By Andrew Bourne
For decades, companies, especially tech providers in Africa have followed a certain operational pattern. They start out in a major city, raise funding from investors, attract talent from nearby towns and villages, and then repeat the model in another major city as they expand.
However, the events of the last 12 months have shown us that this workforce model may actually be inefficient and detrimental to the world at large, in that it’s causing talent erosion in rural communities. Youth emigration, encouraged by scarcity of choice and opportunity in remote areas, is rendering these communities unstable and helpless in the long run.
One of the countermeasures to address rural decline is for tech companies to recognise that talent can operate from anywhere and provide employees the option of working from anywhere.
By allowing skilled tech workers to work from their African rural home towns, we can help previously struggling communities to become self-sufficient economic clusters and reduce many of the inequalities that have caused so much societal unrest over the past few years.
At Zoho, we refer to this approach as ‘transnational localism,’ which is all about the organisation’s growth being rooted in closely working with and serving the local communities around the world, all while staying globally connected through shared knowledge, capabilities, and culture.
In line with this vision, when it comes to building human capital with a community-level impact, we believe that it’s important for tech companies to take the jobs right where the majority of the talent is – rural towns and villages.
The problem with concentrated resources in the urban landscape
Today, the majority of the resources and opportunities are concentrated in urban areas across the world. That’s why it’s common for tech graduates and entrepreneurial minds to flock to San Francisco, Tel-Aviv, Cape Town, Nairobi and other urban capitals to get a high-paying job or build their startups.
The cities are home to top universities (providing the best tech talent), large reserves of capital (needed for investment), established entrepreneurial communities (having the much-needed support networks), and bustling tech hubs.
The same holds true for other industries in other cities as well (finance in London, New York, and Johannesburg, for example).
Reversing the impact with rural tech offices, with the help of cloud connectivity
Over the past year or so, however, the uptick in digital adoption (owing to the pandemic) has shown us that remoteness does not limit exposure any more.
Even as other supply chains were shut down or disrupted by COVID-19, businesses were able to carry on operating because connectivity and collaboration were unaffected by the pandemic.
Thanks to digital technologies like the cloud, pervasive broadband and virtual networking services, many employees who moved to their native locales (either to be closer to family or for a more relaxed pace of living owing to uncertain times) were able to continue working remotely without any interruptions.
This was also the time when Zoho decided to open small satellite offices to provide our employees, who had returned to their home towns, with an official working space nearby.
The rural offices, which we first established in India, received such positive feedback from our employees that we accelerated our plans and opened many offices over the last year.
As of now, there are more than 30 Zoho offices in rural and non-urban areas around the world (most of them are in India; other regions include the US and Mexico). We will continue to build more of these offices across the world, to enable willing employees to relocate to their home towns and villages.
When skilled professionals return to their home towns, it results in a cross-pollination of ideas. Deep knowledge sharing networks slowly emerge and skill transfers become easier, leading to continual upskilling of the rural youth.
This, coupled with new job opportunities created by rural tech offices, can contribute towards a better future for smaller communities and also promote holistic economic growth.
Embracing a better way
Today, we are clearly past the times when the only way for tech companies to maintain their corporate culture and build globally-competitive solutions was through city-centre monolithic office towers with sleeping pods and ping pong tables.
There’s a better, more sustainable option now, facilitated by digital connectivity – a remotely distributed workforce strategy underpinned by a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model, with hub offices in secondary cities/towns and smaller ‘hubs’ in neighbouring villages that are instrumental in local community development and wealth creation.
Andrew Bourne is Zoho’s Regional Manager for the Africa region and is based in Cape Town, South Africa.