By Onome Amawhe
Travel and Tourism is one of the world’s most dynamic economic sectors, offering enormous opportunities for growth, development and job creation. Visa facilitation is central to stimulating economic growth and job creation through tourism. In spite of the great strides made in recent decades to facilitate tourist travel, Jiten Vyas, COO in charge of Africa operations of VFS Global, thinks there are still important areas of opportunity. VFS Global, the specialist outsourcing company that offers administrative and support services to governments worldwide has been handling administrative processes related to visa and consular application procedures since 2001. In this interview, Vyas shares his thoughts on how industry trends are shaping up and ways in which VFS Global is preparing for the future.
VFS Global started as a unique idea that came to life, and in a short span of 15 years, it has become the world’s largest outsourcing and technology services specialists for governments and diplomatic missions, serving 50 government clients. To what would you attribute this accomplishment?
VFS Global was a pioneering enterprise that our CEO Zubin Karkaria came up with when he was working with a travel company known as Kuoni. The solution addressed challenges that would-be travellers and embassies faced, and helped to ease out the visa application process. The US Consulate in Mumbai, India, was VFS Global’s very first client. And that small humble beginning kicked off the whole idea. The success of VFS Global is attributed to a number of factors most importantly the spirit of entrepreneurship that was laid out by our CEO Mr. Karkaria. People are the most critical and important aspect of our organization across the 50 client governments that we cater to in 124 countries. And it’s these people that make the difference in our business.
What does the acronym VFS mean?
When we started off, the name of the company was Visa Facilitation Services. However, in the early stages of VFS Global, we realized that the name Visa Facilitation Services would at many a times lead to an individual getting the wrong impression, thinking we facilitate visas which is not the case. It was then that we rechristened it to VFS Global. The tasks of VFS Global are purely administrative in nature: we handle the acceptance of visa applications, the data entry, the collection and remittance of visa fees, the biometric enrollment, and dispatch of processed applications back to the applicants. VFS Global has no role whatsoever in the adjudication or decision making process and hence VFS Global is the right acronym for our company.
To what extent have your services helped ease visa application process for intending travelers?
Increasingly, embassies in Africa have been moving in the direction of outsourcing the visa process, so they can focus their resources on the core job of adjudication. Africa, as a region, remains the most promising yet challenging region to operate in. VFS Global has been able to bring in high quality customer service and professionalism in operating its services for its client governments. Our well trained staff and the use of technology make the entire visa application process seamless for the African traveller. These visa application centres have also helped create significant local employment opportunities across the Africa region. VFS Global provides all the non-judgmental and administrative services related to the visa process, and has increased accessibility by setting up more centres and has streamlined the visa process for applicants to a large extent by providing a one-stop-shop in convenient, centrally located environments. These centres are open for longer working hours and have more extensive facilities (in terms of waiting areas, accessibility and network of centres) compared to what was the case before.
VFS recently celebrated its 110 million applications. How big could it get from here? What are the projections for the next 5 years?
In fact, we have recently crossed processing 125 million applications! The market is absolutely out there and evolving. Over the last 15 years, we’ve been actively supporting 50 client governments across 124 countries in managing the administrative tasks related to visa application. We do see great opportunities within the identity management and citizen service business. Most governments especially in Africa are quite keen to streamline whether it’s their citizen database, services provided to their citizens, foreigners’ enrollment and registration, voters’ registration, drivers’ licenses, passports and ID Cards. In all these, VFS Global becomes a catalyst in ensuring that any government agenda in streamlining these services can be complimented by that of VFS operations. We do see that most of the governments especially in Africa have the need and with the operating model that we practice, it’s a win-win for government and the applicants.
How long have you been processing visa applications in Nigeria?
We first set up operations in Nigeria in 2005 in Lagos and Abuja, through the Governments of the United Kingdom and other Schengen countries. In total, VFS Global serves 14 client governments in Nigeria (South Africa, Canada, Ireland, S Korea, Croatia, UAE, Norway, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, France, Belgium, Spain and Italy.) We operate visa application centres in three cities in Nigeria – Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. Since inception, we’ve been committed to creating employment opportunities for locals in the countries where we set up operations, and employ 135 staff in Nigeria.
What was it about the Nigerian market that attracted VFS to establish operations here?
Nigeria is one of the top markets for VFS Global in the sub-Saharan region. The presence of large multinational companies across industry sectors; educated and qualified work force; the penchant for foreign travel amongst the rising middle and upperclass be it for studies, employment, trade and commerce, have made this country a keymarket for us.While we set up operations as per requirements that come in from our client governments,and are entirely guided by their requirements, the increase in tourist and business-related travel to and from Nigeria has been quite remarkable over the past couple of years. And it is thus that VFS took a look at how we could better the services offered to Nigerians and a lot of the governments thought it was a good idea.
