Thursday, Oct. 11, 2007

Computer Frontiers focuses on Africa

‘Trade, not just aid,’ is key, says founder of Frederick information technology company

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Tom Fedor⁄The Gazette
‘‘Our growth has been astronomical because we started from nothing,” says Barbara Keating, founder of Computer Frontiers Inc. of Frederick.
With sister companies in Uganda, Ghana, Senegal and the Republic of South Africa, Barbara Keating has found a home for Computer Frontiers Inc.’s headquarters: Frederick.

The former Peace Corps volunteer founded the company in Germantown in 1993 to provide computer management and systems and soon established Computer Frontiers International for African countries. Last year, Keating moved to office space on Frederick Crossing Lane and has been connecting with the business community while moving toward establishing franchises and shoring up more growth for all her companies.

The bulk of the Computer Frontiers International’s operation lies in Uganda, where the company employs 25 workers and provides information technology support and management services as well as wireless connectivity, Keating said. It operates call centers and offers specialized software.

‘‘Our growth has been astronomical because we started from nothing,” Keating said.

All told, Computer Frontiers employs about 100 program managers and tech experts and is aiming to expand again, Keating said. The company draws annual sales of about $6 million but also does pro bono work for nonprofits and schools. In the next phase of its growth plan, Computer Frontiers is moving toward managed network services and advanced infrastructures.

Keating volunteered with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone from 1985 to 1987, developing oil palm and cocoa plantations, where she noticed that residents were eager to learn business techniques. Local economies, she said, receive the biggest boost from practicing sound business practices, not receiving handouts.

‘‘The programs that were really effective were the ones that provided trade, not just aid,” Keating said. ‘‘That’s what people really want. ... I believe people can do better by learning to help themselves.

African nations ‘‘can benefit by how we do business,” Keating said. ‘‘That’s why my companies are successful in Africa — they do business like Americans, from how we manage to how open we are. It’s not management versus the staff. We’re all in it together to make it work.”

Exports from Maryland companies to most countries in Africa increased last year from 2005, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures. Exports from Maryland companies to Ghana declined last year by 19 percent to $5.4 million, while they rose to South Africa by 29 percent.

In South Africa, the second largest trading partner with the United States after Algeria, businesses received $37.6 million in Maryland imports last year, up from $29.1 million in 2005. Chemicals and computers constituted the bulk of exports from Maryland businesses.

Another Frederick company on the cutting edge of international business is Welocalize, a translation company with eight offices that provides services in more than 40 countries. The company was recently ranked the 13th fastest growing technology and media company in Maryland by Deloitte and Touche USA LLP.

CEO E. Smith Yewell said several businesses in Frederick County — both small and large — are developing more overseas opportunities.

‘‘We are feeling the effects of globalization and exporting very strongly,” Yewell said. ‘‘Many companies are feeling the effects of the Internet, and the trend is not limited to metropolitan areas like D.C.”

Keating, a Wisconsin native with a bachelor’s in psychology, earned her master’s degree from Thunderbird School of Global Management and began working for the U.S. Agency for Interdependence. As a contractor, she helped launch the first e-mail network in seven countries in southern Africa, a model that prioritizes private-sector providers.

Keating later drafted a proposal to expand computer use in Africa with new policy, infrastructure and training. The research paper evolved into the Leland Initiative Project, a five-year, $15 million government effort that brought Internet connections to 21 African countries.

‘‘We worked with what was then the monopoly phone company,” Keating said. ‘‘We basically created an Internet industry” in Africa.

Founded in her bedroom in Germantown more than 10 years ago, Computer Frontiers was a natural transition from her contract work for USAID, Keating said.

In the United States, Computer Frontiers targets the Washington metropolitan area to provide Internet telephone technology and remote management services for local companies.

As Computer Frontiers’ international branches expand, the Frederick branch, nestled in a business park off Route 85, is shoring up local connections, from the Tech Council of Maryland to local nonprofits.

‘‘We’re really looking forward to getting more involved in the Frederick business community,” said Keating, who won an International Business Leadership Award from the World Trade Center Institute of Baltimore this year. ‘‘We’d like to do more things with them and get more engaged.”

the Bottom line

Exports from Maryland to Africa in 2006

Algeria: $141 million

South Africa: $38 million

Nigeria: $26 million

Liberia: $18 million

Ghana: $5 million

Sierra Leone: $3 million

Zambia: $2.5 million

Senegal: $1.6 million

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce