Pensioners phoning to book taxis in Stockholm now speak to call operators based in Dakar. A number of positive factors are attracting European call centres to the Senegalese capital.
For four years Senegalese polyglot Dey Ndiouf has faced the hustle of Dakar’s rush hour traffic, travelling downtown to fashionable Point E for her job as a Swedish-language call centre operator.
She is one of a growing number of English language graduates given just seven months to learn Swedish fluently, and begin a career booking taxis for customers in Stockholm.
A native speaker of Serer, Dey has mastered English and French, the official language of Senegal, as well as Wolof, Pulaar and a further three national languages.
“Africans are so good at learning languages because we’re a curious people, and we’re obliged to discover the cultures of the people we live with,” says Dey, 37.
European companies are progressively tapping into this rich skill set, establishing call centre offices in one of Africa’s most stable nations.
Coura Fall, Senegal manager of Swedish-owned Samres AB, says this situation was brought about “by the reduction of telecommunication rates, the emergence of the internet and the regrouping of educated and multilingual agents.”
Over the past decade, Senegal has established itself as a secure offshore destination for call centres.
Infrastructural improvements, including a newly built $575m Turkish-run international airport, a favourable geographical and time zone location in relation to Europe, and a capital city not plagued by the regular electricity and water shortages experienced elsewhere in the region, mean that Senegal is ideally placed to emulate the success of South Africa, whose presence in the call centre market has been growing at twice the global rate in recent years.
Senegal is becoming a hub of the call centre industry in the French-speaking market.
Today, many foreign companies, particularly French-owned businesses, outsource their customer relationships to call centres established in the region, with direct competitor countries Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia making up the bulk of the offshore market. Such centres are 30-40% cheaper to run than European or American call centres, according to Fall.
The major driving force is the ability to make wage savings while still providing services in the appropriate business language of the company.
Samres AB provides seven months of in-house Swedish language training for recruits in Dakar, who are paid CFA65,000 ($112) a month.
They are taught by two teachers – a Swedish woman and a Senegalese woman who has lived and worked in Scandinavia. Once candidates enter the classroom, only Swedish can be spoken.
The teachers educate their students through lessons, CDs and books, while regular tests ensure progress is monitored.
When students reach a certain level, call monitoring is introduced, and then progressive call handling. At the end of the seven months students take a final exam, after which a contract is awarded for successful applicants. “Only one or two of the 20 usually drop out, usually for personal and life reasons,” says Fall.
Successful candidates go on to earn approximately CFA225,000 ($388) a month.
This is well above the average wage of CFA88,157 for non-agricultural workers in Senegal, but represents a big saving on the 27,664 Swedish krona ($2,970) that an employee based in Sweden could be paid for a month’s work.
With the cost of skilled linguists lower than most places in the world, tax incentives and a large pool of applicants to chose from – one ad for every Swedish course at Samres AB will generate more than 400 applicants and recruit 20 people – “the growth prospects of Senegalese call centres seem pretty good,” says Fall.
Threat of automation
On the second floor of Samres AB’s call centre, which is situated directly opposite many of the cafes and bars popular with the city’s expat community, operators work at stations indistinguishable from those in Cape Town, Swansea or Manila.
Some agents are on long-term contracts, others are new and have recently graduated from the University of Dakar, while others hope to work in the same market or for Samres AB in Sweden in the future.
However, the industry perches on the edge of profound technological change.
Software robots, or chatbots, are being steadily introduced to call centre operations.
Google’s AI assistant can make calls imitating the natural inflections of human speech, making it nearly impossible to distinguish them from a real caller.
Software can often handle the live chat used by many companies on their websites, and automation is being geared up to answer all but the most pressing customer inquiries.
Nonetheless, key industry experts remain bullish, and expect the market to ride the tech wave.
“People will always be needed for complex, emotional and urgent tasks, but AI/automation will take a big chunk of the ‘easy’ work,” says international contact centre expert Steve Morrell of ContactBabel.
This is good news for Samres AB, and good news for Dey Ndiouf, who says, “When I was a little girl, my dream job was to be an airport official.
“We are never going to know exactly how things are going to turn out tomorrow, but I am happy with this job.”