Bantaba - Face-to-Face with new FEWACCI president
Friday, October 07, 2011
Bai Matarr Drammeh, born 19th December 1945, is a renowned Gambian businessman and consultant with a lot of influence in the business sector both within and outside the country.
He graduated from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, and George Mason University in Fairfax Virginia, and after that he spent a good number of years in the U.S. to gain work experience.
Currently, Drammeh is the president of the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI) and his vast experience and knowledge on business and economic issues in the sub-region, culminated in a huge trust and confidence reposed on him by the West African Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FEWACCI) when the body elected him its president during its September 12-13th 2nd Annual General Meeting held in Cotonou, Republic of Benin.
Bai Matarr received many awards in recognition of his different services, key among them an award from WHO’S WHO Professionals as a member of the 2009-2010 Edition. In 1989/1990, he was the first Gambian to receive the International Entrepreneur Award given by the USAID for which he traveled to New York at the Insurance College and to Princeton University for short-term management courses.
Bai Matarr is a man with many establishments. He is the founder and proprietor of the Omakan Hotel in Sukuta, which was opened February 18th 2007, as well as the 3D Consultancy Services. He is a member of many company boards of directors; among them Access Bank where he is the chairman, amongst others.
Bt: Thank you Bai Matarr for granting us this interview, which is coming a few weeks after your being elected new FEWACCI president. But before going further, tell us more about yourself, even though you are a household name in the country as far as the business sector is concerned?
Bai: That is perhaps the most difficult question talking about oneself. But in a nutshell I am Bai Matarr Drammeh, a Gambian and born here in Banjul. I went to school here, also in the United States.
I am very fond of business and I am the current president of the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry; I am the current chairman of Access Bank, and also the executive chairman of the Gambia National Insurance Company.
So this is what I do as a business person. I am also looking at different issues that deal with the sub-region, for instance free movement, ETLS [Ecowas Trade Liberalization Scheme], and so on.
Bt: Mr. Drammeh you appear to be a successful businessman, but may I ask where you drew your inspiration to venture into the business domain, which is always competitive?
Bai: I have said this many times before that when I was in high school at St. Augustine, I was very good in science and I thought of studying medicine thereafter. But when I spoke to my mother about it, she said ‘son you are not a doctor,’ and I said no and asked her to watch me.
Then I went to the US and I registered as a pre-med student and I did four years of it. Then I realised that my inclination and my drive were towards business rather than science or medicine. So then I decided to go to the school of business and study business.
So this is what took me to business because it is my natural God-given talent and that is why I always advise people that wherever your God-given talents are, go there because that’s where you will progress. So my God-given talents are in business.
Bt: No regrets in choosing it?
Bai: Absolutely there are no regrets in it because gives me the independence I need. For somebody like me I need to be quite independent to use my senses and abilities and capacities and do something for myself. This offers me that opportunity to do what I think is right. So I have no regrets at all.
Bt: You have been recently elected new president of the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce and Industry, during its recent 2nd annual general meeting held in Cotonou, Republic of Benin. What is your reaction to this huge trust and confidence reposed on you?
Bai: I think you’ve just mentioned the key word – trust. I have been with the FEWACCI for three years now as a member of its board. The board members trusted me and they were able to notice me on issues as I bring them out.
So I received a delegation here composed of all the Francophone countries led by the Republic of Benin. They came here to ask me to run for the office and told them I don’t think so, but they insisted on their stance. Then I told them think about it. So whilst I was thinking I got other phone calls from some Anglophone countries asking me to run for the office.
So when I got to Benin, I stood and said The Gambia will be a candidate, and Ghana and Nigeria did the same. So there were three countries looking for the position, but in the middle or so before the election, Nigeria decided to withdraw in favour of The Gambia. So The Gambia became overwhelmingly successful as 78-80 percent of the votes were cast for The Gambia.
Bt: This is a plus for The Gambia, but to what extent will such impact on the country?
