Investing in the Digital Transformation of Yemen
"Every technician trained represents a step towards a brighter future for Yemen."
That's what I told a meeting of HSA Group’s Yemen region steering committee after my first visit to the country to kick-off a revolutionary digital transformation project. We have faced immense challenges stemming from Yemen's civil conflict, which has caused disruption across the country for over seven years. Despite this, HSA Group - Yemen region, through a partnership with Cisco, has succeeded in ensuring its business continuity and improving security, while providing a better future for its employees in Yemen and improving the country's IT infrastructure and knowledge base.
The Need to Unify Our Network
Hayel Saeed Anam (HSA) Group was established in Yemen in 1938 and is now one of the largest multinational conglomerates based in the Middle East, employing over 35,000 people across its operations. HSA is a family-owned business and serves various markets in the Middle East, North Africa, South East Asia and Europe. In its home market, Yemen, HSA is the largest private company in the country and the leading importer of food commodities and essential goods.
I joined HSA Group as Chief Information Technology Officer in November 2018 to lead the organization’s digital transformation across its 50+ operating companies in Yemen, which I oversee remotely from Cairo. Building digital organizations from scratch is my specialty, but doing so in a challenging operating environment such as Yemen’s was new for me.
To carry out such a task, I needed to assess the situation on the ground. I traveled to Yemen to see the industry and operations for myself, touring our manufacturing sites in Aden and Taiz. I also met my 100-person Yemeni IT team, who were in the process of developing a new disaster recovery protocol, in light of the ongoing conflict. Their original plan was to operate a data center in every city in Yemen, however, following a period of consultation, we decided that it would be wiser to invest heavily in the network rather than in hardware and servers.
The disruption in Yemen affects all cities, so we agreed to move to the cloud and unify our network. That meant simplifying our technical architecture and minimizing the number of vendors we used. We signed enterprise agreements with leading technology companies, such as our strategic partnership with Cisco, to start our digital transformation journey.
Where We Can't Travel, Webex by Cisco Keeps Us Connected
When my team began this project in 2019, there was no leased internet line in Yemen. To obtain a high-speed internet connection, we had to negotiate with not one but two governments. Our next mission was to connect our plants to high-speed internet. After assessing our cables, we found that the old ones couldn't support the speed of the leased lines we had purchased. Amid a very challenging situation on the ground, we therefore extracted 50 kilometers of copper cabling and replaced it with fiber optics. As we were laying the new cable, we were simultaneously developing plans for better communication and collaboration with our team in Yemen.
One of the most critical elements of this project was collaboration. We placed Webex Boards at our Yemeni offices in Sana'a, Aden, Al-Hudaydah, and Taiz, as well as in our offices in Cairo and Dubai. Managing the delivery of these devices, however, was another hurdle to overcome. We had to navigate the security requirements throughout the country, and the timing was unpredictable. But it was well worth the effort.
HSA Group is a large organization, but it is still a family business. The family members in Cairo and Dubai greatly value their connection with their people in Yemen, especially as flights into and out of the country are severely restricted. At our first meeting using Webex in 2020, about 80 people attended from our sites in Yemen.
Webex Boards are useful for connecting corporate offices and plants, and also for implementing new technologies when technicians could not be on site. For example, we successfully implemented SAP Enterprise Resource Planning software remotely across 18 companies via Webex Boards. Webex also allows us to deliver our ambitious training and development plan, holding regular remote training sessions for our Yemeni employees. We chose to deploy Webex Boards partly due to travel restrictions resulting from the conflict, but the timing was perfect because of further global constraints during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the next step in our transformation, we are investing further in Cisco’s collaboration solutions by implementing Cisco Unified Communications Manager to connect all our call centers in Yemen.
Before the transformation began, decisions about purchasing network devices used to be left to the general manager of each company in the group, resulting in a patchwork of low-cost, unsecured devices. We changed that decision-making process to make it more strategic and unified, choosing Cisco as a key partner on this project because their comprehensive portfolio of networking, security, and collaboration options offered an end-to-end solution.
We have now replaced all our unsecured network devices with corporate Cisco switches and routers. We have also built our security hierarchy with Cisco Meraki devices and firewalls at the city and company levels. The consolidation and migration to Cisco devices has saved us a lot of money while improving our security.
Laying the Groundwork for Improved Manufacturing
Our digital improvements have laid the groundwork for the transformation of our manufacturing processes. The first step involves replacing our industrial machines inside the plants with machines that can talk directly to our new systems. The integration will give us more accurate data about our operations, helping us to identify inefficiencies and waste in a fully automated manner. We plan to get to this stage of our transformation by 2025, but we can't do it without reliable network devices, which is an area that Cisco is helping us address.
Losing connectivity at our manufacturing facilities is a serious problem, and in a country like Yemen, we can't overstate the importance of a reliable backup and recovery process. In January 2022, the main telecom center in Al-Hudaydah was damaged, resulting in an internet outage for virtually the entire country. We designed our network to overcome disruptions like these, starting with four leased lines coming from four cities in Yemen. We are also protected by the reliability and flexibility of our Cisco devices, which allow for easy remote configuration. In the case of the Al-Hudaydah outage, we were able to reconfigure all our companies in Al-Hudaydah quickly to use the leased lines from other cities.
HSA Group has invested more than USD $3 million in the last two years with Cisco, between Webex, our call centers, and switching, router, and security devices. We plan to invest even more as HSA Group continues to future-proof its operations over the next few years.
More Than Infrastructure, Digital Transformation Is Also an Investment in People
Business owners usually look for stable ground on which to establish their company, but for the Saeed Anam family, being in Yemen is a matter of heritage. HSA Group feels a responsibility to the Yemeni people—not only to continue to provide the goods people use every day and depend on in a crisis, but to also develop their skills and capabilities.
HSA Group has always felt that people must be the cornerstone of its investment and transformation. It would be easy to hire technicians from our Dubai or Cairo office, but what's easy isn't always what's right. Building a better HSA Group in Yemen means building the skills and knowledge of Yemeni IT workers. In addition, the infrastructure required to develop these skills provides benefits outside of the business. For example, replacing the old copper internet cables with fiber optics improved local connectivity, enabling schools, universities, and other organizations to have access to high-speed internet.
Our next project is an initiative with Cisco to build four Cisco Networking Academies inside Yemeni universities. HSA Group is funding this project, establishing the labs, buying the devices, and paying for the instructors to educate the next generation of Yemeni IT professionals. These new academies represent a continuation of an ongoing skills-development initiative, which saw 80 training sessions delivered in 2019, leading to Cisco certification for many attendees.
When the Conflict Ends, We'll Be Ready
Yemen is still a resource-strapped country, but from my first visit, I noticed that people are hard-working and eager to learn. As Yemenis gain new skills through HSA’s investment, they increasingly see a future for themselves beyond the current conflict.
Yemen is a country of 30 million people, and they have suffered terribly for nearly a decade. But with peace, international investors will return to Yemen. They will bring international experience and the latest technologies with them. When that time comes, we can't afford to fall behind—and working with partners like Cisco ensures that we won't.
Many other companies would be hesitant to make such an investment during the conflict, preferring to exit the market or do the bare minimum to get by. But HSA is a Yemeni company with a long-term outlook. It has operated in the country for nearly 85 years, and supported communities in times of prosperity and crisis alike. When the conflict ends, HSA will still be here. We are continually investing in our infrastructure and our people, and we will be ready to compete.