Indian entrepreneur Zubin Karkaria is the CEO of VFS Global, the world’s largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide.
Karkaria set up VFS in 2001 when he convinced the US government to pilot a scheme for Indian visa applicants to the US at its Mumbai embassy.
That was VFS’s first visa application center – now, with over 2,800 application centers, operations in 141 countries across five continents and over 187 million applications processed to date, VFS Global has 62 client governments worldwide, including the UK, US, Japan, Germany, Russia, France, India and the UAE. Karkaria says it is the world’s largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions.
VFS Global, headquartered in Dubai, UAE, has a Swiss parentage and is a portfolio company of EQT, a leading global private equity firm headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden. EQT funds have invested in portfolio companies in Europe, Asia and North America. The current portfolio companies generating total sales of approximately EUR 19 billion and employing approximately 110,000 people. The Swiss-based Kuoni and Hugentobler Foundation has a stake in VFS Global.
Karkaria recently spoke to me about VFS Global’s journey in Africa and his views on the future of the global travel market.
You’ve built VFS Global into one of the most successful outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide. Tell us about VFS Global and theseries of events that led you to establishing the company.
Early in my career, while working in India for one of the world’s leading travel companies – the Switzerland-based Kuoni Group – we had first-hand knowledge of the challenges travelers faced while applying for visas, especially in the Nineties when travel was booming the world over. Not just the long wait times for visa applicants, but even embassies were dealing with growing piles of administrative work.
So in 2001, we conceptualized a simple but absolutely unique solution of managing the visa process for governments. Setting up the service was relatively easy, but convincing the first government to allow us to run the purely administrative part of a visa application process for them had a long gestation period, around 18 months.
I persuaded the US government to pilot a scheme for Indian visa applicants to the US at its Mumbai embassy. That was VFS Global’s first Visa Application Centre. Today, with over 2,800 application centres, operations in 141 countries across five continents and over 187 million applications processed to date, we serve 62 client governments worldwide. VFS Global is now a portfolio company of EQT, a leading global private equity firm headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden.
I’m a passionate believer in improving customer experience in the visa services ecosystem. For applicants the world over, there is a sea change in how they view these services in the relatively short 17 years since we first pioneered them. Outsourcing visa processing means embassies can focus fully on the most important part of the decision-making in a visa application process, besides reducing the security risk of crowded consulates and the cost to run a visa section in the embassy or consulate.
For those applying for a visa, it means better and more personalised customer service, with better physical and technological infrastructure. For example, over the years we’ve introduced a wide range of services – such as doorstep visa services, a choice of when people can schedule their visa appointments, and personal assistance with completing their visa application.
VFS Global has been in Nigeria for more than a decade now, and has grown over the years to expand into multiple African countries. How many countries are you present in at the moment, and what has been your experience of doing business in Africa?
VFS Global began its foray into African operations by establishing a presence in South Africa in 2005, and later extended operations to Nigeria in 2007. We currently operate in 10 cities across the country including Abuja and Lagos, and employ 150+ Nigerians in terms of direct employment. Additional indirect employment opportunities have also been created along the supply chain driven by VFS Global operations. Nigeria is the second largest market for us in Africa and also the headquarters of our West Africa operations.
We currently serve 46 governments from all over the world in the African continent, processing over 2 million applications annually here, through a network of 416 Application Centers across several countries, including Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana.
By ensuring the highest services standards in line with global best practices, our operations in Africa have been commended several times by eminent personalities and organizations across locations who have visited our Visa Application Centers. In fact, in October 2017, we were delighted to be recognized for our excellence in customer service at the prestigious Nigeria Customer Service Awards (NCSA) annual event, which celebrates service excellence across 22 major industries in Nigeria.
How has technology changed the face of visa services across Africa, and in a world that is increasingly digital, what is the future of brick and mortar travel agencies?
In the last decade or so, technology has made the quantum leap from being an enabler, to a key business driver for us. Overall, it has transformed the entire gamut of visa processing services, speeding up the whole process and making it much more convenient for applicants. For example, foreigners in South Africa who need to extend their temporary residence visas for study or work are now able to apply online and set up an appointment before they visit the nearest facilitation centre to submit their personal biometrics (fingerprints and photographs).
By leveraging on our visa services experience and advanced technology-enabled processes, we even offer Identity and Citizen Services solutions for public-facing government services, biometric enrollment through secure enrollment processes, and data transfer systems which can handle large volumes of applications in locations like South Africa.
Besides offering basic SMS update and courier services, applicants can also avail VIP lounge services, where they get personalized assistance in completing forms and getting fast-track appointments. Those who need their passport back urgently, have the option to pick up their passport earlier than the standard collection timeframe. All these services are optional for applicants and it is every one’s own decision to choose them, and get an even more convenient visa process.
It is worth mentioning here that one of our immensely popular services is the doorstep visa processing services, where VFS Global staff visit a customer’s home or office to accept applications and enroll biometrics. This is the ultimate in personalized service, and is used by large groups of travellers, corporates, students, and high net-worth individuals. It essentially reimagines the visa process, and brings the visa centre to the applicant, rather than the other way around.