Does VFS Global work with the government of Nigeria in terms of processing Nigeria visa abroad?
At this point in time, VFS Global is not managing any visa applications on behalf of the Nigerian government overseas, but we recently carried out a project on behalf of the Interbank Settlement Services by providing Bank Verification Number (BVN) enrollment services for Nigerian bank account holders living in 8 countries. This initiative of the Central Bank of Nigeria is aimed at providing a more secure banking platform to Nigerians and further bolsters conventional security systems of using a password and pin. VFS Global has been actively talking to the concerned departments within the Government of Nigeria and remains committed in bringing in its experience and expertise including the use of technology across various sectors: immigration, citizen services, foreigner registration, national ID, amongst others.
How does the figure in visa applications from Nigeria rank with other countries where you operate?
Nigeria remains one of the largest economies on the African continent and travel has seen a significant improvement be it student travel, leisure or business. The fact that most of the foreign governments have gone the outsourcing route speaks about the demand for visa services in this country.As VFS Global only processes visas and is not involved in judgmental aspects of the visa issuing Process, all data related to visa applications is maintained by our clients.
What has been VFS’s approach to handling the exponential figures in visa applications?
We pride ourselves on our 15 years of experience in managing visa applications centers across 124 countries. And our team is always focused on ensuring that local talent is nurtured as this forms the bulk of our front office work force. The use of technology, training and staff development , ensures that our visa application centres are designed keeping the local sentiments in mind, whilst contributing a great deal to our efficiency in managing high volume operations such as we have in Nigeria.These are clear examples of how VFS has been able to leverage its experience and expertise purely on the basis of trust, technique and technology: The three pillars that it prides itself on.
What role has IT played in VFS’s evolution?
In the space of technology, innovation is a key business driver for us. We have come up with several cutting-edge technologies to aid our client governments in the services that we offer. One of our most popular services is the ‘On Demand Mobile Visa’ service, which effectively brings the visa center to your home or office. This service is being very well received, and is especially useful for corporates, travel agencies, and high net worth individuals, who are looking for more convenience and personalization in not just visa application, but every kind of service. We also do a lot of large-scale biometrics-based identity programmes out of Africa – foreigner registration permits in Ghana, Lesotho Special Permits (a joint programme between the South African Department of Home Affairs and the Lesotho Government) that legalises the stay of Lesotho nationals in South Africa, or the recently concluded Zimbabwe Special Permit programme. These programmes require expertise in processing large volumes of applications in highly secure environments. Integrating these processes well is a core competence for us. As a matter of fact, IT has really played a major role in our evolution helping VFS Global to work in diverse markets, whether on the African continent or Latin America or in the Russian CIS region. So technology is, in a sense, the ‘backbone’ of VFS Global.
What advances have you made in transforming your operating model? Has the model been replicated elsewhere by the government clients you service?
As the world’s leading service provider in the visa and consular services domain, we are committed to setting benchmarks for the industry in the way we operate, across diverse ecosystems and geographies.
Our process flow has been standardized across different regions in Africa, and indeed, across the world. We are able to do VAC rollouts in timeframes anywhere from 3 months to 3o days. So no matter what geopolitical or socioeconomic circumstances we are operating in, in terms of speed, quality control, and process management expertise, we ensure every single one of our projects have been developed according to world-class standards and can withstand the most stringent internal and external audits. It is with this commitment and attention to quality and detail, that we have been able to launch and sustain operations across 124 countries.
Within our existing operating model, we also pioneered the concept of a Joint Visa Application Centre (JVAC), aimed at increasing the convenience of our visa applicants, where several client governments are served less than one roof.
What are the rewards and challenges that come with being a leader, the importance of your team and your advice to achieve success in business?
Being the leader brings with it some very peculiar challenges and most important one for us is complacency. The day we begin to think that we don’t need to improve is one of the most
difficult position one can find itself. Of course, we must ensure that we innovate and move ahead with time especially when it comes to use of technology. Ensuring that the team is able to constantly anticipate issues and proactively work towards upgrading our services is the key. In our line of business there is seldom a second chance.
How would you describe VFS as a company?
If I had to describe the culture of the company in two words, it would be entrepreneurial, and out-of-the-box! Serving a sovereign government is a sensitive matter and our ability to do this successfully year after year, while constantly coming up with fresh innovations, for 50 client governments, is the ultimate tribute to the zeal and commitment shown by our teams in overcoming the business pressures we face, on a daily basis. Its rapid growth in just 15 years is thanks to a leadership that leads from the front, and
empowers its teams completely!