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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Abdoulie Matarr Touray Chairman, SaHel Investment

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Upon conclusion of his studies and return home in 1980, he worked at National Investment Board rising to the position of chairman and CEO. He has served as the secretary general of GNOC, chairman of UTG governing board, Zenith Bank, WAII, Marina International School and vice president for Commonwealth Games in Africa as well as president of American Chamber of Commerce in The Gambia, among others. In this edition of Bantaba, The Standard editor, Sainey Darboe began by asking ‘Baks’ Touray what best describes him? 

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It is Abdoulie Mata Touray. Baks is an inherited name.  I guess I cannot share it, can I? (laughs). Well, the simple answer is that I would like to see myself as a very committed Gambian who is very passionate about development. I try to inspire talent across the board. I believe that The Gambia has what it takes to emerge as a middle income country within a generation if and only if we have a serious attitudinal change and believe in our potential and capacities and support one another and celebrate success. 


You have invested a lot of sustained energy and effort in the knowledge economy having served as chairman of UTG governing board, Marina International and West Africa Insurance Institute. What motivates you in this and what is your assessment of progress achieved? 

I derive satisfaction from giving back to society because I believe that society has done a lot for all of us. We live in an interdependent world and I think the most formidable attribute or asset you can give to a human being is knowledge. The first command that was given to the holy prophet in the Qura’n was Iqra – read. The prophet also enjoined us to seek knowledge even if it entails traveling all the way to China. We have now transitioned into a knowledge economy all over the world. The backbone of development started in most countries with and remains agriculture but not agriculture in the rudimentary sense but transformational agriculture. We had the agricultural age, industrial age and we are now in the knowledge age. You live or sink by the way and manner you are able to provide solid, skilled education to your population. There is a Chinese proverb that says if you want to feed a nation for a year you teach them to grow rice, if you want to feed them for ten years you show them how to plant a tree, if you want to feed them for life you give them education. When I was growing up we had only one tertiary institution which was Gambia College. So, by design or default when you finish high school the only option was to train as a teacher or an agriculturist. I attended Morehouse College where Martin Luther King attended too and it inculcated a lot of values in me. The five values if you are a Morehouse graduate is that you are expected to be well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, well-mannered and well-dressed. 


Is that why you are always very well -dressed with dapper attires? (laughs)

Well those are the values that are supposed to be ascribed to Morehouse graduates. I came back home in 1980 after my master’s to contribute. I must say it was not easy in the sense that I had to work to pay my school fees because there were no scholarships available and I had to do menial jobs. In paying for my education I had to clean chimneys, wash dishes, hosted tables and ended up as a waiter and head of banquet section at one of the most prestigious hotels in America, Marriott Hotel.  I also worked for Peachtree Plaza which was the highest hotel built in Atlanta at the time. The idea was to go to school, work, raise a family and send some money back home. 


You talked about the evolution and revolution in the education sector with the advent of the University of The Gambia on whose governing board you served as chairman. However, a lot of young graduates are being produced without poor gainful employment prospects .Why is this? 

Well that is an interesting question. I think the establishment of the University of The Gambia was a welcome development. I volunteered and served as a part-time, adjunct lecturer in Management when it started. I was approached by the government through the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education and encouraged to come on board as chair of the university board. Given my passion for education, that was something I wholeheartedly welcomed. I take great pride in the fact that the university board worked as a team. I became chairman when Professor Steigen was just appointed the vice-chancellor of the University of The Gambia. We had a very good and formidable team. In everything I do, I want a team approach. If you break down the word TEAM in marketing parlance, it means Together Each Achieves More. So, I am a team player and I take great pleasure and pride in the fact that we were able to consolidate on the achievements that were made by our predecessors. I took over from Mousa Bala Gaye as the chair. They had a good team and we built on their foundation because everything you do you are building on the foundation somebody has laid and you try to improve on that. With all humility and modesty that team was instrumental in initiating a number of novel approaches in the university. If you look at our achievements, with the unalloyed support of the chancellor, His Excellency, President Jammeh, we started the medical programme, law, graduate programme in African history as well as tourism with the University of Leeds. We hosted the first Chancellor’s Lecture series. As fate would have it, Professor Kah who was then director and dean of School of Information at the American University in Yola, Nigeria was invited by us. He was the first person to deliver the lecture and I am happy that it has grown from strength to strength because we had the erudite Dr Naik. Those are the achievements of the university. Coming back to your very pertinent question about job prospects for graduates, being very passionate about entrepreneurship and education, I believe students should have a significant paradigm shift in terms of their thinking. I don’t think they should be going to universities hoping to come out and get jobs. That’s the order of the day and that’s why I emphasised the need for a paradigm shift. If you look at all the novel technologies that have significantly transformed the world they emanated from university campuses. In fact, because of the passion to develop those technologies most of the founders did not even complete their university education. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to establish Microsoft and the idea of Microsoft was born at the university campus likewise Steve Jobs of Apple and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. If you look at Silicon Valley, it is an agglomeration of universities and students who come into those universities with a view to think out of the box, to be innovative and creative to create jobs. 


Don’t you think then that is the failure of the university to teach them how to go about that while perpetuating certification without competence? 

