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Department Of State For Works, Communication, and Informations
Honorable Mr. Edward Singhatey
Secretary of State for Presidential Affairs
Secretary of State for Works, Communication, and Information
Transport planning and especially the rehabilitation of roads is a main issue for your Ministry. In this respect, what is the timeframe of the Banjul Streets project, the Kombo Coastal road, etc. and what is the Government doing to ensure that those projects will be sustainable over the years ?
We have actually so many on-going road projects, not only within the greater Banjul area but also in the rural area. But the main project that we have in the greater Banjul area are the Kombo coastal roads. Hopefully, this project will be completed by the end of the year 2000. We also have on the north bank of the country the kerewan road project which includes a bridge and that should also be completed by February 2001. We also have another important project that just took off in the greater Banjul area, which is the Serekunda-Medelabar road project. This is an extension of the carriageway from Banjul to Serekunda and the airport then to have a first class single line road to Mandelabar which is beyond Brikama. We hope that the project will start by the end of the 2000 although works have already started in Mandelabar. We also have a number of roads, which have been completed in the upper river division to open up the divisional administrative area, which is Basse. We also aim at providing access to healthcare, food and other supplies and more generally to facilitate the communication within the country. We are also trying to get another paved road in order to facilitate access to some remote villages along the river. In fact, we have so many ongoing projects; I am sure I have missed a couple out.
Some time ago was raised the idea of transferring road maintenance responsibilities from the Department of Works to a national Highway Authority. Where are you with that project ?
Right now, we are actually trying to set up this highway authority. We have just concluded an agreement with the European Union so that they would provide funds for the feasibility of the project. We do not want the Government to conduct that study, we need somebody from the private sector to also have the opportunity to get their input. Hopefully, once that is completed we will have the lesgilation passed early next year. We are already working on a budget line that should be discussed during our budget cession of December, so that once we have the legislation in place the money will be available to set up the Highway Authority.
One of the main issues raised in the vision 2020 is the port project involving its expansion and especially the creation of a free export zone, which should start January 2001. What are your expectations about this project ?
There is no country in the world that can survive without trade. The global economy is trade dependent and in order to open up the Gambia, not only because of our location, but because of our size and stability, we need to provide an investor-friendly environment to relocate investors' services or businesses from other parts of the world in order for them to take advantage of the cheap labour, of tax holidays, etc. So, our expectations are very great. We know that the only region in the world that has not emerged as a market is Africa. Latin America has had their time. Those who could afford to go along with opportunities ventured in emerging economies like Brazil, Argentina, etc. Asia also had their time, they have grown. Europe and the USA are also trying to look for new areas. You also know that the relationship between the USA and China is very trade related because of the huge market that the China provides for the USA. But we also know that after China, Africa is the next option. Africa is going to grow and we know that from discussing with our colleagues that they are also trying to provide an enabling environment for the eventual re-location of certain businesses within Africa. So, we are getting prepared for that because most of our competitors within the sub-region stride in this area. We therefore believe that creating a trade board, a free trade zone, etc, will give us a head-start in this area, and hopefully the legislation will be passed during the cession for the establishment of free-trade zones. The Gambia Ports Authority are on their way to establish a free port, and we hope that one day the port will expand to such an extent that it will not even fit in Banjul and that we would have to look into other areas to have it located. A couple of years ago, there was a study saying that the enventual expansion of the port would require its re-location but that can only be a long-term project.
In the short-term, we have the Trade Gateway Project, which is supported by the World Bank. We want to open up the Gambia as a trade gateway to not only the sub-region but also to the rest of West Africa. You have certainly be informed by the Minister of Trade & Industry that the Gambian economy is also dependent on the re-export trade that we have with Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, but we are also trying to open up some land countries like Mali, Niger. We believe if we do improve our infrastructure and if we do improve our facilities at the port and with the inception of the free port, we will be able to have access to those markets as well. So, we are very confident that it will open up The Gambia in that area.
The airport modernisation project has been designed to upgrade the airport facilities to the highest international standards. What are your objectives in terms of the return that you expect from this huge investment ?
