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City of Banjul
Thursday, October 1, 2020

A day in the life of a businessman Lasana Tambajang Part 2

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He reminds me that it is time for midday prayers. So we take off in his Land Cruiser to the neighbourhood mosque, frequented by Gambians and other nationalities. As we ride along, he is now turning the tables on me. He is asking about me, my origins and life. It turned out that he had known a late uncle of mine Alhaji Haruna Jallow, a prominent businessman in Basse in the 1980s. “He was a good man … when I was in Libya, I would call his store and he would connect me with my family members waiting inside,” he recalls those long-gone years.

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We return to the store, but before long, we are heading out again. This time, we are going out to lunch at Le Baobab, a restaurant in Harlem he recently bought. A scrupulous driver, Tambajang gently melts away, reaching over the Bronx Bridge and taking short-cuts to the restaurant at 116th and Malcolm X. Avenue. Just recently re-opened after undergoing a major overhaul, the restaurant is adorned with new chairs, tables, and three big TVs mounted on the walls. You see a steady stream of Senegalese music on one TV and an assortment of American news channels on the others. His brother’s son, the new manager of this 11-employee-run eatery, greets us at the counter and ushers us to our seats. We both order Benachin Yappa. While we wait for our meals, Tambajang goes into the history of the restaurant and why he had to buy it to rescue it from extinction. “It is for the community, and I like to support small businesses,” he says, darting his eyes around the crowded room.

Soon our meals arrive, and our plates are looking elaborately delectable. He eats, but at a snail’s pace during phone chats, presumably with his clientele. His phone is constantly abuzz. I finish mine way ahead of him. But as soon as he catches up, he walks up to the counter and pays out our bill. I wondered if anyone, including some of his employees, knew who he was; that he was actually the owner of this place. Tambajang seems pretty fine in his anonymity. He does not exude any pretense of self-adulation.

Back to his office at the store, it is a return to the familiar: phone calls and folks (employees and vendors) streaming in and out. I marvel at his endurance. “I pull in 12 to 14 hours a day, Monday to Saturday, and half of that on Sundays,” he discloses, leaning over his swivel chair. He says even though he is the boss, he still gets busy with the normal routines of the job. “I still get behind the machines to cut meat for the customers … I am always helping out.” Even though he is a busy man, he says he still does find time to mingle with his family and to drive the kids around town and to amusement parks. But like all other business people, Tambajang is constantly cocooned in the world of products and strategies. He is constantly on the imaginative, marshalling ideas on how to expand and diversify the business. 

In 2003, he and a partner took a big gamble to invest in The Gambia. They bought a 65-foot-long, 110-passenger boat from Trident Florida Trading Co, a well-known boat maker in the US state of Florida. Spurred on by some seemingly plausible business proposals from The Gambia, Tambajang and partner launched a transport service between Banjul and Dakar. Calling it “Gambia-Senegal Express,” the boat’s first voyage to Dakar ran into technical trouble. “It took the boat nine hours to get to Dakar. We found that the boat had a manufacturing defect … it was meant for river and not ocean waters,” he bemoans. “It was a total disaster … we spent about US$800,000 on that boat, excluding the freight to the port of Banjul and the taxes we paid in both countries,” he recalls with some anger.

But in June of 2003, and during the time the boat’s transaction was finalised, Tambajang sounded like a satisfied customer. He had met with and reposed confidence in Robbie Cunningham, the owner of the boat manufacturing company. Tambajang told the Florida-based Orlando Sentinel newspaper at the time of sale: “He [Cunningham] went to my country to see the waters before building the boat, and that really impressed me …. I knew he was more than serious.” After an unsuccessful lawsuit against the Florida manufacturer, and convinced that their business venture was going nowhere, the partners sold off the boat at a cheap rate to some businessman in The Gambia.

Tambajang is cognisant of the fact that as a businessman, he will have to be a risk-taker and hedge his bets – and be ready to accept that sometimes you gain and sometimes you lose. He is undeterred. But he is also buoyed by his overwhelming success with New York Meat & Fish Market. The business is booming here. The phones are ringing off the hook. Orders are pouring in their plenitude, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Trucks come in incessantly, loading and unloading goods. Tambajang is the main supplier for all the African and most of the Caribbean restaurants in New York and beyond.

In 1998, he started from scratch, uncertain about the future but determined to create a pathway of success in a marketplace brimming with tough competition. “I am not afraid of competition, my services and products speak for me,” he says with an air of confidence. “In business, you have to be honest, that’s why I am not afraid of competition.” But he reckons that in the business he is dealing, good customer service is the key to continued growth. “I don’t hide from the customers. I am always responding to their inquiries and complaints. I build my customers up.”

A well-known commodity in New York City, Tambajang is currently the chairman of the New York chapter of Better African Business in America (BABA). He has been invited to many media functions, especially on the African and Caribbean radios in New York, to talk about his experiences and to share his business wisdom with aspiring immigrant businesses in the city. He has also donated generously to Gambian causes in the city. On his office wall, hangs a plaque presented to him by the New York-based Gambian Youth Society. On another side, is a giant photo showing a cheerful Tambajang flanked by two New York City off-duty cops. They were at a function together.

Given his enormous success and how far he has come, from the dreary fields of Kuwonku to the gleam of New York City life, Tambajang must be thinking that he is very much the quintessence of the American Dream, a truly inspiring American success story. He bats away the suggestion. “It is not easy getting that dream,” he demurs, reflecting on himself but perhaps speaking with a tongue-in-cheek. “For me, the dream is about putting people together, giving them jobs, paying them on time and making them happy. I don’t want to leave anybody behind.”

At 9pm, he is now busy reconciling the invoices from the drivers returning from the field. Both Bintou and Haja, his point-persons on the management side, have long gone home. He meticulously pores over the documents, looking for any transaction errors. He finds quite a few and calls out the respective drivers into his office through the intercom. He seeks clarity without admonishing. For those invoices he is unable to square up, he shoves aside. He is going to work on them first thing tomorrow.

I have now spent about 10 hours with Tambajang; and I am getting fatigued. It has been a long day. But he is about to close the store anyway. I thank him profusely for the time and for the willingness to open up to me. Ever the gracious fellow, he thanks me in return and bids farewell as he and a couple of his workers drive off in his SUV. As for me, I start to walk down the back road heading to the train station. It is going to be a long ride home.

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