One tiny country in West Africa is betting on human capital in the race for foreign investment

(This is a transcript of the podcast posted on Tuesday, August 31st, 2021. You can listen to the podcast by clicking on this link https://www.buzzsprout.com/1655965/9116950)

DUMI JERE:

Greetings ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this week’s episode of The Weekly Beat. Firstly, I’m coming to you from Johannesburg in South Africa. Joining me is Maggie Mutesi, joining me from Dakar, Senegal. And today we’ve got a treat for you folks. We’ve got a special guest joining us from Banjul in The Gambia. His name is Maudo Jallow, and he is an advisor to the Office of the President of The Gambia. Maudo, welcome.

MAUDO JALLOW:

Thank you for having me.

DUMI JERE:

Great. Great. So we’re looking forward to a great conversation. Maggie, welcome.

MAGGIE MUTESI:

Yeah, I’m in Dakar. It’s good to have Maudo on the podcast today.

DUMI JERE:

We’re very excited to talk about The Gambia and particularly because it’s well regarded as the smiling coast of Africa, and Maudo correct me if I’m wrong in saying that, but it is one of the smaller countries in the West Africa and we want to learn more about it. How have you folks been coping first of all with the COVID pandemic? How’s been the response from the government and citizens? What’s been going on? Please fill us in.

MAUDO JALLOW:

Yeah, so gladly. So we in The Gambia initially had a problem that wasn’t necessarily unique to us. We had a problem of adequate testing and proper facilities to be able to, one, judge the current states, to have up-to-date data, to judge the state of the spread in the country and then, two, facilities to take care of people that are sick. So a lot of makeshift facilities had to be put up in order to be able to isolate or treat people as well. So initially it was quite worrying for a lot of people. And because we didn’t really know what the true state of the COVID pandemic was in our country due to lack of data.

I guess 18 months or so from that, what we’re seeing now is that there’s a huge improvement in terms of capacity. A lot of people have taken up the job of just joining government or volunteering. Also international organizations have stepped in, so there really is this renewed confidence because of the Ministry of Health now has their data and testing is up. And there are a lot of testing centers. We’re still not where we want it to be, but it’s a huge improvement from last year.

DUMI JERE:

All right. At least there’s some good traction that’s going on. In terms of vaccines, where are you faring? I know, obviously as a continent we are all lagging behind, but as a country, how are you folks doing?

MAUDO JALLOW:

In relative terms, I think we’re doing well. So when you look at the figures, well, the last figures that I saw, which was as of yesterday, we’ve fully vaccinated around 160,000 people or close to it, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but in a country where the population is around 2.2 million that’s significant because it’s up there in terms of percentage in African countries. What’s really helped us is that we got a shipment of Johnson & Johnson shots.

MAGGIE MUTESI:

Yeah, it’s very interesting. And when I spoke to Dumi this morning, I said, “We’re having Maudo from The Gambia.” The question was, “Oh my goodness, we really need to cover this country.” Obviously there’s so much to touch on, but because the entire podcast is basically investments and business, I just want to touch on recovery. As we see a lot of economies, of course, opening up, from East Africa restrictions are being eased because of the amount of money that has been lost with the effects of COVID-19. We’re looking at Gambia going into elections in December, but again, it’s one of the most affected economies considering that it highly depends on tourism. What are we looking at post this pandemic, or as we move into the elections in December what would you tell investors?

MAUDO JALLOW:

As a Gambian, I would love to say that it’s still a great place to invest. However, we do have some significant challenges and due to the lack of diversification of the economy, we do have an issue. Unfortunately, the sectors that have hurt is tourism and the greater sort of hospitality sector has struggled greatly. And Gambia wasn’t necessarily an all-year round tourist destination. It was seasonal and still will be. So it really, really got hammered. And there aren’t a lot of flights that come here to begin with. So a lot of the tourist or chartered flights from the U.K. and other parts of Europe stopped flying to Gambia.

So there were some real issues, a lot of unemployment as a result, people lost their jobs and the tourism sector is huge in The Gambia in terms of employment, but also in terms of our GDP and the people’s livelihoods. So there’s some real challenges. However, speaking to experts here who are in the hotel industry, I have a lot of friends who are in the hotel industry and they’re optimistic about the future because they feel that there is a real chance to get some investment and turn things around.

