In India, Rural Workers Run Call Centers

Venkat Pullaiah, a local university graduate, migrated in search of a job to Hyderabad, the capital city of Andhra Pradesh state in south India, which is about 500 kilometers from his village. Working at an administrative job at an investment firm for a paltry 3,000 Indian rupees (about US$70) per month, Pullaiah said he found it difficult to make ends meet in the increasingly expensive city.

Pullaiah now works at a BPO (business process outsourcing) and call-center operation set up by the Byrraju Foundation at Ethakota in rural Andhra Pradesh, which is close to his village. His current salary of 2,500 rupees for a fresh recruit is less than what he was earning in the city. But costs are lower in rural India, so he has now moved to the ranks of the rural middle class, he said with considerable pride.

India's economic boom has largely excluded the rural educated people who have to move to the city for jobs. "People in villages who are graduates are reluctant to work on the farm, so they have to either move to the city or are usually unemployed in the villages," said JK Manivannan, head of the rural BPO program at the Byrraju Foundation.

Setting up call-center and BPO operations in villages may help to reduce migration from villages to already overcrowded and expensive cities. A large number of the staff at BPOs and call centers in cities come from smaller towns and villages, said Saloni Malhotra, CEO and cofounder of DesiCrew Solutions, a startup in Chennai in Tamil Nadu state, focused on providing BPO services from rural areas. By taking the jobs to rural areas, companies like DesiCrew can access more staff, she added.

Educated women, who were often not allowed by their families to move from the village to the city, can now find employment in the village itself, said Vasantha Kumari, who works at Byrraju Foundation's center in Ethakota.

Setting up in villages also provides access to staff that can be 50 percent cheaper than BPO and call-center staff in the city, Manivannan said. Customers come to DesiCrew to counter staff attrition in the city, Malhotra said.

The Byrraju Foundation, set up by the promoters of Indian outsourcing company, Satyam Computer Services, employs 500 staff at its four BPO and call centers in rural Andhra Pradesh. Although the foundation is currently hiring graduates because of their easy availability there are a lot of undergraduates in the villages who can be employed for call center and BPO work after training in English language and computer skills, Manivannan said.

Poor communication in rural areas was a challenge to start with, but as Indian telecommunication companies started laying optical fiber cable links to district headquarters, Byrraju Foundation was able to use wireless as a last-mile connectivity technology to its BPO centers. "Connectivity places limitations to where we can set up operations in rural areas, but more connectivity options are becoming available, whether optical fiber or wireless," Malhotra said.

Starting with Satyam as its first customer, the Byrraju Foundation now has 10 customers for its profitable call center and BPO operations. The foundation is targeting its BPO and call-center services at the large number of Indian companies and government agencies that require these services.

As they are at ease with the local language, call-center employees from the villages are better able to serve customers who often prefer speaking in the local language, Manivannan said. Many of these customers are also in rural markets, he added.

On the flip side, staff hired in villages do not have strong English speaking skills. That is the reason DesiCrew started about a year ago with non-voice services, Malhotra said. It has started a pilot for voice-based services recently, but in Indian languages.

The setting up of BPO and call centers in rural areas is still limited to a few companies, mainly startups, and social service organizations. Byrraju Foundation plans to have 10 to 12 centers, employing about 1,500 people, by the end of this year. That is, however, a fraction of the staff employed in India's call center and BPO industry.

As staff get more costly and harder to hire in the big cities, large Indian and multinational outsourcing companies are expected to open facilities in smaller cities and towns, but analysts are doubtful they will set up operations in villages.

In the BPO and call-center business, the size of the operation is important because some costs like building security, and technology are fixed, said Siddharth Pai, a partner at outsourcing consultancy Technology Partners International (TPI). Many small villages, spread out across a large area, may not be able to provide the large number of staff that a commercial operation needs to be viable, he added.

DesiCrew's Malhotra, however, said that already three out of seven centers run in villages by the company are making a profit. DesiCrew currently has between 10 to 20 staff at each of its satellite centers, and a hub in Chennai. "Processes can be split among the centers depending on the people you have," Malhotra said.