Monday, 29 December 2014

Reflection: 2014 the year they wanted to make Liberia famous for ebola

by Farzana Rasheed

After a combination of requests, gentle reminders and frustrated yelling, I managed to get all of NATC staff to write an end-of-year blog post. I think this year's posts were a little more interesting and demonstrated what kind of challenges our team faces when delivering IT services. 

Now it's my turn to reflect upon this past year. 

2014 - the year the international media wanted Liberia to be defined by a new scourge: ebola 

The ebola epidemic made 2014 an especially challenging year for everyone in Liberia but we are happy to report that despite dwindling of operations and even suspension of maintenance contracts, curfew, and almost complete aviatic quarantine of Liberia, we are going to end the year on a good note. 

I was away for the better part of the year, partly because of the enormous hysteria created by the media and the suspension of the main flying routes between Monrovia and the rest of the world. I went off for a break back to Pakistan to visit my parents whom I had not seen in two years in late February, hoping to also skip and hop to India, so my daughter Kavita could see her Dad's family. It turned out I need notarised, original sponsorship certificates from people in India. That took time to organise and have mailed to me. I extended my trip for a month in gleeful anticipation. 

Meanwhile, I had another awful cramp attack which I had never got properly diagnosed for a year in Monrovia but suspected it was probably some kind of stones. I got myself checked in Islamabad and indeed, I had gall bladder stones and they needed to be removed surgically. By the time I had had surgery, recovered and was ready to head back, the ebola epidemic hit Monrovia. I was advised by everyone to stay away for the time being. 

Later, most airlines operating to and from Liberia were also suspended and I literally became stuck unless I wanted dish out a few more thousand dollars for a new route via Belgium or Morocco (SN Brussels and Royal Air Maroc were the only two operating airlines). It was quite a frustrating time since my holiday now became an extended sojourn putting me in a limbo.

A clear, rational part of me knew, from gleaning the news, facts and first hand accounts, that there was no real danger to me unless I directly came into contact with a very very sick person. Moreover, unfortunately, people who were actually affected were living in poorer communities and/or were health workers.  This was more or less what I thought and felt frustrated at having to stay away while I wanted to be around since business was more or less usual for NATC. But to make things interesting, it was Haresh who had had a near ebola scare; you will need to read his post to find out more about that. 

Thankfully, since I've been back in Liberia in early November and as everyone will agree, life is quite normal in Monrovia. 

It was extremely good to be back and see my staff and almost everyone else in good spirits. 

Kicking back as CEO and taking a longer view of things

It's been an interesting year for me where I have really kicked back and taken a break from the day to day affairs of NATC. I have kept abreast of things of course by reading my e-mails regularly, asking for certain reports, and bugging Haresh regularly, but it has been a year of letting go. It gave me a lot of perspective in terms of my role at NATC as CEO, of what we have achieved as a company since I took over in 2009, and how things will probably look like in the near few years.

Haresh has done a good job of keeping things going and bagging some good projects and supply orders (we not only provide IT services but also participate in public bids and RFQs for a range of goods and equipments). My insistence on certain procedures has been adhered to and things were kept in a relatively organised fashion in my absence.

What have I learned?

IT is about problem solving. If you approach problems in a methodological and scientific manner, you will eventually solve it.

If you want to survive (forget about thriving) as a business, you need to take a "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" approach to corruption. You're lucky if you manage to get clean business but otherwise be prepared to spend money on commissions. It stinks, it feels rotten but it is how things are done here regardless of public or private sectors, regardless of whether or not it is an international organisation.

What is important though is still try to maintain your professional dignity by at least trying to deliver the best goddamn service and product you can.

Still need an accountant and migrate our manual accounting to software

But to my absolute annoyance, the admin/finance manager we hired shortly before my departure - one Osman Fofana, a very promising young man - disappeared in my absence. Now we really don't have anyone properly paying attention to filing, accounts, paperwork, payments, banking reconciliation, etc. This work is now done in an ad hoc manner and, moreover, we still haven't switched over to an accounting software! It is kind of embarrassing since we are an IT company ourselves. 

Instead now, I have two office assistants, neither of them computer literate! 

Our Liberian team of IT Technicians is doing a fantastic job

On a more positive and aha! note, I realised that we are doing fine with the techies we have and my earlier efforts to find a so-called expatriate engineer were unnecessary. Our team is working hard, solving problems and performing good quality work. They are even improving their communication skills and, now we have a sort of consolidated a team after a long time of trial and error, hiring, and firing. Haresh and I are extremely confident of Jonathan's abilities and appreciate his hardworking attitude. Daniel has now also matured to a senior technician's position. What's more, our janitor - office assistant, Emmanuel, has joined the technical team as a trainee and, seems to be picking up the ropes steadily. What more could one want? A hardworking local team as it should be. 

Moreover, which of our clients were ever going to let us mark up the price of our services in case we ever did get an expatriate Head of IT Services?!! If things go well, I would rather focus on sending Jonathan abroad for training. 

Of course, we would love to still find someone who knows the latest technologies and help us fill gaps and also offer newer products and advanced systems to our clients. Perhaps we need to look in Nigeria. But for now, we are very content with our team.

At the same time though we need to the team to consolidate skills and experience. Right now, Jonathan is over extended and we and our clients depend on him the most.

What is driving growth of IT services in Liberia?

The company's growth for the past few years has been random and followed no real patterns. What was initially a promising trend and in fact the foundation of the mother company (NLTC)'s vision - namely, maintenance contracts have not been in that much of a demand. Some of our clients have drastically reduced operations and suspended maintenance contracts this year because of the ebola epidemic. But even before, the demand for outsourcing maintenance and servicing of IT equipments and IT support has been hit and miss. Some of our contracts seemed to be going on beautifully but change of management and/or apparent reduction in budget (especially in the NGO sector) resulted in canceled contracts. Or in some cases, a promising one off job did not result in a permanent contract as it would seem it would. All in all, spending on IT has been rather conservative. 

So, while our monthly maintenance contracts have dwindled drastically we seem to be getting networking projects and ad hoc requests for support, some of it even from old clients. 

Instead we are delving more and more into Internet Services but I will leave it to Haresh to delve into about how he sees this area of IT to expand for us. 

To put it another way, because of the small market and changing circumstances for our clients over the years, NATC has sort of not been able to specialise yet long term per se in any one field of IT services. We are doing a range of IT services - from monthly service to hardware repairs to installation of internet services to ad hoc support.

What am I still concerned with?

I feel we need to work out a better offer to our clients in terms of monthly maintenance and outsourcing of IT support. This could help us to gain more experience, standardise procedures and perfect a business model. I need to do more aggressive marketing and brainstorming to get more business in this area.

We need to continue to improve quality of our services and continue to fine tune and standardise procedures. That means going over procedures again and again with our staff, improving turn around time, getting client feedback and recording jobs properly. 

Grateful all our staff and their families are safe and sound 

We're ending the year on a really good note with our team in Zwedru setting up internet services for two clients. We have some good business lined up for 2015, too. 

I'm glad all our staff and their families are safe and sound and, we hope to grow together as a company and a close team in 2015.

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