Jiten Vyas, is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of VFS GLOBAL in Africa, an outsourcing visa application processing company.
There has been a myriad of complaints from applicants over the operations of VFS GLOBAL in Nigeria. These complaints were highlighted in an investigation by PREMIUM TIMES on the company’s operations in the country.
Some of the complaints included: ‘exorbitant’ service and SMS charges, poor attitude of VFS GLOBAL staff towards applicants, among others.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Ebuka Onyeji, Mr Vyas explains how VFS Global determines its service charges; the controversy over the company’s SMS charges; the processes involved in applying for visas through VFS GLOBAL, as well as other sundry issues.
PT: VFS GLOBAL has been operating in Nigeria for over a decade, what is the experience so far?
Vyas: VFS GLOBAL is the world largest outsourcing visa specialist owned by EQT a leading European Private equity company based in Stockholm/Sweden. We operate in 129 countries in the whole five continents and work for 60 client governments around the world.
We have been in Nigeria for over a decade now. From 2007 when we came, we made Nigeria flagship country cut across the continent. More importantly, the headquarters for West Africa. Since 2007 we have been in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
We continued to work for 18 different governments for whom we provide visa applications around the country. In our experience in Nigeria, I must say Africa is one commodity that is being sold for nearly two decades and that is the level of potential that Nigeria offers.
Thousands of young and upcoming starters seek for foreign visas, whether it’s students or business people on quest to expand their businesses and trade outside of Nigeria, even Nigerians who just want to travel for leisure and adventure. The experience we have with Nigeria have helped us grow today.
We take pride in offering job opportunities to 150 Nigerians who we employ within our offices around the country. That goes on to show how important the local population is as far as our work and development is concerned.
Some of these Nigerians we employ have been with us for seven to 10 years and they continue to grow within our organisation. Nigeria is a flagship country. We are happy for what we bring into the Nigerian population as well as the Nigerian economy.
PT: I am a Nigerian and I want to travel to South Africa, how do I process my visa using VFS GLOBAL?
Vyas: Let me take you back 10 years ago when VFS GLOBAL was not operating in Nigeria. You can imagine the queue outside the embassies and high commissions of different foreign countries.
People will have to wait all day in different degrees of sunlight, sometimes rain as well as different difficult conditions for women, children and senior citizens. Now I bring you forward today when VFS GLOBAL has been able to set up these visa centres in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt where we offer a one stop shop convenience to the Nigerian public to ease the visa process and that’s the opening answer to your question.
If you want to apply for South Africa through VFS GLOBAL, there are various flash points that you can utilise in lodging your application. The applicant has the option of going to our official website to source the information which is legitimate information on the different visa categories; the documentation required; the official fees; official service charges all of that information including the form is available on the website.
Once you fill the form completely, you could choose to visit any of our visa centres either in Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt where you will be issued a token then you lodge in your application.
You will be issued a receipt by our trained and qualified staff who are Nigerians. It’s an official receipt that captures your name, the category of visa you applied and the fees you paid. All of that is a legitimate document. The applicant has the ability to go to our website, with the reference number on the receipt they can track the status of the application.
All of these brings a great deal of convenience to the applicant. There are of course offices in the physical centres where complaints, questions and challenges can be handled. There is also a contact centre in our website that manage complaints from Monday to Friday for all the governments we work for.
Once the application is processed, they are sent back to us in a sealed envelope which means our staff is not privy to the information whether the Visa is issued or refused and that shows the sanctity that VFS GLOBAL gives to each Visa application. We only receive the application, process the fees but we are not responsible for making decisions.
Once the application is received, the envelope is issued back to the applicant when he comes to our office with the receipt. He is now at liberty to open the envelope to see for him/herself whether the visa has been issued, what duration or has been refused for some reasons.
PT: What does it cost to apply for visa through VFS GLOBAL? We noticed your service charge vary per country. How do you determine these charges?
Vyas: The governments that we work for whether in Nigeria or any part of the world all follow a very stringent procurement procedure and as such VFS GLOBAL submits all technical and operating solutions, it also submits its pricing and the service fee that is levied today to the governments and this pricing needs an approval and requirement laid out by that particular government.