Bai: Ok like I am saying the first project that I am embarking on right now is to push for the realization of a Sea-link. Now we want to do business with each other in the sub-region. To do this we need boats, vessels to carry goods from one country to another country back and from.
So we have costed the project and we are looking for US$60M (sixty million dollars). We already have NEXIM [Nigeria Export-Import Bank] of Nigeria that wants to finance it. We have very strong companies that came to Cotonou at the meeting and want to be shareholders of the project. So already we have a financing bank. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is very much interested in seeing it financed and started.
Also companies in Cameroon that are already in transport business both on sea, air, road and rail also came to Cotonou and indicated their full interest and total support and willingness to invest in this project.
Sea-Link is coming from FEWACCI. If you look at even ECOBANK, is a concept of the former FEWACCI – the idea of having a bank in the sub-region. This one is an idea that FEWACCI members had – we discussed it and discussed it over and over again.
As we were doing that, correspondingly ECOWAS was also discussing it but the latter realized that we are discussing it they said this is a private sector affair and since they are discussing it, let’s leave it to them to move with it.
So the Sea-Link Project is a very big one, it will create jobs, it will create money for the sub-region and that people will be able to trade [ship from one country to the another] amongst themselves.
For instance the Gambia does not grow yams in the country, but rather grown in other sub-regional countries. So these countries can ship it to the Gambia, whereas the latter that grows groundnut and so on can also ship to other countries. Whenever our borders are closed, we can use the Sea-link to export and import without being hindered by the border closure.
Bt: ECOWAS has a protocol on the Free Movement of Persons, how would this Sea-Link Project that you are determined to implement compliments that development instrument?
Bai: Absolutely the Sea-Link Project will compliment it in ensuring free movement of people, goods, services, and capital.
We are saying that there should be an unhindered movement of people, services, and goods, so Sea-Link will compliment that. Instead of going through back ways and early routes to get your goods, now you can come to the Gambia, buy what you want, put it in a boat and take it where you want in the sub-region.
Among ourselves, we have seaports but free movement is absolutely very necessary. This is because if you restrict money from going around is not helpful. If I have the money and I want to go and shop in Senegal for instance, and you stop me at the border and hindered me, then we will not develop.
And for us to develop we have to create our productive capacities, and to create the productive capacities, we have to get the knowledge and the know-how and the right information and put the infrastructure in place.
Starting the Sea-Link, it will bring us the sea infrastructure for the movement of the goods all the time. So infrastructure is critical. Then perhaps the next thing we need will be the rail link – we already have the air link but we need to develop that as well.
So we need these things – Sea-link, rail-link, road-link and these will complete the infrastructure and to have the infrastructure in place, we need investors to invest in it, which is also the work of FEWACCI because now we are thinking of the sub-region as whole.
We are also thinking of promoting one visa for the sub-region. So if you want to go to Ghana, Nigeria and Gambia, you don’t have to go the Gambian Embassy abroad and said I want Gambian visa. Now what we want to do is to have in it in such a way that once you have that one visa, you can use it to visit all the other countries in the sub-region.
So if you are an investor coming with your money, you should not be restricted that you only have visa for the Gambia and that you cannot go to Senegal. Because of all these we have formed in FEWACCI what we called an Inter-State Committee, whose task it is to find out the problem areas within countries, the road blocks, and any hindrance on the roads, collect that information and bring it to the FEWACCI Bureau for onward action so that these countries that themselves have signed the protocol will have the will to enforce it.
Bt: ECOWAS is supposed to be an economic bloc, but unfortunately there seems to be barriers within the sub-region.
What is your take on the current status of trade links in the sub-region? Do you think they are weak or active among West African nations?
Bai: ECOWAS is made up of countries, and those countries also signed the protocols for it to become laws. But ECOWAS itself cannot enforce those protocols – it is up to each individual country to say well I am honourable enough to enforce the protocols that I have signed.
So it is the countries that need to enforce them and not ECOWAS; it can only come up with the framework and the countries enforce it, which they have not been doing unfortunately.
