Uber's safety centre for SA is based in Egypt - here's how it works

Business Insider SA
Uber Cairo
  • If you are involved in a serious incident while using Uber in South Africa, you'll probably end up talking to someone in Cairo.
  • That's where Uber's specialist safety contact centre agents are located, serving a big swath of the world, including SA.
  • News24 specialist reporter Mandy Wiener got an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the centre, and how it deals with abusive passengers and car accidents.
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In a seven-storey, white, tile-and-glass building on Share’ El Tes’een street, which cuts through the affluent Fifth Settlement of ‘New Cairo’, sit dozens of agents behind computer screens wearing headsets, talking to South Africans. 

It’s not only South Africans they are handling, but also riders and drivers from fifteen other countries across Africa and the Middle East including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Uber calls this their "Centre of Excellence", the first in the region and the largest in the MENA region. Set up in 2016, it operates 24/7, with 700 staffers providing support to Uber and Uber Eats customers and couriers in English, Urdu, French, and Arabic. One hundred and thirty of the agents look after Sub Saharan Africa.

It's Silicon Valley meets the Middle East, with the buzz of a tech company and the culture of Egypt throughout. In the canteen, staff can chill out playing Xbox or Foosball. Outside on the streets below is the cacophony of chaotic Cairo traffic, where white lines on the road are merely decorative.The Egyptians wearing the headsets are members of Uber’s Incident Response Team, which means when you take a ride on an Uber in Joburg or Cape Town and you are in a crash or a hijacking, these are the people you'll deal with.     

Uber allowed us inside the building and let us sit in on calls with riders and drivers – though with extreme measures in place to protect the privacy of clients and staff.

The building is divided into sections responsible for driver support, rider support, Uber Eats, social media, account security and risk and the key aspect of safety support. Country flags hang in the areas responsible for that particular geography, although most of the agents may never have even visited the region they’re working on. Walls are decorated with graffiti-style murals; one is a bright maroon background with green toucans, another is a minimalist Uberesque car design.

On the first floor, where the safety support for South Africa is located, the wall features a "Super Heroes" mural. 

Uber graffiti

This is who you'll find at the other end of the phone.

Egypt is a regional hub for customer service centers, and many of the agents in the Uber building have worked for companies such as HSBC, Vodafone, SAP, and IBM. Most are university graduates who have studied anything from accounting to art.

Yasmine Aldamiry
Yasmine Aldamiry

Yasmine Aldamiry, dressed in Adidas sneakers, a long black skirt, and an olive green head cover, gushes about the South Africans she’s dealt with. "When I talk to them, we don’t get into personal details but I would like to tell them I like nature and I would like to go see South Africa one day", says Aldamiry. 

A 12-week training course prepared her for the cultural nuances of dealing with South Africans.

"When I started the job before the training, I had no idea what a ‘robot’ means. We call it different words here but we got trained on this. I definitely had trouble in the beginning with accents but we go through a period of time in the training. Part of this is live support from mentors so we can get trained on accents, how they talk," she says.

Omar Elsemary
Omar Elsemary

Omar Elsemary has been at Uber for two years and has also worked for other multination corporations in the region, including Vodafone. Like many of the other men in the building, he’s dressed in that tech company standard – a hoodie.

"I am planning to go to South Africa soon. They are very kind and engaging. And you get used to the accent and the language,’ he tells me.

One accident and you'll never see that Uber driver again.

Uber let me follow two cases agents were working on, one a live incident Aldamiry was busy with, the other a completed case Elsemary walked me through. Both were pre-selected by Uber and – probably no coincidence – in neither was the Uber driver the bad guy.

In the first, the live report, a passenger had sent a message to Uber through the app reporting that the Uber they ordered from Empire Road in Auckland Park had been in an accident. The car had rear-ended another vehicle, but "the driver wasn’t driving dangerously".

On her system, Aldamiry was also able to watch a live video of the trip to try and establish exactly what had happened. On a map, we could follow the journey taken by the driver, with various colours denoting the speed of the car at any given time and how, when, where and for how long they stopped. Aldamiry sent a message to the passenger and then followed up with a phone call.

She explained that the rider would be refunded for the trip, even though she said the rider told her "it wasn’t about the money".

She then phoned the driver to assess the damage to his vehicle from the accident. She put the vehicle on hold until the driver sent through photographs of his car to review for roadworthiness. Aldamiry also took another step which was to "plot future pairings", ensuring that the two parties involved in the incident would not meet again in the future. In other words, that Uber client wouldn’t get sent that driver again. 

When passengers lie about a Nando's stop.

In the second example, which had already been resolved, a driver in Port Elizabeth had reported that a "very drunk" rider had fallen asleep in the back seat of his car at around 7PM. When he woke up during the trip, the passenger was abusive and violent, using the k-word and assaulting the driver. His shirt and sweater were torn in the process, he said. 

I asked Elsemary whether as a non-South African, he could understand the context and severity of the ‘k-word’. He said that during their training, the nuances of local culture were fully explained to them. 

In this incident, the agent started by phoning the driver to check on him and his story. They then put a temporary suspension on the rider’s account and blocked future pairings between the two. They then reached out to the rider to hear his side of the story. 

The passenger’s version was that he had taken the trip and that he had asked the driver to stop so that he could buy a Nando’s chicken meal for himself and the driver. He said they then reached the destination without any problems. There was no mention of an assault. The agent investigated which version was more plausible. Replaying the trip, they were able to establish that none of the stops were long enough to allow time to get any Nando’s – and also there were no Nando’s outlets on the route. 

Uber wouldn’t share the outcome of this particular incident, but options include deregistering the drunk passenger, or giving him a warning. 

South Africans seem to be happy dealing with Egyptians.

Uber has call centres all around the world, with different types for different issues. An in-country centre may be able to handle a lost cellphone or umbrella, but a car crash or a drunken assault needs a specialised team of safety experts.

Alon Lits, general manager of Uber for sub-Saharan Africa, says the company did look at Cape Town as an option for such a centre, but decided on Cairo because of cost and availability of talent. 

“As a company we have got a number of these locations across the world and we have got a central team that are making these decisions based on ease of finding talent, operations etc. From a cost perspective it made more sense to invest [in Egypt]. That may change in the future depending on how the business grows and evolves over the next couple of years," says Lits.

"South Africa needs to consider that they're operating in a globally competitive world. So when policy makers are thinking about where are future jobs going to be created, they need to consider what regulation is in place to ensure that global companies are choosing South Africa as a location rather than going to another country."

Lits says that, from the feedback received from drivers and passengers, they don’t seem to mind that there is an Egyptian voice on the other end of the line.

"The key concern is that you want your issue addressed, so you’re less concerned what is the accent on the other side of the phone and more concerned is that person able to help me address my concern.”

Wiener travelled to Cairo as a guest of Uber.

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