Before The Gambia gained independence, the business sector was largely dominated by a few companies owned by Europeans. This explains the monopoly of companies such as CFAO and Banjul Trading Company.
By the 1940s and 50s, almost all the import and export businesses were in the hands of these companies. At the time, the British favoured European companies and more than a dozen such companies were operating in the country.
“There were so many laws which were designed to sort of suppress any competition to the European companies. For example, Africans and Gambians could not have their own boats, at a time when there was no road network and boats were used to transport goods and services. So non-Europeans could not have boats and were obliged to hire boats from the European companies. Each of those companies had their own wharf along the sea front in Banjul,” says Hassoum Ceesay, a prominent historian.
But as The Gambia prepared to attain independence, this situation changed. The European companies started leaving.
According to Hassoum, “the European companies thought that with Independence, there would be nationalization as in the case of post-independence Guinea under Sekou Toure and other parts of Africa.”
“Many of these European companies closed their operations and left between 1964 and 1968. They feared the new government would nationalize businesses.”
By 1969, there was hardly any European company left in the Gambia. Worried about the impact, the government decided to establish the National Trading Cooperation (NTC) to provide the basic needs of the Gambian people. These included rice, milk, cooking oil and flour – which the European companies used to import.
But not even NTC could save the crumbling economy of the country, and things got worse thanks to the 1973 oil crisis, the 1976-77 drought and the 1981 coup led by Kukoi Samba Sanyang. In the mid-80s, IMF and the World Bank came in to rescue the economy. The government launched the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) in 1985.
Fast forward the story to five decades after the exodus of European business owners, are we better off today when it comes to local ownership of businesses?
Muhammadou Jagana, the President of the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the GCCI has been trying to push for more local indigenous Gambians to be involved in key sector of the economy, but queried that both the former and the current government haven’t pushed the agenda aggressively enough.
“There are lots of opportunities in the Gambian economy. This is why we are emphasizing the strengthening of local content policy so that we can get more indigenous Gambians to benefit from the potential economic growth.”
Economist Nyang Njie, hails the ‘single shop window’ policy put in place for those who want to register their businesses.
“Business in the Gambia has been streamlined of late to really make sure that one can set up a business by using a single shop window, where you can do your registration, your tax and all your documentation in one place. It’s a sort of a one-stop-shop approach to make sure that the bureaucracy or the transactions entailed in setting up a business have been curtailed.”
Mr. Njie says the business environment is evolving, but argued that indigenous Gambians being engaged in business and having their business transcend from a generation to a generation hasn’t work so well.
“If you look at the Cham and Seckas, if you look at the Alice Kahs, Mbye Njie and Sons and if you look at the HR Carrols, none of their businesses transcend the person. Fisco Konateh’s fishing business – everything stopped at a generation. The only registered business in the Gambia that has moved from one generation to another is Shyben A. Madi. And yes they are Gambians but I don’t consider them indigenous Gambians.”
He blames the problem on governance issues within the business setups. “Businesses revolve more around individuals. Modou Musa Njie for example, passed away with a big business. When he passed away, the business went down because there was no governance structure embedded in his business.”
Nyang Njie says governments from independence to date have been saying that they’re pro-business and business-friendly. But according to him, their policies are not pro-business. He cites taxation, arguing ‘if people are asked to pay taxes in advance, meaning they have to pay a withholding tax. That’s not a business-friendly policy.”
The Gambia is a very liberal economy as it relates to setting up business and doing business. But according Mr. Njie, there are “problems of the transaction cost and corruption’”
He calls for the indigenization of the private sector, noting that most of the major procurement in the country, including buying generators for the National Water and Electricity Company or NAWEC, must be accorded to Gambians so that the money can stay in the country.