It is the private sector that has to come up with borderless region. So we will be talking to all the governments because it is about time we compete globally. We need to realize the importance of competitive advantage and comparative advantage.
What I am saying here is that if Liberia is the country that has most of the rubber raw material in West Africa, and if any other country has it, why can’t we built a factory in Liberia because they have the comparative advantage.
And all other countries that have rubber can send or sell their rubber to Liberia so that it is processed there because they have the comparative advantage. Now there are other countries that have advantage in cocoa, such as Ghana.
Why can’t we [built] a factory there so that everyone can sell their cocoa to Ghana for it to be processed into finish products such as powder, chocolate, and whatever and then sold to the West or to any global market. So these are the areas that we are looking at. We are no longer waging competition amongst ourselves, but we are encouraging cooperation between us.
Our countries must cooperate – no longer fighting each other, close the border to each other, deny each other access – all these things we have been doing to each other is wrong and we need to cooperate. Our key word must be cooperation and this is what FEWACCI would have kept pushing in the minds of the governments.
Bt: I understand FEWACCI was formed four decades ago, 1970 precisely, as a platform to bringing together national chambers of commerce and industries. How instrumental has this sub-regional economic body been in the development process of the West Africa Region?
Bai: What happened is when it was formed; it went as far as creating ECOBANK and after, it FEWACCI disintegrated. It was no more until recently when we decided that it has to be brought back because we now realize how important it is.
And also now for the first time we are able to get the support of ECOWAS [2-3 years ago]. This is why the secretariat is in Abuja, Nigeria because ECOWAS has a department for the private sector and that department is headed by a commissioner and a director.
This is an office that catered us and also that has been able to give us the funding to re-establish ourselves to come up with projects and programmes for the sub-region. Now the European Union has also joined the funding of FEWACCI.
So now we are being re-energized and we are being allowed to lead as far as the economy and commerce is concerned. The private sector is being supported because without a strong private sector the economy cannot move. So the support must come to the private sector because they are the one that creates employment.
Yes we were formed four decades ago, but now FEWACCI is reconstructed, reconstituted, is more stronger and more focus now and it knows what it needs to do, and at the same time the environment is conducive for us to perform. If you give us time, very soon you will hear great things that we will be embarking on.
Bt: But to what extent is FEWACCI’s relationship with ECOWAS member governments?
Bai: I think the relationship is very good because the more governments realized that certain roles and responsibilities belong to the private sector, the more they are giving us the support to accept that responsibility and to make things happen.
So governments are not standing in our way. The only frustration that we get is that governments are not enforcing free movement; they are not enforcing quite well the ETLS [ECOWAS Trade Liberalization Scheme]. We need to harmonize our tariffs.
Bt: Within the FEWACCI body, what are the challenges?
Bai: They are there. Number one our members are Lusophone, Francophone and Anglophone. First it is the language barrier because in the secretariat we will be interviewing people to head different departments. You will realize that language is very important once your are short listing, because anyone who applied and said I cannot speak English, French or Portuguese, we drop you because the minimum is for you to be bilingual.
Before this was not an issue, but now it is. Since we are integrating ourselves, we have to understand the dynamics of integration and these are the things we are going to be facing. So we don’t want that.
Secondly, we need to re-indoctrinate ourselves to understand that without unity, we cannot move forward. We need to understand that the reason why the bricks countries such as China, India Russia are so powerful today is because of their size. So the ideal size for the future is not one of small nations. Small nations can never compete in the future economically, globally, regionally unless they come together and form blocs; that bloc can then compete.
Bt: The productive sectors of the ECOWAS region include of course agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries. Is FEWACCI looking forward to encouraging more investment into these areas given the fact that they are not fully exploited as expected?
Bai: Right they are not exploited before because I can say there was no infrastructure. With the Sea-link, your vegetables can leave here and arrives somewhere else within the sub-region.
Your agricultural produce can reach us back and from. To give an example when Mauritania came here they said have 13 million sheep and goats, 1.6 million camels, 1.3 million cows. Now some of these countries need our help – with the boat coming here, you can take your livestock, put in it and supply the Gambia with whatever they want or another country.
