Kenya rings in call centre cash

09 April 2005 09:41

There are six gleaming clocks on the wall of the call centre, telling the time
in Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, New York, London and Nairobi.

The last is the biggest surprise. Despite the potential hazards of power cuts,
corruption and lousy telephone lines, Kenya's first international call centre
is eager to steal a slice of the action from Bangalore.

Kencall, which sells wireless mobile phones to British customers and mortgages
in the United States, is worlds away from the reality of the Kenyan capital.

In a city filled with the honk of impatient buses and the ring of construction
hammers, the call centre has only a low buzz of conversation and a gentle
electronic hum.

Packed with 120 callers, most of them recent university graduates, the centre
has its own standby generator and phones the world through its own private
satellite dish rather than relying on the crumbling public telephone system.

It is part of a burgeoning business in Africa which has brought telesales and
enquiries jobs to South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco and Madagascar.

But Africa is still such a call centre minnow -- there are only about 54 000
employed on the continent out of a world total of 6-million -- that most
customers believe the Kenyan agents must be dialling from India.

"I think they've never heard of a call centre in Africa," said Christine Amondi
(30) who studied at secretarial college and hopes to do a law degree.

"Some get very interested when I say I'm calling from Africa, and they start
asking about the weather and the animals."

Although most graduates are already fluent in English, there are some obstacles
to perfect communication.

Kenyan English is peppered with Swahili words, and the callers must be trained
out of this habit.

"When I first started it was very hard not to say words like sawa [Swahili for
OK]," Amondi said.

"Like, 'I'll phone you tomorrow -- sawa'. The person on the other end will be
like, 'What have you just said?'."

There are also pitfalls in the pronunciation of British place names, such as the
Midlands town occasionally referred to as "Lie-sesta".

Sometimes a Kenyan pronunciation of a well-known word will sound odd to British
ears, as in "Dee-sembah" for the last year of the month.

And after the leisurely courtesies of Africa, European impatience can come as a

"For us Kenyans, even if I don't like you, I'll explain to you why I don't like
you," Amondi said.

"But some of the people we speak to don't give us a chance, they are just

The consensus, however, is that Brits are better than Americans when it comes to
giving callers a polite brush-off.

"The British tend to say they're sorry," said Christine Nyasae (25). "They'll
say 'I'm sorry love, but I'm not interested'.

"The Americans don't put it as nicely as the British do."

The callers earn about 25 000 Kenyan shillings a month, the equivalent of £170
(R1 974), a reasonable wage in a country where poor economic growth means many
graduates are out of work. Most people live on less than a dollar a day.

A recent World Bank survey cited corruption as the biggest obstacle to doing
business in Kenya, but Kencall's chief executive, Nicholas Nesbitt, said the
climate had been transformed since former president Daniel Arap Moi was voted
out of office in December 2002.

"There was only one occasion, when I was waiting for a licence, and a group of
businessmen told me they could pay anyone in the government that I wanted them
to pay.

"It was so offensive to me that I nearly walked away from the dinner table." -
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005