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Friday, January 22, 2021

Edrissa Mass Jobe

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In this edition of Bantaba, the very cerebral and erudite Edrissa Mass Jobe, son of a Banjul cadi and the executive chairman of EM Holdings, talks to The Standard editor Sianey Darboe and associate editor, Lamin Baba Njie, on why The Gambia should impose a ban on importing chicken, the attainability of Vision 2016, the power of optimism and why The Gambia can excel. 

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Can you tell us yourself?

My name is Edrissa Mass Jobe and I was born and bred in Banjul. I did my secondary school in The Gambia and then I went to the UK to study mechanical engineering. I became a hospital engineer and I worked briefly for Altrincham Hospital. I came back to The Gambia as the first Gambian hospital engineer and in charge of medical equipment. So my background is very technical as well as scientific. At some point, I left the hospital system and I joined Shell as an operations manager or engineer but also in charge of what is called technical sales. I was selling fuel to Nawec and prescribing the type of fuel that they needed. Those times were very interesting because it coincided with the time when The Gambia was going through heavy fuelling at generator number 6. I was the one advising Nawec on the type of generator to be used. I did that for some time and luckily through Shell, I diverted from engineering to study marketing and finance and that was how I got into operations. At Shell, I was the sales manager and when we went to Guinea, I was the first director of operations and marketing in that country. Guinea was basically about mining and we were involved in a lot of gold and bauxite mining. There, we were still involved in technical sales because we were building what is called Independent Power Plants for Asanti gold fields. We have worked with big and different mines in the world in Guinea. I spent many years in Guinea and at some point I was taken to Senegal and there I was also the commercial director. This was a time when Shell was involved in La Rutte (Wrestling). Shell was the first sponsor of wrestling in Dakar and it had the exquisiteness for many years. We were marketing gas to the local population who did not own gas. They were not highly educated but the sport that they wanted was wrestling. We started sponsoring Gaston Mbengue who is now the leading promoter of wrestling. That was how we lived in Senegal working for Shell. Later on, I was promoted to the position of a regional director and I was covering from Dakar to Gabon. This was how I moved away from purely engineering to what is called fast-moving consumer goods. I was in charge of 600 service stations and at some point doing the engineering, planning of the network, building and divesting. That’s what we did until around the year 2000 when myself and one or two colleagues working for Shell thought that we had enough expertise to start our own oil company. That was exactly how we started the Elton brand. After many years as an expatriate, I decided to come back and so in 2001, I came home to set up Elton. I cannot divorce myself from the brand because we are very proud of it even though I don’t have an active role there now. This is because companies evolve and we had what we called the founder members. We were very much passionate about the product and at the time I left the company, I was the group managing director in charge of all the Elton stations in Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea Bissau. At some point, our aspirations were not convergent because I am a social entrepreneur and this is why I am trying to do what really suits my personality. This is how I set up EM Holding which is a social enterprise.


So what is Empass? 

EM Holding is the parent company of Empass and we want to do multiple projects that focus on employing a lot of young people. Why a social enterprise? You will notice that in the West, there are mechanisms that ensure that wealth is distributed. In Africa, people are generating a lot of money especially the Lebanese just by trading with us but our people do not benefit from that wealth. The amount of wealth generated by the economy is still the same but it’s only a few Lebanese who take it away. This why the word ‘social’ and Africans have to be involved in the process of wealth creation and distribution and The Gambia in particular. The more Gambians that are involved in process of wealth generation and distribution, the better the situation. But then social enterprises are concentrated on both making profit and the participation of society. If you should take the poultry industry of chicken as an example, you always have the importers, the consumers and sellers. In the urban areas, people are generally consumers of chicken and they want to buy chicken at prices as low as possible. The people that bring their chicken into urban areas are the farmers who are the poor people. They would bring their chicken into the market and sell them. When we were young, there was no imported chicken. As time went by, these people were replaced by the Brazilians and eventually the Americans. What happened is that though the chicken that is consumed in the urban areas by people that can afford it has gone down, poverty has risen. This is because you are not using the locally generate chicken to supply the market. For me, national development is about productivity and not endowment. One of the richest countries in terms of endowment of resources is Guinea where I lived for many years but yet still poor. In contrast, we have seen countries like Singapore and Switzerland who had no natural resources but are very rich. The difference in the economic development of nations therefore lies in productivity. 


So are you suggesting that despite its paucity of resources, The Gambia can become an economic super power to reckon with?