The service charge is derived out of various components and factors such as cost of living in a particular country, infrastructure, personnel, internet and bandwidth for connectivity and availability, the profile of the country and the eventual process that happens in the front and back end of the application process.
All of these enable VFS GLOBAL to come up with a service fee. Those are the different factors that bring out the different costs implication of our service charges which needs the approval of a particular government that we work for.
PT: But our investigation shows that many Nigerians are complaining that these service charges are “extremely high”. Why would a service charge be three times the original cost of the visa (eg South Africa)? Can you explain more elaborately?
Vyas: The visa fees are legislated by the host government, we have no control. Every country has different visa categories and different fees for each category and they are at liberty to review those from time to time.
Now the service fee that VFS GLOBAL levies is approved by the client government that we work on behalf of. It is based on the application volumes that we process in a country, the number of centres we are required to set up, the staffing, personnel, the infrastructure cost, the technology, bio-metric costs, internet bandwidth and all of these factors in addition to the security and how well a centre is able to operate without any hindrances (all these) contribute to us coming up with any service charge and this charge is finally approved by the South African government in this instance before it is levied to an applicant.
We don’t levy these service fees arbitrarily. Some local taxes or VATs are included and to top it all, the formal invoice is issued to every applicant capturing the service fee which is legitimately approved by the client government for VFS GLOBAL to levy.
The number of feedback we get from applicants everyday shows they are much better off using our services, getting an official receipt knowing that this is a genuine application procedure and not being cheated by the so called agents or touts. This brings that level of credibility that yes there is a cost to applying a visa but that cost includes all these legitimate factors and that is what comprise our service fee charge.
PT: Applicants also complained about your Short Message Services (SMS) charges. VFS GLOBAL collects N400 for SMS per application. N4 is the flat rate communication providers collect per SMS and it can even get lower when you do bulk SMS. Nigerians say your SMS charge is a rip off. How would you respond?
Vyas: The SMS service is offered in our visa centres around the world. Its an optional service which means the applicant is not forced or compelled to avail the service.
This is explicitly and clearly mentioned on our website and notice boards in all our centres. The SMS services has been operating for years and how it came about is that over the last few years, applicants whether students or people traveling for work or leisure always want to know the status of their visa applications and how long it is going to take.
The quest is to know when, if and how their visas is being processed. A lot of these applicants cannot access the internet in the early stages of our operations. We then adopted the SMS service and did a trial period of nine months and the feedback was very encouraging.
This SMS service has been relied on by majority of the public and of course there will be a number of people that have had a different experience but the service has gone about easing the sourcing of information on visa applications in Nigeria.
Across the country, people will travel to far places to come and check their visa status only to realise its not ready. They can now get this information through SMS. That is why we launched the SMS so as to ease and enable the sourcing of information. We do understand that not everyone will be interested and hence made it an optional service from day one.
This SMS does need the approval of the countries that we operate for. The technology we use has obviously improved over the last few years. If the applicants are sure that the mobile number they put is correct and there are no digits missing and both the local mobile networks are receiving good signals then nothing will stop the messages from reaching them.
We know there will be challenges in some cases where the SMS does not reach the applicant or there is some delays and those cases are tackled on a case to case bases. Some months back, we had a healthy conversation with the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) in Nigeria who had similar concerns regarding the veracity of the SMS charge, whether its optional or compulsory and following our interaction with the CPC, they were absolutely clear in their opinion that we have followed all the right steps necessary to make sure that the SMS services are optional and not compulsory and the fact that it is in line with the current solutions been offered.
This is something recognised very clearly by the CPC for VFS GLOBAL as a commercial entity in the market and of course there are other ways applications can be tracked: through our website and call centres you can check your visa status at no cost.
PT: Why then did VFS GLOBAL put a disclaimer on its notice boards that it is not liable for SMS sent but not received?
Vyas: The success rate or penetration of the SMS is close to 95 per cent in Nigeria and that has improved over the last few years as networks get better. It’s part of our disclaimer that at times the applicant may not receive an SMS and there are reasons for it.
Maybe you are in no mobile zone, maybe the phone is switched off. There could be an error in the number and these factors are beyond the control of the VFS GLOBAL and even the service provider and hence the disclaimer because it is very important that the applicant understands that yes this is an optional service and there is a possibility that at times these services may not reach the intended applicants because of the aforementioned reasons.
