). Maturity of operations spans from the basic, commodity-driven service provider like Ready Call (among its clients is the notoriously hard driving TracFone) to the more feature rich and high-touch operator like Transparent (described below).
One of the biggest hurdles the country faces is its tumultuous ICT environment where the local telecom player – Belize Telemedia – has been reclaimed by the government after a bruising battle with the former chief investor, and behind the scenes financier, Lord Micheal Ashcroft . (Much has been written about Ashcroft’s complicated relationship and financial influence in Belize, including this piece in The Guardian.) Critics argue that Belize Telemedia (BTL) has behaved like a predatory monopoly player, shutting out competitors and offering little in the way of ICT innovation.
Upon arriving in office two years ago, Prime Minister Dean Barrow decided enough was enough and took action against BTL, which has resulted in the carrier being nationalized. Despite this change, true telecom service liberalization has yet to occur. Recently an agreement was reached to enable ‘rationalized Bandwidth pricing ‘ to be provided to BPO operators in Belize – substantially reducing service fees.
Belize is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Latin America, with a population of around 350,000. Around one-fifth of the population, upwards of 60,000 people, live in the capital Belize City.
Belize has a reasonably good public school system, with functional literacy estimated to be around 75 percent for the country and above 80 percent in the urban areas. Belize has never had much of an industrial base, so the work force has traditionally been focused on service industries. Belize City has developed an above-average infrastructure over the last decade or two, including reliable Internet and cell phone service throughout the area.
The IT outsourcing industry is just in its infancy in Belize, but BPO companies report that there is already a good supply of entry-level software developers available.
“We are pleased that several local investors have expressed interest in developing Data Parks…our Government is willing to offer attractive incentives to those willing to invest in these facilities” – Prime Minister Dean Barrow
Call centers are by far the largest sector of Belize’s BPO industry, with five operations of varying sizes underway and several more in the exploratory or planning stages. Ready Call opened the first call center in Belize in 2005, and there will be at least ten call centers operations in Belize by the end of 2012. The large pool of native English speaking potential employees is obviously a big plus, and the relative stability and increasingly business-friendly climate of Belize are also attracting attention.
The Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (Beltraide) is a governmental organization founded in 2000 to foster business development and encourage investment in Belize. Malcolm Sobers, a BPO/ITES & Financial Services Industry Specialist for Beltraide, is an eloquent spokesman for the organization who points out how a wide range of recent changes in Belize have made it much easier for call center operations to do business in the country.
“We have undergone a restructuring of Beltraide and have developed a specific division that is focusing on ITES (Information Technology Enabled Services). The BPO industry, along with other services, falls under that umbrella,” Prime Minister Barrow told Nearshore Americas’ Kirk Laughlin, during a recent visit to Belize.
Mr. Barrow went on to say that one of his biggest concerns is the lack of available facilities. “We have been working with many building owners that have empty space, but only some are adequate for housing large numbers of workers,” he said. “We are pleased that several local investors have expressed interest in developing Data Parks…our Government is willing to offer attractive incentives to those willing to invest in these facilities. ”
Also on the plus side, the country has recently liberalized its labor laws. Beltraide, has also launched a BPO Certification Program with support from the Ministry of Education. This program teaches Belizeans the basic technical and customer service skills they need to work in call centers. The initial 80-hour pilot training program was very well received and graduated 160 ready to work employees in just a couple of months, and the full-scale program is expected to produce a minimum of 1500 trainees in 2012. Beltraide works directly with the individual call center companies to provide them with a trained labor pool for their current and future needs.
Sobers also emphasized the financial and tax benefits to doing business in Belize. “Belize does not tax corporate profits on the national or local level, and our laws allow 100 percent repatriation of profits as well as allowing businesses to establish local bank accounts in US dollars.”
Scott Newman, CEO of Transparent BPO, is unabashedly enthusiastic about Belize as a place to do business. Transparent BPO is headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, but has all of its call center operations in Belize. Transparent BPO began with a small 30-seat call center in Belize City in 2009, moved up to a 110-seat operation in 2010 and is now doubling capacity again, with construction of a 220-seat call center underway.
Newman acknowledged that there were some significant issues to be ironed out when they first set up their operation, including a generally negative attitude about the call center industry.
“But the business climate for call centers has improved dramatically since we began,” he continues, “and Belize is a great place to do business today.” Newman credits the establishment of Beltraide as the watershed moment when both the bureaucratic barriers and the negative attitude toward the BPO industry started to break down.