Sikov - stock.adobe.com
For years, Belarus has hovered below the radar of most IT executives in Western Europe. As other countries in the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region have risen in prominence, thanks to their expertise in IT outsourcing and business process outsourcing (BPO) services, Belarus has received almost no attention.
But it would be a mistake to ignore Belarus just because of the autocratic nature of the government. It’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, is often criticised by campaigners, who have described Belarus as “the last dictatorship in Europe”, but his nation has prospered since the collapse of the Soviet Union without creating waves of poverty or oligarchs seizing control of industry in the way that was seen in Russia. In Belarus, business takes place in a stable environment with trust between organisations.
There are genuine reasons to be optimistic about the IT industry in Belarus. The country ranks 38th of nearly 200 countries in the World Bank’s annual ease of doing business ranking and scores better than many established outsourcing destinations in the most recent Transparency International corruption perception index.
Naturally, investors and customers of companies located in Belarus will be interested to follow the evolving geopolitical situation – Belarus is politically very close to Russia. However, technology is deep in the culture of this society and, as a recent feature in the LA Times suggests, millions of users of messaging app Viber and players of World of Tanks don’t really worry about politics – they just want to see and use great technology.
Belarus is extremely well connected and has nurtured a culture of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for many decades. During the Soviet era, Minsk was designated as the USSR’s technology hub and, as many visitors have observed, this focus on technology still resonates today. There are an estimated 100,000 IT experts living in Belarus and a vibrancy about the technology industry that resembles campus and startup life in California.
Support for startups
The recently completed Hi-Tech Park Belarus in the capital city, Minsk, is a hub for much of this activity. It is a modern campus-style facility that acts as a strategic incubator for entrepreneurs throughout the IT value chain. Established companies can use the space and young startups can apply for free offices and support to help kick-start their idea.
Mark Hillary, Carnaby Content
Current tenants include application developers, hardware manufacturers and prospective disruptors, many of the latter focusing on cryptocurrencies. Despite the downturn in the value of bitcoin, many analysts believe that blockchain expertise will be critically important in the next few years for logistics and supply chain solutions.
A central aim of the Hi-Tech Park Belarus is to implant products and services in overseas markets – it is not just offering free office space to entrepreneurs. The ongoing international success of major companies such as IBA Group and EPAM demonstrate that IT service players can emerge from Belarus. In addition, the strength of the gaming industry and startup culture shows that this is an innovative location where new ideas are constantly emerging.
The IBA Group campus in central Minsk is further proof of how far the industry has developed in Belarus. IBA Group was born in Belarus in 1993 and now employs almost 3,000 people all over the world and has customers in 40 countries. It is headquartered in the Czech Republic, which means it is based inside the European Union (EU), but it has maintained a software development facility in Minsk and has permanent office locations in 10 other countries too.
IBA Group is an interesting example of how far the industry in Belarus has moved on from the stereotype of IT service companies in Eastern Europe just offering low-cost engineers to clients in the UK, France and Germany. It is focused on complete solutions, rather than software development alone.
A good example is the public transport ticketing system it developed for use in Minsk – it’s very similar to the Oyster card system in London. IBA put together all the card readers, terminals and software needed to make it work – a complete integration of hardware and software. It has also delivered hundreds of robotic process automation (RPA) projects on behalf of the major RPA software companies – experience which sets it apart from all the usual hype about automation.
Belarus boasts a growing tech scene
Minsk is the 11th largest city in Europe, with almost two million residents, and Belarus has several other sizeable cities where technology expertise can be located. The total population of the country is about 9.5 million.
The government is also making it easier to visit and do business in the country. Since 2017, citizens of 80 countries, including the US and all of Western European, have been able to travel to Belarus without a visa – a 30-day visa is granted on arrival allowing business visitors the ability to easily visit the country. The flight time to Minsk from major European cities such as London and Paris is about three hours.
More than 100,000 people now work in the IT sector in Belarus, and it’s easy to see why. IT is a highly respected industry that is growing and creating opportunities. Average salaries for IT workers were estimated by EY in its 2017 analysis of the Belarus economy to be about four-and-a-half times national average incomes. This is markedly different from Western Europe and consequently there is a wave of innovation sweeping the sector in Belarus.
If you still view IT in Eastern Europe as just a nearshoring solution, offering low-cost engineers and augmentation for projects that need technology expertise, then Belarus is worth a closer look. For a relatively small country, the national attention to, and support of, the technology industry is exciting to see.
Mark Hillary is the CEO of Carnaby Content.