Contributed by Farzana Rasheed
There are many challenges to doing business in Liberia: there's high operating costs, there's a dilapidated infrastructure, everything needs to be imported into the country and there's of course the weather, too, which is composed of six months of torrential rain and six months of blistering heat.
But, did you know poor spelling can also affect your business? Have you ever considered you might need to actually brush up basic written and verbal skills of your staff? The international aid industry calls it capacity building. I call it the challenge of doing business in Liberia.
Hiring, nurturing and retaining a talented team of staff is a big challenge in Liberia. Years of civil conflict have created an educational and professional vacuum.
NLTC, the predecessor of NATC, trained Liberians in IT from scratch but NATC lost these technicians in the transition period. NATC was lucky enough to find an experienced technician to head the team. We have since then made efforts to hire a bigger team and have met with mixed success.
It has been almost three years since NATC was established under new management. NATC has established an excellent client base in the mining, banking and public sectors and, also expanded the supply side of the business. However, we still are constrained in terms of having a fully-fledged technical team to handle on site services and in-house diagnostics/repairs.
We recently made a concerted effort to advertise for local and international positions in the Tech Department. We received scores of CVs to fill a local position. Some of the applicants were already working, mostly with international NGOs; some were recent graduates with IT or Engineering degrees from University of Liberia; some had worked on ad hoc jobs; and, some were even from other African countries looking for an opportunity in Liberia.
In terms of qualifications and experience, well, it's really a hodge podge of online and Liberian IT school certifications, a lot of certificates from Accra, and splattering of experience from whatever the candidates could get.
The ones that look the best on paper almost always do the worst in interviews. Some have even admitted to falling asleep on the job when asked why they were doing two jobs at the same time! When asked some basic IT questions, they fail miserably.
We got close to actually offering a job to a candidate who was already working at an international NGO and even matched his current salary which means a lot since the international NGOs are paying handsome salaries. Our only precondition was to join us for a project on the weekend which would serve as a practical test. The guy ended up being a no show.
We have also hired a reasonably good technician based on someone's recommendation. All went well during the first week and, I was quite impressed with the chap's communication skills i.e. his spelling was way better than my staff's and he could really write an excellent Call Log, with the right technical language and all. But he went back on his word and before even completing a month, demanded a higher salary, that too while on site, and wouldn't have been back in a week. He did not last with us very long with this kind of an attitude and basically dismissed himself.
Trying to hire someone to fill the international position has been even more challenging since no one seems to be interested in coming to Liberia. In the rare case, the interested candidate who seems to be very promising has salary expectations which NATC cannot meet unless it increases its services fees 20-fold.
NATC now has a good but small team of technicians and is still looking for talented candidates to join our team. We have advertised the position on LinkedIn and still get some applications now and then. We are on the lookout.
Meanwhile, limitations of our staff are there and something which we constantly strive to overcome. We have to give repeated feedback on the written reports they produce and go over the essentials of concise writing. It's a constant work in progress! We also have to stress the importance of applying well-thought-out technical solutions to the problems they encounter. And of course, there's the back office support they can always rely on.
To look at it positively, it is quite impressive that despite the vacuum that exists in Liberia where even a university can't produce graduates who can spell, where the job market is extremely small, and where there are limited opportunities to get exposure to IT, ad hoc training schools and ad hoc technicians have popped up like mushrooms since 2003. A lot of these training schools cropped up in response to a lot of DDRR funding in the RR phase of the programme (I know since I was working in the UN in a former life!). So, at least something is there which produces IT technicians.
How do you harness and further develop that IT talent? It seems not only does our business have to deliver quality service to its clients but also, keep trying to nurture the talent and push our staff to its potential.
The UN and NGO sectors don't help either with their inflated salaries which simply do not match actual market wages or actual qualifications and talents. It may come as a harsh statement since the UN contributed to literally creating IT vocational schools in the immediate post-war years. But at the same time, salaries offered by the aid industry are covered by budgets i.e. the organisations and their staff know how to spend money but they do not know how to make money. And, as I have noticed, staff working in that sector are not especially bright or talented. They are only familar with systems and associated problems with their organisations but our staff experience a smorgasbord of organisations, big and small, and problems, from I can't print since I don't know how to turn on the printer to setting up remote access on a server. Banks do not even offer the kind of salaries that the aid industry does. So, go figure!
Despite these challenges, NATC is painfully aware that we need to nurture our team and continue to focus on excellent operating standards. We also want to position ourselves so that when the market starts to ask for more sophisticated solutions, we are prepared. For that we will most likely need international, ex-Liberian IT talent. We think our best bet will be to import someone from South Asia. We have a few interviews lined up and hopefully, will strike gold soon!
Meanwhile, how do you spell NATC? N! A! T! C!