DUMI JERE:

Okay. So it sounds like the majority of the GDP probably came from all or probably comes from tourism sector. And I suppose like many other governments across the continent, there needs to sort of diversify and sort of look at new revenues and not just rely on tourism. Because when I was reading a report just the other day, and it was saying that the tourism industry is going to struggle to come back.

So we’re looking at sort of like protracted downward numbers when it comes to tourism. A funny story about The Gambia. I vividly remember when I was, I think I was in, well, we call it Form 3 in Zimbabwe. So I did my high school as we all did. We were told to draw the map of Africa. I vividly remember my history teacher just, I’m like, “No I’m done.” And I gave him my map of Africa and then he just took one, look at it, like, “There’s no Gambia here.” So from that day onwards, it became something that I always notice whenever I see a map of Africa with Gambia. I need to see Gambia here.

MAUDO JALLOW:

I’m upset though. I’m really upset.

MAGGIE MUTESI:

However, it brings me to one of the things I am always curious about. And of course, as somebody who really loves to go around too, and I get so fascinated about stories when it comes to business and investment and all of this. One of the biggest stories I loved was the Senegambia Bridge that I think both countries agreed on a couple of years ago, but now when you think about it Dumi, and of course, Maudo when you look at it and you see Gambia in the middle of Senegal, and it is one of the fastest growing economies as of last year, of course, Gambia is also on the rise as well. There is so much happening. There is always a question that is this in any way affecting, is this in any way costing the country, The Gambia, as it is? I mean, this is something I’m always curious about.

MAUDO JALLOW:

You make a great point. The project itself, according to the figures that I have, cost about $90 million. And it was a combination of different funders, including the ADB. The ADB was huge in funding this, and when that happens, usually it tells you something about the aim of the project, right? So creating greater infrastructure for trade between The Gambia and Senegal, but also it would cut the travel time for major trade in the region because alternatively, you would either need to use the ferry, which takes a while and it’s not very reliable or you need to go around the whole of The Gambia in order to get to Dakar or vice versa. So it really was looking at cutting the time it takes to transport goods. And also it was more sort of this symbol and real sign of regional unity and creating literally a bridge between the two countries.

DUMI JERE:

Okay. I’m sort of curious, how has been the situation in the country from a development perspective, obviously with the new government in place following the departure of exiled former President Yahya Jammeh. How has the new president been embraced? How has been the situation like? What sort of efforts have been taken to sort of maintain peace throughout this whole time? More so now as we look forward to the elections, what are some of the things that are being done in the country to sort of maintain peace?

MAUDO JALLOW:

Yeah. So I think this is something you could probably have a whole two hour show about. But to summarize, I think the main thing is in terms of the security situation, it’s been very, very stable. If you speak to several people who post-Jammeh were worried about what you would call “unstable security situation,” they’ve been largely wrong. However, there were incidents particularly very early on with some of Jammeh’s loyalists who are still, obviously they’re Gambians, they’re citizens and they’re still here.

And with the new democracy that’s been founded, their voices are valid and of course they have a right to speak out. However, some of it got violent. But again, these were isolated incidents. Largely the country is stable, it’s peaceful. And Gambia has a track record of being both stable and peaceful. And the final point I would say on that is the ECOWAS mission here called ECOMIG, which is the ECOWAS mission in The Gambia has been great in terms of being a stabilizing force.

So there’s an ECOWAS force of military personnel here who have been supporting The Gambian military apparatus in order to maintain peace and also be a formal part of the guards at the State house and also in ministries. So they’ve done a good job as well, so I want to commend ECOWAS for that. African solutions to African problems.

MAGGIE MUTESI:

Yeah. I mean, I get so curious because also with the departure of the former president, he left a collapsed economy, weak institutions. There’s so much that happened there. The amount of money that he left with as well that I think the government is fighting to get back. Economically when we look at The Gambia. Now, of course, I know you’re working on probably different strategies I’m assuming. Especially with a campaign coming in December, what are some of the priorities you’re looking at in terms of moving forward especially in a region that is becoming much more competitive, we’re looking at Dakar, you’re surrounded by countries like Senegal that are actually moving at a pace that is unimaginable.