So things will then move back and from among these countries and it will be sold and bought within our countries by ourselves, produce and eaten by ourselves and this will cut down on the foreign exchange that we send to import all these things outside. We don’t know the quality of things that we are importing, their substance but we are importing them because we are helpless.
But once we put the infrastructure in place, people will sheep to each other – we will buy from Sierra Leon palm oil or whatever, and they will buy from us what they need. So the boat will be running up and down transporting goods, passengers as well.
So I think the realization of improving our productive capacities is very important.
And to improve your productive capacity, where are you going to improve it? You are going to improve it on the advantages that you have in your own country. Like you said Fisheries, if The Gambia is a good place to fish, then it is the advantage for us to concentrate on fishing and to transport it back and from to all the countries.
You just look at your advantage and capitalize on it, and allow other countries to capitalize on their advantages too. This way we can move goods around.
Bt: Also, regional integration has been a key political and development issue in the West Africa sub-region. However, little progress seem to be registered in this regard. What is your take on it as FEWACCI president?
Bai: My take on it is that at all times we will be forced to do the right things. Those governments that are ahead of us will force us to come together to realize that we need to come together, and to realize that we need to accept integration.
This is because for so many years we have been cut off into small nations and we have to now realize that we are the only totally underdeveloped continent. If you look at the rate in which middle class is growing in Asia is alarming – it is much faster than the growth of the middle class in Africa.
Why is that so? This is because FDI [Foreign Direct Investors] are going to where the middle class is developing because they have more disposable income. They are not coming here because they know we [Africa] are poor.
So we have to rise above that poverty level and individual nations cannot each do it on its own but we need a bigger market. In the sub-region we have two to three hundred million people, this is a bigger market. If you are to make a profit one dalasi from each person, you will have three hundred million dalasis.
So this how you grow. So we must integrate and world trends will force us to integrate even if we don’t want.
Bt: It is repeatedly said that the private sector is the engine of growth for development in any nation. Is this the case for The Gambia? Is the private sector taking lead in terms of development in the country?
Bai: Well private sector activities have been leading. Now whether these activities are Gambian private sector or foreigners involve in this private sector, they have been leading.
You can just turn around and look at the infrastructure that is already here. The buildings for instance are mostly private sector owned. The government gives us the infrastructure – roads, water, electricity and we put up the buildings, the offices, factories and the industries.
So private sector must all times lead because government cannot do it as it is not business oriented. What we need to do though we need to be very mindful of where those who are already developed, the pitfalls, the experiences that they have, we must be aware of those faults and avoid it, pick from them good things and leave the bad things, and be creative on our own and come up with a system that is African.
Bt: But is the private sector taking the existing advantages or would I first ask how enabling has the environment been for the private sector?
Bai: Well we have not been experiencing any obstacle from the government except what our members cry about all the time, which is heavy burden taxation and high rate of electricity for them to be able to grow. In order to grow, we have to be able to keep a lot of money for the company.
So capital is very important and if we don’t open up our markets bigger, we cannot. Now what we are thinking as a sub-region is that we use some of the rivers between Mauritania and Senegal to have hydropower and once we have that in the Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau, as well as in Chad Niger, then the sub-region will cheap energy. With cheap energy, investors would come.
Quite a good number of investors that come to the Gambia would say we are good people, peaceful and that and that, but once they embark on questioning and ask for the energy rate, we tell them.
When they ask about the task system we tell them. They will take their brief case and gone. So these are the constraints. But once OMVG is complete, and we are able to have hydro energy, then investor will be running up here because it a nice and peaceful country but because of our small size, we don’t control much we need to develop further.
We don’t control oil prices, we don’t control the vessel that bring oil, we don’t control the machines that are even generating these things because when they break down, we have to even import the parts to them. So we don’t control much of the inputs that we need.