Irrespective of geography, one trend we are seeing globally, even among price-sensitive regions, is the preference for more tailored and flexible services, even if it comes at a higher cost. Disruptive models of business have done the same, very successfully in many sectors. We too have always believed in the importance of making substantial investments in technology to constantly upgrade customer experience, and introduce flexibility and mobility even in the hitherto fairly traditional visa and citizen services space.
Let’s talk about security. In a world constantly at risk of data theft, how does VFS Global keep the sensitive data that it captures, safe and secure?
Being owned by highly respected European company and understanding the highly sensitive nature of our business, information security and protecting personal information has always been at the core of our business processes – and we’re constantly looking at ways to refine, and limit, our exposure to potential security breaches.
A key part of this work is limiting the amount of time we hold on to applicant data, and applying an internal set of rules to its processing and retention.
Typically, this means that, unless specified by a client government, we process data, such as biometrics, within 24 hours of receipt, and ensure that basic contact details are held for no longer than 30 days from submission.
We do not copy or retain any of the data we receive; it is securely disposed of, after processing, in line with our internal rules or those specified by our client.
How is General Data Protection Regulations affecting VFS Global’s work and what advice would you give companies that are affected by GDPR?
The GDPR is a game changer for all businesses, large and small, that operate or are that exposed to the European Union – and for some businesses, refining, and creating, procedures to demonstrate compliance have been tough and costly to implement.
In our case, the path to compliance was relatively straightforward due to our already existing policies and frameworks for data handling, that were in place virtually since inception. For example, we were already above the baselines set out by the 1992 Data Protection Directive, which preceded the GDPR, and had a compliance-driven culture throughout our organization.
We did, however, revise some of our steps, internally, towards managing data and demonstrating compliance – and this work was effected through the introduction of a 13-point privacy framework across our organization. This framework has over 130 measurable metrics that enables us to monitor data protection across the organization.
Today, as a company that handles large volumes of applicant information (for visas and citizen services), VFS Global is one of just 35 percent of global companies that are GDPR-compliant (as per a Talend report published in September 2018). In fact, around the time GDPR was introduced in May 2018, we were among only 15% of companies globally which were already compliant with the regulation (as per a Capgemini report published in May 2018).
The significance of the GDPR cannot be understated; it is something that every business owner or leader should understand and lead on. It affects all enterprises that operate in, and with, the EU, and will require changes in operations and culture in almost all cases.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to treat the legislation seriously, even outside the EU, as more and more countries around the world are looking to introduce data protection legislation. Spot-check audits by supervisory authorities, are not uncommon, and if you’re a business owner, and you’ve not yet taken steps to achieve compliance, or examine your responsibilities with regard to the new baselines, now is the time to do so.
What’s your view on the future of the global travel market? Which are the national markets likely to show strong growth in Africa?
More governments, including in Africa, are recognizing the value of tourism for their economic agendas. For instance, Zimbabwe is now tapping into its tourism potential, and is seeing a strong rise of 63% in arrivals from two of its key markets-India and GCC regions in the year 2017, after it recently opened its doors for business through initiatives like boosting air connectivity.
I think a big growth area in the next few years will be ‘experiential travel’. Africa is well placed to capitalise on that trend, of course, with safari holidays becoming more affordable. Emerging African economies like Kenya, which experienced the highest growth in luxury travel in 2018, are also poised for a boost. With countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Mozambique, Cameroon, Mauritius, and Tanzania accounting for 70% of international trips to the sub-Saharan African region in 2017 (Data from Euromonitor International), we expect these countries can expect to continue attracting large numbers of visitors.
What’s the next 5 years looking like for VFS Global?
Going forward, our focus continues to be on consolidation of visa service operations globally. We see a strong growth trend in Africa, China, India, and Russia & CIS. These are our largest source markets in terms of applications processed and operations network, so we will continue to build on our operations here.
As changes in consumer behavior have led to a significant evolution in services and conveniences, we will continue to make investments in technology so that our services push the boundaries to improve speed, mobility, security, and credibility of these services for both governments and citizens. The use of Artificial intelligence can create much more efficient process to the benefit of governments and end-consumers. Blockchain technology can contribute significantly to create an even more secure environment for people’s data and identity.
We have also leveraged on our domain expertise in the visa space to expand on our business of identity and citizen services, which we extensively offer to national and state governments in many regions. In several African countries, we undertake migration and border management services, such as processing of long-stay resident and work permits, foreigner registration, driving licenses, and e-passports, using tech-enabled models for biometric enrolment.
In South Africa, for instance, we have supported the government on a number of migrant registration programs (such as the Zimbabwe Special Permit and Lesotho Special Permit programmes). These programs have been short-term projects which require highly specialised outreach programs and tech-enabled mobile solutions which we have successfully managed, and will continue to extend this experience to similar projects going forward.
As more governments around the world use technology for the secure handling of citizen credentials, we are committed to enhancing customer experience in the government services space, and be a leading integrator between the two in this emerging ecosystem.
By Mfonobong Nsehe