That is what I believe and that is why we are talking about food self-sufficiency which is our topic of discussion. I come from a family that is not affluent and I am not materialistic. I believe in employment creation and the overall theory is that the difference between nations is not how wealth they have. People must be put to work to produce something and it doesn’t matter what they produce. It can be onions or aeroplanes but you have to have a productive system and the productive base for Africa is the farmers. We have to produce something and the economic development of a nation is the total sum of the wealth of all. Countries don’t produce but it’s the people and then there are two factors. Firstly, you have to have labour utilisation which is to have as many percent of people at work. The higher the percentage of the population going to work, the better the economic situation but their productivity level must also be high. If in one society, a hundred people are using a hoe to produce while in another, a hundred people are using a tractor to produce, obviously at the end of the day, it will be determined by the amount of output. We have to put our people back to work and the best thing to achieve that is to concentrate on things that are consumed locally. If you look at countries that produce aeroplanes, like America’s Boeing and Embria in Brazil, it’s a very huge continent and they do so because it’s a huge expanse and you have the Amazon to cross. Therefore the aircrafts they produce, they can export but it’s meant for their own countries. Also, if you take a look at photography, it’s the Japanese that produce Kodak, Canon and most of the photography companies are based in Japan. This is because the Japanese language is not easy to type and they have to scan and photocopy. They have a local market for that and so productivity is important. It has been proven that people have to produce things that have a high level local demand.  With the food self-sufficiency agenda, I want to avoid the word ‘food security’ because they are different. When it comes to food security, we have a lot of food in The Gambia but the call by the president for food self-sufficiency is different. He wants us to produce our own food. We have enough rice because the stores are full of rice but then if you consume things that you don’t produce, you’re entangled in a continuous cycle of poverty. The whole concept of colonialisation was that you have somebody that gives out his raw material to another who produces it and the former consumes the finish product. If you look at what we are trying to do in poultry, I even had the American Embassy visiting me. People [Westerners] are scared when Africans are doing the right thing because if a European is to take one kilogram of gold dust from Africa at D1000 and take it to Europe where it is refined and brought back to be sold to the African at D3000. It will reach a point where this D3000 will bring him another three kilograms of gold dust and it becomes a cycle which is the whole process of colonialisation. The point I am just trying to make is that we have to go into production that can aid development and there has to be a local market. And for the two things we are talking about now including rice, there is a local market and the demand for it is high. We are consuming this rice and except we produce this rice, we are using our only value we create to enrich other people. 


Do you think then that Vision 2016 is achievable? 

 I am an engineer and I think it is achievable. I think there are two things we should separate as a way of decolonising our minds. The first thing is the constraint of the desire but is the desire for food self-sufficiency good? This is a desire that even our parents had to start producing rice and eat it instead of buying the rice. It is a good idea for Africans to produce rice on its own but it is the state of our colonised mentality. By producing the food that we eat, we are also ensuring that the poor people in the country would also have income to feed their families. When we were young, virtually all the chicken and eggs we used to eat in our houses were local and people used to live in dignity. This is a noble idea and the issue of feasibility is an entrapment. When John F Kennedy told the American people that by the end `of the decade, they would land a man on the moon, there was no plan. You just have to believe and that was what the Americans did which started with an aspiration. This is what I call Big Yearn Aspirational Goals.  If you don’t have aspirational goals, you don’t get anything done and then, all these cynics who are telling us things that are not possible also say why we don’t talk about all the things that are possible for you. So for me, it’s very cynical that we all agree that something is good but for it to happen, it should not only be a Yahya Jammeh agenda. It should be everybody’s agenda and everybody must think, act, feel and do things differently. If we are to say we want to produce our first aeroplane, I myself will not say it’s not possible but I will say it will require us to study science and then work on how to make it happen. The most important thing is the emancipation of the mind. If Brazil and India who were poor countries could do it, why not us? Let us stop concentrating on the huddles and I don’t mean they don’t exist but we should dare to dream. So food security, we should dare to dream and the big problem is that we have a president who is very aspirational but some of the intellectuals and civil servants say it will not happen. That is not the way I think because I was involved in the Mandinaring depot and that depot just started on paper. I sat in my office and I said we needed a depot in The Gambia and I went to the village head to talk to him about it. It was on paper for many until I got myself some other people who later took over. Don’t limit your imagination or even your personal ambition or the ambition of The Gambia. I believe that it’s feasible. 


How would Empass chicken farm contribute to that ambition not only in rice but mainly other food that we consume?

