Mulago Foundation | Going remote with Apollo Agriculture

Going remote with Apollo Agriculture

How they rapidly transitioned their call center to remote work

by Eli Pollak

Apr 10, 2020

We’ll feature timely guest posts from those in our network who are at the forefront of this crisis, and have a specific expertise or methodology to share.

Apollo Agriculture transitioned their ~150 person call center to remote work in a matter of days. In this post Eli Pollak, their CEO and a fellow of ours from 2017, breaks down how they systematically made the transition.

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Apollo feature 2


Apollo’s call center focuses on sales and customer support, including enrolling farmers, answering questions, and driving repayment efforts.

Given the onset of COVID-19 during planting season - our busiest time of the year - we needed to rapidly shift our team to remote work while minimizing downtime and disruption. Transitioning the call center team to remote work was a massive technical and operational undertaking, and required enormous coordination and work between our tech and operations teams.

Key Challenges

  1. We needed our corporate network to be accessible from anywhere. Typically, this is done using VPN hardware, which is costly and requires shipment and installation. This was not logistically feasible given our timeline and the existing technology infrastructure at our office in Kenya.
  2. We needed to enable voice-over internet protocol (“VOIP”) for our call center agents. Voice is particularly challenging over remote networks, because it requires very minimal latency. While you might be comfortable waiting ½ second for a website to load, a ½ second lag on the phone is highly problematic for a sales call or for allaying a customer’s concern.
  3. High-speed and reliable internet in Kenya is often a challenge, and most of our call center agents did not previously have internet or a computer in their home.
  4. We had to keep the call center operating throughout the transition. Prolonged downtime in our call center during planting season would have caused major challenges for our customers and business. Maize planting is dictated by rainfall, and with rain reported across most of Apollo’s territories, we had to ensure that customers didn’t experience any lags that would prevent them from getting their farm inputs on time.

Solutions

  1. Enable a remote call center.
    • After ruling out approaches like VPN hardware, we chose to use ZeroTier, a “cloud” network virtualization platform, to make our corporate network accessible from anywhere.
    • Our IT team then trained several call center agents on how to configure ZeroTier for other agents, and we installed it on all call center agent computers simultaneously, while also running tests and troubleshooting.
    • We began with a small pilot group and then quickly expanded after proof of concept:
      • We started with 5 people, who used smartphone hotspots in the office to “test” how the setup would work from home;
      • We then scaled to a 30 person pilot the next day, and 60 people the next day.
      • After successfully testing with 60 agents for one day, we expanded to have all agents work remotely the next day.
    • We continued to provide technical support from the office and agents who were having challenges were able to come to the office to solve their problem (and work with significant social distance from the empty office while their challenge was addressed).
  2. Ensure high-quality internet at agents’ homes (most agents did not previously have internet or a computer in their home).
    • For agents with functional smartphones, we provided airtime to purchase internet bundles and set up a mobile hotspot for their laptop. Fortunately, mobile internet is generally pretty fast in Kenya!
    • We bought 30 mobile WiFi hotspots for agents without a smartphone or strong enough mobile service at their home.

Typically, our approach to implementing new technology is to move slowly in order to minimize risks during transition. In this case, our largest risk was the possibility of a lockdown in Kenya that would have prevented any work or the deployment of a remote call center, and it was critical that we move quickly to enable a fully remote team as soon as possible. As a result, we took more risks than usual in the pace of implementation!

While many things remain uncertain, we are extremely proud and humbled by how quickly our team adapted to such a complex and unprecedented set of challenges, while also serving record numbers of customers. On Monday, March 30th, our first full day working fully remote, over 1,000 customers picked up inputs from Apollo - the same number of customers we reached during the entirety of our first season in 2017. On our second full day of remote work, we completed the highest number of calls of any day during the preceding 3 weeks. Having now enabled remote work for call center agents, we are very likely to consider continuing remote work for some agents after COVID-19.

Comments

Isaac Bett

This is great. Am proud of this, though my comment came late. Thumbs up!

Emmanuel Odago

I am always happy to be associated with Apollo Agriculture. I thing I have come to appreciate is that the management is always true and committed to their word. Both to the customers, partners and their team.

Andrew Amwayi

I would wish to help the company deliver by helping the call center while at home. I have got a laptop and network. I have a great history of working with farmers. Please refer to LinkedIn on my profile. Can I be of help
Regards,
0726594902

Eric Weremba

Am very proud of the initiative the company took to respond in the shortest time possible to ensure the remote working is enabled and continual service to our famers.

Timothy

This goes to show that having the right mindset no situation is difficult to handle. In every organisation cost control is primary to achieving its goals and objectives. This will lead to better management of financial and reputational risks through your supply chain. During these challenging times of locust invasion and Covid-19 greater innovations and increasing reliance on digital channels and platforms and data and analytics for faster decision making are key to ensuring organisational continued growth.

Brian Kokonya

Nothing gives me more pride than what we were able to achieve in that short period of time

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