It is important that from the consumer protection angle that we are very open and transparent to highlight this in the disclaimer. This is not something we do to be transparent just as we issue a receipt on our service fee.
PT: Applicants also complain about mistreatment and rudeness on the part of your staff. Have you come across such complaints before? How do you handle them?
Vyas: We have been operating in Nigeria for over a decade now and we employ 150 Nigerians who are in the heart of our organisation managing the front desks of our offices, our administrative and back offices.
The entire supply chain in Nigeria are local Nigerians, whether is is security, courier logistics, IT desks, support team, all of this is 100 per cent localised so this will help understand how we have evolved in the last decade in Nigeria.
Again, the front office staff sitting at our acceptance counters are thoroughly trained in customer service, etiquette and cultural nuances. We also run very critical and cultural centre activities for senior citizens, ladies and people that come from a certain cadre of the society.
We keep training our staff because it’s part of our development. Having said that, there could be occasions that an applicant had not been respected or treated in an ill manner and whenever such case is reported to the company’s employee supervising managers, appropriate actions will be taking including reaching out to the applicant(s) to understand the situation.
Sometimes, it’s absolutely genuine and sometimes it’s also the case of someone who is frustrated because his/her application has been refused and the person is venting his/her anger. It is just typical human nature to express frustration out on another individual.
There are different outcomes that one comes across when we investigate some of these complaints but the overall feedback to be very honest has been extremely positive because these employees know they cannot even play any role in the decision making of an application and again, this job is their means of livelihood.
PT: There is this perception that VFS GLOBAL runs a monopoly in the Visa processing market. Is that so? Can you also give a breakdown of your market control in Nigeria?
Vyas: There are other visa agencies in Nigeria, they also run visa application centres, very large ones. We have a market control of around 50 per cent max in Nigeria and it is not a monopoly whatsoever. That is absolutely clear and evident and also the agreement we have with our client governments follows the procurement processes, procedures and regulations of those governments.
They are ones that decide which service provider will operate in which country or in which market and that is the standard they follow in awarding a contract to a particular company, whether VFS GLOBAL or the others.
They obviously take into account a number of factors like experience, credibility technology and localisation. It is important to note that we have a 100 per cent localisation of staff and supply chain. All of these factors go into the decision making they take at their government level.
PT: How is the working relationship between VFS GLOBAL and its client governments?
Vyas: VFS Global is the world’s largest outsourcing visa technology firm. We are today in 139 countries working for 60 governments with nearly 2700 operation centres around the world. We have been operating in the last 17 years.
In operating for different governments, we go through some procurement process as prescribed by individual governments. This procurement are placed in the host countries and a number of factors are involved in the submission of the technical and operating solutions; financial and security solutions; logistics and all these contribute to the overall decison for VFS GLOBAL. The procurement process enables the host countries to decide on the evaluation of their contract with us.
PT: There are touts out there who extort money from people in the name of visa agents. How do you handle them?
Vyas: These individuals are private individuals and we cannot control them. We have no control on individuals that are standing on the road and selling their ‘services’. We can only ensure that we create the right enabling environment so that the public will not fall prey to these so called touts that parade themselves as visa agents.
Our approach is very clear, we have regular local police and MOPOL (mobile police) that we call during peak times and busy times to make sure they clear the immediate entrance of our offices. We also put a very clear notice outside our buildings to highlight that VFS GLOBAL does not indulge any other agents for visa applications and that VFS GLOBAL is the authorised service provider to these governments.
We also distribute leaflets outside the street to warn the people not to fall for any of these so called agents or touts and that all your visa needs can be handled within the visa application centre.
PT: With all these complaints, what is the company doing to boost the relationship between it and customers?
Vyas: We ensure that our customer service and training centres are reviewed and monitored regularly and that is something that we continue to do. Our engagement with the media is regular, as well as our engagement with the NGOs and CSOs.
The overall message is that VFS GLOBAL has 100 per cent Nigerian employees at their centres serving fellow Nigerians. A level of respect has to come about by way of training, exposure, and upgrading (of) their skills for better customer services and standards which is a major priority to VFS GLOBAL.