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Grigor Joti & Armand Sharra

CEO, InfoSoft Group & CEO, InfoSoft Systems

Founded in 1991, InfoSoft Systems was one of the first companies established in Albania after the regime change. Today it is the leading IT company in the Albanian market and part of the larger InfoSoft Group, which comprises 14 business units with over 500 employees. The group is also present in Kosovo and Macedonia, making it a key regional player. At the present time, InfoSoft is playing a big role in the Albanian government’s drive to roll out an ambitious portfolio of online services for its citizens

How has InfoSoft grown and evolved alongside Albania over close to three decades?

GJ: We were one of the first companies created in Albania at a time when there was no private industry in the country, which also means that there was a lack of knowledge about how to handle a business. So we really started from scratch. But everything was like this at the time, and the situation also provided many opportunities. We started out by selling computers because the IT sector was really under-developed. People wanted to own a computer and learn how to use it. Later, we began producing software for applications. This company has grown with the country: as the demand grew, so did we in order to meet the needs of individuals, businesses and government. During the 1990s, a few foreign banks started to come to Albania and we became their suppliers as well. Then we began collaborating with international suppliers such as IBM, Compaq or Hewlett Packard, and we became fast learners.

There are opportunities to be found in a country with qualified people who are eager to learn

How have the ICT needs of the country changed since then?

GJ: During our first period, the needs were mostly on the hardware side. But with the development of the economy and new business growth, there were growing needs for IT solutions and software, especially within the government. At first, we handled these projects with foreign companies, providing local support and customization of solutions. Over the years, we branched out into software development, infrastructure, and project management and integration. We have delivered some of the most important projects for the government of Albania, such as a joint venture with an Austrian company to develop an e-taxation system, and another project with an Italian company for a government interoperability framework, to mention just a few. For seven years we have had a presence in Kosovo, and for the last two years we have also been operating in Macedonia, so we have become a regional player rolling out solutions in the western Balkans.

Which of your projects has been particularly satisfying or challenging?

AS: The government is currently investing significantly in innovation and online services for citizens. This requires a lot of software and infrastructure systems. The government has a vision to invest in these online services and this creates requirements for companies to be able to provide such solutions and services. This is where we have been successfully engaged in many projects involving, for instance, public procurement, interoperability systems, and an e-Albania portal system where all citizens and businesses can apply for online services such as social welfare or pensions. This allows citizens to obtain services directly without dealing personally with civil servants, which also helps reduce the level of corruption and increases the efficiency of the system. We are cooperating with international companies to develop these complex systems, learning from the know-how that they bring to Albania. We have evolved from being a local provider of infrastructure to providing more and more services; we act as a layer between the companies with the expertise and the needs of the market, while developing these systems together. Albania as a country is quite developed in this aspect compared to neighboring countries.

Security requires continuous investment and it is expensive for a country like Albania, but the trend is quite positive

What stage is e-procurement at? Can international bidders access a portal for information and applications?

AS: Yes, there is a portal for tenders, which are published online, and anybody inside or outside Albania can register and apply. There is quite a transparent process behind the evaluation and awarding of bids and there is also an open process for complaints. All of this has been available for some years now, and all tenders are done electronically; you can even apply for small-value tenders through your mobile phone. We worked with a group of companies to provide the infrastructure for all this, which requires secure technology available 24/7. We are also leading the support effort for this system from the software perspective, and working on further development. We are engaged in different projects engaging local government in a one-stop shop for citizens. Right now the government is able to provide almost 100 services through one single window.

Security is a huge concern everywhere. How is your company ensuring security in all these services and keeping up with the latest developments?

AS: This is a never-ending concern: as soon as you find a solution, there is a new threat. But the important thing is that both the private and public sectors are more aware and investing more in security, from monitoring to prevention. Identity is one of the key components of security, and we are quite advanced on the issue of biometrics solutions. This requires continuous investment and it is expensive for a country like Albania, but the trend is quite positive. Up until now, we haven’t had any major attacks. Some systems have been frequently audited and the results did not turn up major flaws. Banks, financial institutions and other key players have invested sufficiently to have reached a good level of security.

Right now, the government is able to provide almost 100 services through one single window

What about capacity-building in terms of employing and training Albanian workers?

GJ: This is a challenge for all IT companies because we supply cutting edge technology and because we keep a relationship with all these international suppliers, which means there are high demands for qualified staff, certifications and so on. It’s a challenge for us to maintain this relationship, and newly hired employees go through a training period. Passing all the exams and certifications can take anywhere from six months to a year even though university graduates are well prepared. So it is a big effort for us and comes at considerable cost. But this is the only way to do it, there is no choice. Plus, we are in a good position to attract people and offer competitive salaries. Now we have other competitors in the Western European market, where Albanians often go to for jobs, as well as the US. But this is an open market and that’s the way it is. We are investing and trying to create good conditions for people to work with us.

How could EU accession impact your business?

GJ: I am not a politician, but I think accession will create better standards of administration for foreign investment, which will, in turn, attract more FDI. Joining the EU will create more stability and a better climate for investors.

What would you say to potential German investors about Albania?

GJ: We have had some bad press, but that is not the real Albania. The real Albania is about people working every day to improve their lives. We have a past history as the periphery of big empires, and some of that still lingers. Then we had Communist rule for nearly 50 years. But things have changed now, and living conditions have improved. The government is introducing many reforms and we are moving in the right direction. There are opportunities to be found in a country with qualified people who are eager to learn. Investors should come and see the facts on the ground – that is the best way to find local partners and explore the possibilities.

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