First of all, I would like to mention that the airport is an important component of our Trade Gateway Project and all of the infrastructure is going to be located between the Banjul port and the airport. So, you will find out that investors have easy access to the airport and to the seaport at the same time because they are only 14 mns away from each other by road. So, with all of these investments in the airport, we believe that it is only going to facilitate this trade gateway project. Besides, we have an agreement with Air Namibia to use one of their aircrafts to ply the sub-region. Now, we hope that this agreement will lead to more agreements with the Namibian Airline and perhaps other airlines in order to use the Gambia as a sub-regional hub to the USA and to Europe, not only for trade but also to transport passengers. Currently, there are only a very few selected carriers to transport passengers to the USA and to Europe. I am sure you must have come with Sabena, which is the only international airline that comes to the Gambia. We believe that this sector is under-utilized. There is room to create competition so that we can ensure quality and there is room for expansion as we believe that there are so many Africans within this area who would like to travel and make use of new facilities that can take then to Europe and the USA.
Also, we are only seven and a half hours direct fight away from the USA and five hours and a half from Europe. So, generally, all our investments aim at participating in this Trade Gateway project so that they will provide all the necessary facilities for the investors looking to make use of the Gambia.
Gamtel is under the responsibility of your Ministry, some projects are currently underway to develop the network and services. To which extent do you see transfers of technologies and know-how from industrialized countries as necessary for those projects?
We do collaborate a lot with some leading telecommunication companies around the world and Gamtel has managed to have a good relationship with some of them. As an example, we have just signed a contract with Alcatel to provide the GSM facilities in The Gambia, which hopefully will also start by the end of the year if everything goes well. Regarding transfer of technologies, it always comes to the cost. Fortunately, Gamtel has been viable enough to afford access to new technologies. We are also very proud of the fact that our telecommunications facilities are constantly updated and maintained. We make sure that the latest technologies are applied and that we are not left behind.
So, we do take the technology transfer issue very seriously. We feel that if we can afford the technology, we should make it available to our people, despite the fact that we are one of the least developed countries in the world. However, whatever we can provide to our citizens and potential investors and, as long as it is within our means, we will ensure that we do have projects aiming at bringing this technology to The Gambia.
Gamtel is on the list of the companies to become privatised and West telecom (private prepaid phone service) plans to attract more independent telecommunication companies in the country. What is being done by your Government to prepare the ground for the coming of private investors ?
First of all, we have on the table a teleport facility, which helps investors to come and set up within the Trade Gateway project in one of the free zones. That can be done with minimum investment and maximum return. Gamtel along other public enterprises are definitely being prepared for eventual privatisation, and we hope that once we have the legislation out, we will do things correctly, and this will be an incentive for investors from all over the world to come and look at the laws of The Gambia, especially with the coming privatisations. So, they can be confident that they are backed by the law. We wish to attract investors that will continue to re-invest some the profits into the country to upgrade the facilities.
There is a growing presence of the internet and IT technologies in the country. How do you position The Gambia within the sub-region as far as those technologies are concerned ?
I recently attended a the Afrinet 2000 summit in Abuja (Nigeria) and I found that the presentation that I made was far better than some of my colleagues. It could be because of the size of the Gambia.that it was so easy to develop the IT sector in such a short time. It could also be due to this major project that we had with UNDP, which also assisted us to set up the gateway project for the internet within The Gambia. From what I have seen, The Gambia is far ahead. We charge cheaper rates for unlimited access to the internet. The facilities can be easily acquired. For instance, you may be able to set up a cyber-café within a week because we also try to minimise the bureaucracy in that area, unlike some of our neighbouring countries where even having those facilities is almost impossible. I therefore really believe that we are ahead and we need to maintain that position.
There is a plan to have a linked telecommunication system among West African countries; Do you know more about that project ?
I can remember that there was a project talked about by the former representative of the UNDP to the Gambia. She told me that they were trying to have a project to link fibre optic cables throughout West Africa. But I do not know how far that project has gone. However, if that could become a reality, that would facilitate telecommunications not only within the Gambia but also within West Africa as a whole. By the way, we have already attained 60% of fibre optic cable coverage around the country. We are not waiting for West African projects, we are going ahead on our own to ensure that this technology is already set up in The Gambia.
Would you have any final message for our readers looking at The Gambia as a potential investment destination ?
The Gambia is a very small country but the people are extremely friendly. It is a very peaceful country. It is completely different from the images that you may see on Africa through the medias. We believe that the Gambia is a heaven, not only of peace but also could also be a heaven for investors. We would like to see The Gambia developed and we would like to see more and more businessmen coming to work with us to ensure that we do achieve our goals. We realize that there is still a lot of poverty in Africa. The Gambia is not an exception but through opening up and providing democracy for the people, through providing freedom of speech to the press and through a good political climate, we will eventually be able to attain our goals and share our success with those who want to take part of it.