Bt: Bai Matarr you are also the current president of the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry. How supportive has this private sector institution been to the government of the Gambia vis-à-vis socio-economic development?
Bai: Well the GCCI for the last five years or so has been quite supportive of government because we fully understand the constraints of the government. We fully understand how it is difficult to run a poor country and the expectations of the poor people.
And so where we compliment government is where we create jobs for employment. So the employment sector is where we compliment government taking note of the heap from government by the people complaining. Without a private sector, there would be lots of complains from the general public.
So the private sector, the GCCI is the one employing. That is why issues of employment are also under our portfolio at the GCCI. The employers association is topped under the GCCI, so we represent the employers and employees because it is the employers who are members.
So without the private sector, the employment rate will be very low and therefore it would create problems. But we are here to stay and keep creating jobs for the public and try to keep the partnership that we have with the government intact so that we will each understand that our interests are not different but the same.
Bt: Of recent times too, we do hear lots of complaints from the general public in relation to the skyrocketing of basic commodity prices in the market by some traders, some of who are members of the GCCI.
But what has been the Chamber’s intervention or what have you been telling those traders with regard to the issue because it is something that kept occurring time and time again?
Bai: Indeed, we have a very peculiar problem in the Gambia. As business people when you think about the business law, we in particular think about the business law of large numbers. For instance, some years ago, a retired ambassador came to my office and ask me what would I advise him to invest into?
I said to him invest in chewing gum. He then laughs big and said whether I am serious and I replied yes. He then asked he should invest in it, I told him just about every school going child can afford chewing gum.
And the business law of large numbers is saying don’t enter a business where only two or three people can afford to buy what you are selling. Use the business law of large numbers and come up with something that large number of people would buy. But that was 15 years ago or so.
Today everybody is chewing gum wherever you go all categories of the people are chewing gum. But when I told him this he laughed and thought I was crazy because I saw that to make money you have to get involved with large numbers.
This is because in the Gambia we don’t have those large numbers that was why I recommended that. If we can develop the infrastructure around the borders of the Gambia, and develop the towns and villages on those borders as a commercial center, this way our neighbours will become our own population because they cross and buy from us.
Then we will have the business law of large numbers. As long as we are not developing the business law of large numbers, we will be struggling badly with small income, marginal income, marginal economy, and it is going to be difficult because of our size. So we need to increase our numbers.
Bt: We are almost at the tail end of the interview, but then before taking leave of you, we also know your intervention in the tourism and hospitality industry. You are the proprietor of the Omakan Hotel in Sukuta, what was the inspiration behind that move?
Bai: Well my aspiration was I looked at our mode of tourism and I realized that we were catering for every traveler to be on the beach. But I also realized that some travelers don’t want to be on the beach, they want to be away from it.
Some of them are business people who want peace and quite and needed to give them that rather having one product. Some of these business people with their brief cases don’t have time to lie on the beach as they come in for business and fly away after doing it.
So my inspiration was to provide for the business tourists another angle away from the regular tourism product in the country. The other idea is to take the investment down to the people so that the people around can benefit from it in terms of employment.
Bt: That does it for this interview, but are your final words as FEWACCI president?
Bai: What is important is that we are building trust among each as FEWACCI members. But we also need to look at FEWACCI as an organization that will ultimately bring about economic integration in the sub-region, and for that reason, we are also very much looking forward for the WAMZ [West African Monetary Zone] to produce a common currency that people are looking forward because it will assist this objective of the creation of one economic bloc that we are so much interested in.
So we are really anxious for this common currency to come out. We are also anxious to now pull our resources in different countries to do bigger things than before. Also we will go to Cape Verde to talk to them to come back into the fold of ECOWAS rather than thinking that Lusophone country, and they are lonely because not too many of us speak Portuguese. We need to be all inclusive as opposed to before.
Bt; Thank you so much Bai Matarr Drammeh for talking to the Bantaba and sharing your experiences the general public.
Bai: Thank you too for given me this opportunity. I think I should thank you rather for having me talk to the people through this medium.
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Author: Hatab Fadera