Posted on August 3, 2004

Outsourcing Comes To Africa, Bringing Jobs

AP, New Haven Register, Jul. 11

DAKAR, Senegal — On the job, she’s Dominique Mercier — nattering in lilting French, working her headset eight hours a day, and hawking telephone services to Europeans.

Come day’s end, the accent drops, and Dominique’s true identity stands revealed: Fatou Ndiaye, 32-year-old Senegalese college graduate, and one of thousands of operators dialing up the West from booming call centers in West Africa.

“When I applied for this job, I did not know what it was, or what to expect,” says Ndiaye, now a supervisor watching over a dozen operators wearing Islamic head scarves, West African robes or Western clothes.

The women chatter away in the finest — faked — Parisian accents to consumers in France, 3,700 miles to the north.

“Now, I can tell you, it’s pure thrill,” Ndiaye says at her work station, a cherished cubicle in a vast air-conditioned room of immaculate white walls and picture windows.

Across West Africa, varying degrees of instability, corruption and decay long have scared outside businesses. But in countries that are managing to get, or hold, it together, low-cost African outsourcing is luring investors and jobs.

The numbers, although not totaled, are clearly tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. and European jobs migrating to India, China, Malaysia and the Philippines. Thus far, outsourcing is less an issue in France than in the United States, because only 2 percent of French jobs are outsourced.

But where outsourcing exists in Africa, it’s huge.

In Ghana, Affiliated Computer Services of Texas has become one of the largest private employers in the English-speaking West African nation.

In Accra, Ghana’s capital, more than 1,700 employees process American health insurance claims around the clock. The forms are filled out under the supervision of Americans 8,000 miles away and electronically shipped to the United States via satellite.

Senegal, a bucolic former French colony boasting a rare African record of 44 coup-free years since independence, is luring outsourcing from the Francophone world.

Senegal’s stability, low wages, and stock of young, educated employees attracted Ndiaye’s employer, the French-Senegalese partnership of Premium Contact Center International.

So did Senegal’s infrastructure — a fiber optic cable running from France gives the country telecommunications as good as any in Europe.

“Besides, here we can get the best and smoothest French accent,” call center deputy managing director Abdoulaye M’boup said.

French is one of Senegal’s national languages, and the educated in Dakar speak both it and the local language, Wolof.

At the call center, the minimum educational requirement for operators is a college degree.

Some 600 operators, ages 20 to 25, work up to 40 hours a week — equipped with a French-sounding pseudonym and a carefully drilled French accent to raise the comfort levels of their customers.

Thanks to a generous loan from a West African development bank, and an operating cost that’s 30 percent cheaper than in France, the call center will more than double its staff to 700 this year, M’Boup said.

Eight hours a day earns a starting salary of $200 a week. Pay goes up to $500, plus benefits and bonuses, for the most productive operators.

Compared to the minimum wage of $1,200 offered their counterparts in France, it’s not much. But for a country where minimum wage is $85 a week, it’s a godsend.

“Can you imagine — when I started out on the job, I was making more money than my father,” a civil servant, Ndiaye says.

As she speaks, she listens into a conversation between a nearby caller and a potential client in France.

She types, and the words “Wonderful! Keep going, it’s perfect!” pop up on the screen of Martine Diouf, a 28-year-old operator.

Speaking high, fast, and nasal, Diouf pulls outrageously on the ‘r’ in her opening “Bonjour,” — passing as a vrai Parisienne, and winning the consumer’s trust from the start.

Marina Guillaume, a 42-year-old hospital lab worker in St. Denis, France, never suspected that when she called her telephone service’s toll-free number, the person answering was thousands of miles away.

The news brings dual twinges of altruism and alarm, familiar now to Americans.

“I had no idea, but if it can help a family survive, why not?” Guillaume said, then adds, “It’s sad, though, that jobs are being lost here in France.”

Only 2 percent of telephone sales jobs in France are outsourced, according to CESMO, a French consultants group.

Still, French unions are getting nervous.

“Not all jobs can be outsourced — some have to stay chez nous,” Martine Zuber of the French Confederation for Labor Democracy, told The Associated Press.

Chez nous is Senegal, a reporter in Dakar replied.

“Oh?” Zuber asked. “You speak very good French.”