MAUDO JALLOW:

Absolutely. I completely agree. And this is a topic that I discuss with family, friends and colleagues all the time is, in a region where you have superstars like Senegal, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and so on, how do you set yourself apart and how do you attract investment when they could easily be a few hundred miles north and be in the city of Dakar, which is, as you know Maggie because that’s where you’re based, is fantastic. But for me, it comes down to just being intentional about creating strategies that are meant for you. Not taking it from elsewhere. Not copying it or necessarily listening wholesale to what is being sold to you by international partners, but truly developing a strategy that’s built from within.

So I’ll give you an example of this. As a small country if we’re able to invest in our human capital, that’s really what’s going to do it for us. We’re not a country that has vast resources. We’re not a country that has a huge population size like Nigeria. So when it comes to the usual things that I would advocate for in other countries like manufacturing, or agro processing, some of these more labor intensive sectors, that doesn’t truly apply in The Gambia.

So what I would advocate for is a focus on human capital development and digitalization of the economy so that we’re able to build an economy for the 21st and 22nd Century, where we’re truly creating opportunities for young people in creating a hub and a center for digital excellence and also financial services. I think this is how we can look to the future. And this is how we can create opportunities for young people like myself to prosper in the future.

DUMI JERE:

All right. Sounds like for a country that’s regarded as somewhat small it really is packing a lot and this has been quite informative. So in conclusion, we’re going to do a, what I call a rapid fire session. So I’m just going to ask you a couple of four or five questions. You’re going to give me the first answer that comes to your mind. Deal?

MAUDO JALLOW:

Hopefully it doesn’t get me in trouble, but yes, deal.

DUMI JERE:

No, no, no, no, no, no. It’s just so people know more about The Gambia. So, one, capital city?

MAUDO JALLOW:

Banjul.

DUMI JERE:

Most spoken language?

MAUDO JALLOW:

Madinka.

DUMI JERE:

Oh, okay. Official language?

MAUDO JALLOW:

English.

DUMI JERE:

All right. The currency?

MAUDO JALLOW:

Dalasi.

DUMI JERE:

Okay. One place I should visit that’s in the forest?

MAUDO JALLOW:

I would say Batokunku. It’s beautiful. If you look it up online, it’s B-A-T-O-K-U-N-K-U. It’s beautiful.

DUMI JERE:

All right. Okay. Which beach should I visit?

MAUDO JALLOW:

There are a few of them. I think what I would say is it depends what you’re looking for. A lot of people love the beach here, so I would say try a private beach if you can, maybe a beach at a hotel if you’re looking for something more quiet. But generally I would say Bijilo beach, because it’s close to where I live. So let’s do Bijilo.

DUMI JERE:

All right. Cool. And lastly, the main religion in the country is what?

MAUDO JALLOW:

Islam. Depending on who you speak to, it’s between 80 to 90% Muslims.

DUMI JERE:

Wow. Okay. All right. Yep. So I think we’re going to leave it there for today and I really would like to thank you so much Maudo for taking time out and sharing more about The Gambia. Personally, I’ve also learned some things that I didn’t know and oh, by the way, congrats on the MANU signing of Ronaldo.

MAUDO JALLOW:

Hahaha. Oh, you know I’m a MANU fan! Yes. Thank you. I’m very excited about this season. Let’s see how it goes. Hopefully, I’m not disappointed.

DUMI JERE:

Indeed. Indeed. Indeed. On that note folks, thank you for listening to this episode. A special thank you to my cohost Maggie, our guest Maudo, and the team behind the scenes. And of course, you the loyal listeners. Please remember to visit our website mansamedia.africa for more news about the continent, as well as follow our social media pages, Mansa Media Africa on Facebook and @mansa_media on Twitter.

Please follow our podcast on Spotify as well as Apple Podcasts or Amazon Music so that you’re notified whenever a new episode goes live. I am Dumi Jere, until the next time, here’s to peace and profits.

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