The Gambia is going through a prosperous phase in its history. Thanks to the renewed political stability and an economic openness that may unlock unprecedented levels of growth and development. Your Excellency, how would you evaluate this major shift?
The Gambia is going through a brand new phase because for the past 22 years we have been in virtual dictatorship. The Gambia was actually seen as a pariah state. It was a state that lacked good relationship with many other countries in the world, particularly in the Western world. Most of our traditional partners and donors were running away from this country because of the bad policies that were being implemented by the former regime.
The situation has changed now. There is freedom of speech and freedom of the press, people are free to go about, and to do whatever they wish to do. That has definitely opened a page for potential investors and people are definitely quite happy right now.
West Africa is highly competitive destination for foreign direct investment and with countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire or Liberia, securing large investment. So what are the most significant competitive advantages that The Gambia has to offer to the international investors ensuring that the country is the ideal business and investment destination in the region?
First of all, there is peace and stability. That is a very important ingredient for any investment. Businessmen and investors can invest in the country without worrying about the security of their investments and their own safety.
The other advantage that we have is the country’s proximity to Europe. There is only about five or six hours’ flight to any European capital. So the investors, particularly from the west, can easily reach this country.
Another added advantage for investors is the goodwill of the new government towards FDI.
The Gambia has recently registered significant progress in the area of information and communication technologies. And this has been spearheaded by the government’s intentions to mainstream ICT in all public activities to achieve its socio-economic development goals. How is this sector contributing to the socio-economic development of the country?
Before, there was no free of press. Journalists were being harassed. Now the situation has reversed. People are free to write whatever they want. The media is quite free and it’s quite vibrant as well. Many journalists who ran away into exile are coming back. They are contributing to media development. A lot of changes have been made and the media scene is flowing normally. People are free to express their views, even to criticize the government and nobody is in trouble.
Which organizations and companies fall under your ministry? And to what extent are they contributing to this socio-economic development?
Under the ministry we have two different portfolios, the media portfolio and the telecommunication aspect such as mobile telephones and infrastructure. There had been a lot of improvement within both sectors. In the past, we had a lot of problems with journalists, particularly because the relationship between the government and the media was very poor. Now, with the new government, things have really improved and the journalists are quite happy and free to report what they like.
And with regards to the telecommunication aspect, we are trying to create a level playing field for the mobile operators as well as the internet providers. We are trying, as much as possible; to improve the sector so that the internet could be freely available to the people and the Gambia can be able to compete with the rest of the world.
Actually, the presence of four mobile operators; Africell, Comium, Gamcel and Qcell could not have been possible without the ministry’s continued pursuance of its liberalization and privatization policies in order to attain its vision, which aims at making The Gambia a private sector-led and knowledge based economy. What investment opportunities are in this sector for new investors and what are the possibilities for the new players in the field?
We are actually discussing with the existing players, the mobile operators as well as the other internet service providers, on the new possibilities of liberalizing the area in order to allow all the stakeholders to play their part as effectively as possible. As you know, until recently, there was an international gateway being managed by a private company from Switzerland. And the government decided to terminate the contract and gave it to Gamtel, the Gambia’s Telecommunication Company, to manage it.
The ultimate objective is to fully liberalize the sector. At present, the various mobile service providers can only terminate data, but the voice is still under control of the telecoms operator that is Gamtel. And the objective is to liberalize it so that the operators can both be responsible for the voice as well as the data. Rather than having one central gateway manager terminating calls, we can have multiple terminators so that each one of them can play their part as effectively as possible.
Well, according to this, there are many investment opportunities in the sector that The Gambia is offering to investors. Are you developing a communication strategy to attract international investors to the country?
Yes, we are. We are currently formulating a comprehensive communication strategy. In fact, right now, we are in the process of recruiting someone as an advisor to the minister on media and communication to help us develop the communication strategy.
