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West Africans Profit in Call Centers

In West Africa, many of today's technologically sophisticated college graduates are making money and helping develop a new industry in the region: internet-based call centers. The call centers provide telephone marketing and customer service for companies around the world. Naomi Schwarz recently visited a start-up call center in Senegal's capital, Dakar and reports on the growing industry.

In his private life, Senegalese Moustapha Diallo is known by his given name. But when he is answering telephone calls at a call center in downtown Dakar he uses a different identity.

Today, Diallo is Frédérique Maillard. And he is not the only one.

We are all Frédérique Maillard today, he says, referring to his male co-workers. He says the customers in France feel more comfortable when he uses a familiar-sounding name.

Diallo and his colleagues provide telephone marketing and customer service for corporate clients. And with low-cost internet telephones and inexpensive labor, they can do it for less money than a call center in Europe.

Call center operators in France are paid far more than us, says Agnes Bassène, who works with Diallo. But, she says, I tell myself that it is because their cost of living is much higher.

Sitting in front of a computer, with a headset, Bassene, Diallo and their colleagues use the computer to make phone calls to France. They are doing a telemarketing campaign.

At call centers that take calls directly, the customers in France dial a French telephone number and are re-routed over the internet to an operator in Senegal or elsewhere. Call centers also use fax machines and e-mail to follow-up with customers.

The first call centers came to Senegal about five years ago. Other call centers have opened in Mali, Benin, and elsewhere in West Africa.

Senegal's largest call center now has more than 500 employees. But the current trend is for smaller enterprises. With a minimum of equipment, a few computers, headsets, and fax machines, and a high-speed internet connection, even a private house can become a call center.

"It is coming. I hear about a lot of new call centers that want to start," said Zohar Zeidan, who founded the Way2Call call center with a French partner less than a year ago, in a commercial space above Dakar's bustling downtown Sandaga market.

Zeidan, who has opened other call centers elsewhere in Africa, estimates that Senegal now has approximately 20 percent of France's offshore call center business, behind Morocco and Mauritius.

France is the biggest client for call centers in former French colonies, like Senegal. French is still the national language in many of the former colonies, so there are many fluent speakers. The companies save money by using an off-shore call center, and, Zeidan says, the off-shore call centers do everything possible to make it seem like the customer is not dealing with someone in another country.

But, he says, France is not the only country hiring African call centers.

In a small conference room, Agnes Bassène and another colleague are testing the English conversation skills of several job candidates for a new contract Way2Call has just signed with an American company.

Zeidan says African call centers should also look to local businesses for future clients.

"I am preparing some offers for local companies here who do not know what a call center is," said Zeidan. "They do not know what a call center can do for them. If they knew, they would quickly come."

Bassène, who has a degree in business and law, says that she would prefer to have a job more directly related to her studies. She says she works at the call center because she could not find a job in her field for many months.

Zohar Zeidan says others are eager for the jobs and resumes are pouring in.

"Every day I have between five and 10 C.V.'s. Every day. I did not have any advertising," added Zeidan.

Unemployment estimates in West Africa are relatively high, reaching 40percent and higher. As more students graduate with college degrees, they find it hard to get jobs that make use of their skills and education.

Call centers provide one such opportunity, and employees say it also gives them a chance to interact with people from all around the world.