I don’t think it is the responsibility of the university. I think it goes back to the school system. But in the school systems all across save the US you do not go to high school and have any courses taught to you on Entrepreneurship. Students here are taught the traditional subjects but the business side of those subjects are not taught. So what we are trying to do now with the different models we have is to bring entrepreneurship into schools and universities. A simple definition of entrepreneurship is anybody that is adding value to whatever profession that you are doing is an entrepreneur. You are an accomplished journalist, a highly respected journalist but when it comes to journalism you are also on the business side of it because your paper has to sell and you have to have cash flow to sustain the business. If you have a business problem you have to go to a business doctor but nobody goes to a business doctor because everybody thinks they know how to run and manage their business which is a fallacy. So what we’re trying to do is to get the university to create entrepreneurs be they in medicine, agriculture, media and whatever. 


One of the biggest challenges facing The Gambia is the exceeding youth exodus through the ‘back-way’. Conceding as you did in an earlier interview that you did not conclude your training at Gambia College because of your eagerness to travel to the West, what is your advice to Gambian youth? 

When you go to a house, you have the option to go through the back gate or front gate. If you have the credibility you knock on the front gate and it is opened for you. If you go through the back way you are deemed to be a thief. Nobody wants to go to Europe or anywhere else through the back door. Europe and Canada are looking for talented, skilled and educated people and they have incentives for those people to come through the front page. We always make the point that God in His infinite wisdom has given us something that everybody has in equal proportions which is 24 hours a day. So it is how we utilise the 24 hours a day that makes the difference. If you spend the 24 hours burning the midnight candle and learning a new skill then you will be quite seasoned and skilled in what you are doing. If you don’t use it for the right purposes then you are going to look for short cuts. 


Don’t you reckon for a second that these young people are leaving due to desperation with the stinging dearth of gainful employment opportunities? 

You hit the nail right on the head. I think the operative word there is opportunity. Whenever I do career counseling for youths I always tell them that America or whatever destination of their choice is not a land flowing with milk and honey but it is a land of opportunity. But opportunity is provided to those that have the talent, skill and the know-how and mental attitude to be able to change their lives. That opportunity is created through access to primary, basic and secondary education. Every American is expected to complete high school and there are no short-cuts .If you are the best basketball player you will not play on the team unless and until you maintain a C average in school. But in Africa the biggest export is football players raking in millions but we also know that they have the shortest life span of five to ten years. This brings the question of what next after football? Looking closer to home, George Weah of Liberia was one of the most successful African footballers having won the African and European Player of the Year awards but he did not have the grounding in terms of education. So after his playing career he went back to university and now has his master’s degree or working on his PhD. So as the Wolof would say ‘janga du waste’. It is never too late to learn. I believe that opportunities can be created by the government, institutions, individually and internationally and by philanthropists. 


Tell me about your involvement with Gambia Bicycle Association? 

We formed the association basically to provide another avenue for Gambian Youth and we don’t anticipate or expect that we will have professional bicycle riders in The Gambia in the foreseeable future. But our motivation for establishing the association was essentially linked to our passion for education. We have a programme under the International Cycling Union to provide bicycles to youths so that they can ride to work. We also believe that bicycles are environmentally friendly and can be used to commute to work like in China and Holland. We have elite cyclists who have participated in International competitions. In the last Ecowas international competition we came home with two trophies. I think the potential is there. The challenge we had was the road network. The drivers, particularly taxi drivers are very intolerant and impatient with cycle riders. Recently, we had almost a near fatal accident with some of our cyclists. Every Sunday they do cycle from Banjul to Ziguinchor and one was virtually eliminated around Brikama. It was meant to give youths an opportunity to develop but to link it up with cycling and physical health. We have the Jole Riders in Gunjur and we are now trying to get cycling into the schools. We are trying to identify a number of schools across the country who will form the core of the cycling association. 


Do you envisage success in international competitions? 

We participated in Common wealth Games, African Games and Ecowas cycling tournament. We also have a youth development programme in South Africa where we are trying to expose our cyclists. But the challenge we have is that those that are passionate about cycling unfortunately are not literate so that is why we are trying to bring it into the schools to expose them to it. We have a world cycling academy in Switzerland but you have to be literate to attend those courses likewise South Africa. Looking forward we have a close collaboration with Cycling Association of Senegal where the president of African Cycling is a good friend of mine. They have a tour de Senegal. He is encouraging us to establish a Tour de Gambia. We are working on that now that the road network is very much improved. Also we are trying to get the youths in the schools to think cycling and also to participate in cycling. 


Talking about Commonwealth Games of which you served as vice-president for Africa. What is your take on Gambia’s withdrawal from Commonwealth? 

The decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth was taken at the executive level and we have no reason to question why the decision was taken. We have to comply with that decision. I was vice president for Africa for Commonwealth Games. I was elected in 2004 and I had been there up to 2014. So we respected the government’s decision to withdraw. What it means is that we are not participating in the Commonwealth Games neither the Youth Games but we can maintain bilateral cooperation with the Commonwealth countries. The network we have with them at bilateral level not as a Commonwealth institution is being maintained. For example the president of International Cycling Federation is an English gentleman with whom we are having good contacts and also in Australia in the area of swimming which we are also trying to use. So the network we had we are trying to get organisations to take advantage of at the bilateral level not so much at the multilateral level. 


Many people describe The Gambia’s decision to leave the Commonwealth as impolitic. Viewed in the round, what is your dispassionate assessment of the merits and demerits of the move? 

Since I have been back home in 1980 I have developed what I call the Trained Principles of Living. One of the things I try to do before I take a decision is,  I always review, verify and preview. I believe anybody in authority is put there to secure and serve the best interest of the masses. If they take a decision who am I in retrospect to question the veracity of that decision? I believe whatever decision people in authority take has been calculated in the best interest of the people that they serve.                                       

                                                         To be continued.


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