The idea is not just about food self-sufficiency but also nutrition security. Rice alone will not give one a nutritious diet and we have to have a balanced diet. So poultry for me is as important as rice production and some of the wastages that you get from the rice brand, can be feed for poultry.  This makes any rice project more profitable. Poultry itself is also about corn because a day old chick with two kilograms of corn gives you a full chicken. Our land is suitable for the corn that we grow and all the countries that produce chicken also produce corn. Poultry also brings along fish mill because almost 14 percent of the feed is from this. So I believe that by having poultry in the country, we are in essence also developing a corn industry. Poultry is also the lowest investment that a poor household can do. It just requires maybe D100 to buy a one day old chick, the feed and you have a poultry business. If you sell this and make a profit of D50, after two cycles, you will have D100. This is a step out of poverty. Another important thing about poultry is that it is complementary as it does not stop a poor farmer doing other aspects of farming because you need just 30 minutes to go and feed your chicken. So it doesn’t stop you from doing your gardening or your carpentry work. If we were to ban the importation of chicken in The Gambia, imagine all Gambians in their neighbourhood will have a young person who will just take D1000 to buy a layer and everyday will have ten or twenty eggs to sell. The person will have like D100 every day and it will not stop him from going to school. That is the beauty of poultry as a first step in what I call a livelihood strategy. That is why we are very much interested in the first project we did and we are not doing the farming part. We are doing the agro-industry because I don’t believe in mass production and in Africa we have an abundance of labour. I believe in production by the masses and so my idea is to give the farmers a day old chick. So this is my dream and I hope it’s going to work. I have invested all I have and I have borrowed money from the bank because I believe that by giving the poor farmer a hundred or two hundred birds of layers, after a period, he will be able to have 100 eggs every day and this if sold at say D5 will be like D1000 which is more than what most of us earn as salary at the end of the month. In our type of economy, the environment is very important but we also have to be bold. Just like the rice dream, there will be constraints because people will tell you World Trade Centre doesn’t like it but WTO doesn’t care about what we produce or don’t. There is an element they call the ‘special safeguard mechanism’ where any importation that stops the livelihood of thousands of people should be stopped. There are only three people that are benefiting in the importation of chicken into the country. They import all the chicken and in doing that, they are preventing thousands of people being local broilers farmers as well as layer farmers. They are also prevented tens of thousands of people from selling their corn. This is the economic argument because somebody wants to give to the people that can afford it. If you want to give chicken to the tourists at D60 and in their countries, they buy it at 180, if you were to allow the tourists to buy chicken at that level, imagine all the young Gambians who could benefit from that. The argument that if you stop the importation of chicken the price of chicken will go up is not valid. The price of chicken at which the local farmers buy at their lumos is good unless you give them something unhealthy because at these lumos, they don’t have fridges so they don’t buy chicken that is wrapped. I am selling life birds and am selling more of these than dressed chicken. And some of the farmers don’t even trust this thing. The only thing is the argument that it’s only imports that can make the prices go down is false.  It is not about but affordability and The Gambia is getting more income now. 


Looking at the local realities, do you have the capacity to supply the demand on chicken of Gambian population?

It is not about Eddy Jobe. It is about all Gambians. I have the capacity to give Gambians both in the rural and urban areas day old chicks to enable us produce all the chicken and egg that we need. If we are to ban chicken importation, we have the installed capacity but what I was saying is that the young people, women, farmers must take advantage of the opportunity that a ban would create to promote local production. In Senegal, everybody even journalists are producing their own chicken because of a ban. Necessity has always been the mother of invention and chicken is one area where if a ban on importation is imposed, within six weeks, it will grow. The young people of this country will start borrowing D1000 to start their chicken farms. The model I operate in is very simple. I have a hatchery and it produces day old chicks. I want to take these day old chicks and give it to the out-growers who are the farmers. When these farmers are ready, I have my own which is 30, 000 chicken but this one is what I call the ‘centre of excellence.’ This is to make sure when a young man comes and says he wants to start chicken farming, he can use on or two ways. One is called broiler farming whereby you take a day old chick with the feed to give you a chicken and in six weeks you have a bird. If anyone wants to start this business, he can come to our farm to learn free of charge and when he is going, I will give him a day old chick. The person can buy the feed, produce and when you cannot sell into your local market, I will buy back from you and process it. That is why I invested in a processing plant which can process 15, 000 which is more than the country requires a day. But then if these people do not go to work because I believe that all parts of the country can have a chicken farm for their local supply. We also need thousands of corn which I can buy to convert into chicken feed. 


Given your lamentations on the bad impact of imported chicken, would you call on the government to impose a ban on the importation of chicken? 

I think we should do it in order to protect our livelihoods. I know it is the commitment of the president of the republic of The Gambia through the pronouncement that we will go into food self-sufficiency. And I am saying that in poultry we are ready. It does not mean I am the one doing it but I am ready to give the farmers. We will not say let us produce and then demonstrate our capacity. This is because it is the necessity that comes before invention. If there was the case that people do not have chicken it becomes interesting and an opportunity. Scarcity is always an opportunity for somebody like you to go and buy. I have built the prerequisite that if they were to impose a ban, within six weeks, I am certain that people will be queuing to buy day old chicks and start their own chicken farms which they can sell to their markets. It creates employment for thousands of people and because the first year we are importing the feed, next year people will start producing corn because of how much corn we buy. The necessity should be created first by enforcing a ban and speed up development. In America, when they imposed a ban on imported steel, their local steel industry thrived and they have a poultry industry by doing the same. Nigeria too has banned the importation of poultry as well as India. The ban forces people to work because they will not starve. Remember also that poultry is not that fundamental because we have banned the importation of flour into the country and increased the duty but people are still eating bread. Bread is more fundamental than chicken. 


