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After observing the growth of the Indian and Filipino Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sectors, Kenyan policy-makers and managers made substantial investments in international internet infrastructure and BPO marketing campaigns. While observers continue to discuss the sector in terms of its international work opportunities, in recent years the sector has increasingly focused on contracts sourced from Kenyan and other East African clients. The government has also refocused efforts on attracting international BPO companies. This domestic turn signals both the difficulties of gaining access to overseas work due to the power of incumbents and the increasing use of the internet and ICT-enabled automation within Kenyan organisations. In effect, better connectivity has enabled a two-way globalisation of services: Kenyan BPO companies can access international work opportunities but connectivity has also contributed to the inflow of international business practices into Kenya. The conclusion examines what these shifts might entail for the sector and its workers in future.
Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) can loosely be described as service work contracted out to a third party. The term encompasses a range of activities that include customer service work, data entry, transcription, digitisation, financial accounting, auditing and other higher value-knowledge processing such as content development, animation, legal services, engineering design and data analytics. The BPO sector first emerged in Northern economies in response to deregulation and competitive pressures inducing organisations to restructure, increase efficiencies and maximise shareholder value (Batt & Moynihan, 2002; Davis, 2009). Work tasks that once took place within firms came to be standardised and outsourced to outside organisations, often using information and communication technologies (ICTs). Work was first moved to lower wage areas within national economies (Taylor & Bain, 2008) but by the early 2000s, changing communication capacities had allowed such work to be offshored to countries such as India, the Philippines and China, effectively creating a ‘global’1 marketplace for services (Dicken, 2003; Bryson, 2007; Malecki & Moriset, 2008). The increasing geographical spread of BPO has resulted both from pressures to reduce costs and from desires by multinational companies (MNCs) to spread risk across markets (Kleibert, 2014).