Seated before a computer screen in a small, busy room in north Africa, Fatma Khalfallah asks the Frenchman at the other end of the telephone line whether he would like to receive a free catalogue of frozen meals.

 

Khalfallah's new job at the Maghreb Call Centre(M2C) in Tunisia's capital, Tunis, has opened a window on the future for the 26-year-old, who had been unable to find work despite holding a degree in finance and a masters in quality management.

 

"I chose to be a telemarketer to escape unemployment instead of wasting time and waiting at home for a miracle to happen," she said.

 

French link

 

Tunisia boasts a growing army of youngsters desperate for employment.

 

"Before, I saw the call centre work as just a way to get some pocket money, now I'm keen to have a good career in this field"

Mustapha Nehdi,
Telemarketer

The government says there were 49,000 university graduates in 2005, up from just 3,600 in the early 1980s, and the number is expected to jump to 300,000 by 2009.

 

France is Tunisia's top foreign trading partner and investor and most Tunisians learn French from the age of seven, emerging from school with the fluency and flawless accents needed to sell insurance, phone lines or apartments to even the most reluctant customers.

 

As a result, more than 40 call centres have sprung up in the country of 10 million, absorbing 5,000 job seekers.

 

Tunisia has welcomed foreign investors to boost growth and fight unemployment. Over the past decade, foreign investment has created an average of 260,000 jobs a year.

 

'A good career'

 

Analysts predict growth in
Africa's call centre industry 

The agents at the call centre work for eight hours a day, logging up to 250 calls, with a 15 minute break every two hours. Their basic wage is about $340 a month, compared to French minimum wage of $1545.

 

"Before, I saw the call centre work as just a way to get some pocket money," says employee Mustapha Nehdi.

 

"But now I'm keen to have a good career in this field, which should develop strongly in the coming years."

 

Targeting unemployment

 

Some business analysts predict major growth in Africa's call centre industry thanks to cheap labour, good language skills and time zones that align with western Europe.

 

"Call centres have given the country a much needed shot in the arm"

Majdi Ben Mleh,
In charge of staff training, M2C

In research published this month, London-based market analysis firm Datamonitor said the number of call centre agent positions in north Africa - which includes Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia - would triple by 2010 to around 23,000.

 

Creating jobs is a priority in Tunisia. According to government data, unemployment stands at 13.9%, with university graduates accounting for 60% of the jobless.

 

The government is targeting annual growth of 6.3% over the next decade to trim the jobless rate to 10%.

 

"Call centres have given the country a much needed shot in the arm", says Majdi Ben Mleh, in charge of staff training at M2C.

 

"They help lure more foreign investment and alleviate the unemployment burden."