Right now, we have only one television channel in this country, which is the government-owned Gambia Radio and Television Service. Our objective is to open the field as wide as possible and we expect to quite soon give license to private television channels. In fact, we have started receiving applications from people interested in setting up private television. That is going to open the field as wide as possible for the various actors to come in. So the objective is to invite as many people as possible who are interested in participating in that area to take advantage of the opportunities.
It is very interesting to see all around the world, in Antigua, for instance, we saw how they are combining telecommunications with the finance sector. Are you developing any mobile banking system?
Yes, some people have actually expressed the interest of getting into that area. We already have had meetings with some people who have expressed interest in investing in such banking facilities. And also, payments of bills using mobile applications. We are presently engaged with people interested in investing in that area and probably very soon we will expand into that area as well.
This is also opening the way to new startups that are emerging in The Gambia. What is the climate for startups and what kind of startups are emerging in The Gambia now?
The climate is definitely very bright and as I said so many potential investors have visited this country particularly in the telecommunication sector. Probably, some of them would come as partners to the existing structures which are in place. And, these visits are going on and very soon probably some of them will start investing in this country either on their own, setting up new structures on the telecommunication sector or being partners of the existing structures as well.
The Ministry of Information and Communication Infrastructure together with the Publics Utilities Regulatory Authority in partnership with Girls in ICT Gambia Chapter had recently organized a five-day summer technology camp for girls in senior secondary school to empower and encourage girls and young women to consider careers in the growing fields of information, communication and technology. Minister, could you tell us, please, a little bit more about this project and if there are any other projects to encourage the girls to join this area?
Yes, this has been definitely a concern to the Ministry and to the government in general that the girls were being left behind in this new technology, particularly when it comes to ICT. So, the best thing we could do as a government is to encourage girls to get involved in it. That is how the very few women who are in the business of ICT decided to come together and with the help of the government organize these young girls in and out of school as well to encourage them to get involved in ICT. The Ministry is definitely very much interested in the project and we will do everything possible to empower them so that they can get as much involved as possible.
As you may know, Harvard Business Review is well renowned for publishing breakthrough ideas through innovation. Could you explain to our readers what are the main innovative tools that you are putting in practice so as to better manage the information and communication infrastructure in The Gambia?
As I mentioned earlier, we are in the process of setting up a communication strategy. And as soon as we have that strategy in place, we would then be in a much better position to get the message of the government across to the people and as well as get the message from the people to the government, thus acting as a link between the government and the people. It is definitely the policy of this government that whatever we are doing we want to get the people on board.
During your extensive career you have developed the passion for journalism. Among all your previous jobs we can find you were the president of The Gambia Press Union and a course director of the UNESCO-sponsored Media Training Center, stringer for the BBC African Service. And even you wrote books such as ‘A Living Mirror: The Life of Deyda Hydara’ as a co-author and the author of ‘Focus, Challenges on The Gambia’s Transition to Democracy’. What is the most important lesson that you have learned about leadership and perseverance that you would like to share with, well, with the readers of Harvard Business Review?
I think patience is one of the most important attributes I have learned during my career. I think it is important to be patient to understand and be able to deal with people at every level. That is extremely important because if you are impatient you may not have the ability to deal with certain people at certain levels. But if you have the patience, you can be able to deal with people, understand what they need and be able to relate to them at every level. That is one of my most important attributes. I think patience is important and understanding the psychology and character of the people that you are dealing with is paramount. And never underrate anything, don’t allow yourself to be taken unaware. Always anticipate what the person you are dealing with is thinking so that you can be able to confront it at any level.
As you are well aware, the readers of Harvard Business Review include many of the world’s most influential business and political leaders. What is the final message you would like to send them about your sector?
The message is for everyone to understand that we are now in a new dispensation in this country. Things have really changed and The Gambia wants to once more be re-integrated as part of the international community. Even though we appreciate the goodwill that we have already received from the international community as well as from the people on the ground, we are still asking for more understanding of our situation. We took over a country which is virtually bankrupt. It is in dire straits and we need a lot of assistance and goodwill from the international community to help us overcome the numerous challenges we are faced with. We have no doubt that with the assistance and understanding of the international community, we can make the Gambian economy vibrant again.