Empass was officially opened by the vice president on behalf of the president as part of the July 22nd celebrations. From the sight and sounds of that occasion, do you think there is a political will to ban the importation of chicken?

I have always believed even before I started this project that the political will exists. This project to a lot extent was motivated by the president. I have always identified myself with some of his language and if you go to the farm you will see some languages that I have written. The messages of Yahya Jammeh are good messages and even Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere were talking about the same thing. This is a renewal of the time and it is right again for Africa to clamour for economic independence. Political independence in itself does not exist and everything about politics is also about economics. Economic independence is that we have t take the raw material from Africa and add value to it. We have to start producing small things like chicken and as I speak to you now, I am trying to pilot certain upland rice in the urban areas. The political will at the level of the head of state exists but then we have to go beyond that and there has to be a lot of interface. So everyone must rally behind him and it does not matter what your area is or what your political affiliations are. It is a national point of alignment. We can all align to this common objective regardless of tribe or religion. I think this is a good call but it does not mean that some of the civil servants are align to it because of a lot of reasons. It maybe is theoretical or economic and some of the importers also are not aligning to this. Remember that when these importers bring a container of chicken, they make a lot of money but slowly as we all align with the vision of the president, we can make it happen. 


But when you talk about food self-sufficiency and food security, these are two different concepts. How we go about finding the right nexus throughout the overall agricultural value chain for the attainment of food self-sufficiency and food security?

 It is all about agriculture and I think people like to have silos. It does no matter whether you are milling rice, transporting rice, growing rice, or irrigating. There is nothing that you can define purely as agriculture because agriculture, they are using steel to produce ploughs. That type of silo does not matter and where you have them, bring in mental blockages. Whatever is best administered is always best and let us go beyond the silo because it does not matter whether it is agriculture, physics, maths or chemistry. What is most important is from the farm to the table. This has many sides and there is the health aspect. So the agricultural value chain includes every aspect of life such as health, maternity, energy, and engineering. What I am trying to say is that let us not be blunt by silo mentality. Sometimes this is as a result of the type of education that we have. Our education is very academic and leads to certification but it does not often lead to competence. In America for example, if Bill Gates is very good and he is going to produce Microsoft, he is never had a degree in that but it is in Africa they will say you cannot do it because you do not a have degree in that area. When I was in Shell I was working for their finance and corporate section but my background is engineering. This is because I have the competence. People should be judged based on their competence and not otherwise. If you have a PhD in journalism it does not necessarily mean you are a competent journalist. We have to move away from silos because the most brilliant people in society will be good at what they do. So to answer your question, whatever it takes to make the agricultural value chain successful should be made a priority. Let us focus on the ‘focus results delivery’ and education is all about solving the problem of society. Competence should b the driver of development and of course education should give you more confidence.  Therefore no one is saying that if the president talks about food self-sufficiency, he is talking about only farming. He is simply saying that he wants the rice we eat to be produced locally. That is the objective and this should require everything. 


The president when he talks about the attainability of Vision 2016, he is also saying that not all should go the farm. We also need investment from the private sector. As somebody who has been in the arena of business for many years, do you think the right conditions exist for investment in agriculture to thrive?

I think it is a continuous process and that is why I am subscriber of Vision 2016. Any time a condition is created and I come in, it modifies the requirements. The conditions exist for businesses to thrive but I think these conditions have to become more dynamic because the agenda is short term. The public and the private sector must focus on working together and deliver on the vision of the president. The vision is a good vision and we should focus on that. There is also the need for a mindset change. The political, technical and cultural constraints have to be addressed. The people have to be bold in order to allow for the birth of a bold new Gambia. America is a bold country because they said they are going to Mars and they went. Here everything is busy killing each other’s ideas. I used to work for a company and I used to tell them, anytime someday comes with an idea; you must find two good reasons to support it. You will realise that at some point in Africa, they were just killing ideas. Vision 2016 is urgent and I believe it is feasible. Everybody should be on board. 


And you think the investment climate is good enough? 

I think it is good. Whether it can be better? I think so. The reason people invest in a country is beyond the climate. Business people look at the size of the market as well as the cost of capital. For example, while the government overall investment mechanisms or incentives are the best in the sub-region, yet we have a problem with our banking system. We have a very parasitic banking system. I am the chairman of a bank in The Gambia and I was also a bank chairman in Guinea. The banking system in The Gambia does not favour development. It’s parasitic because they will tell you that the spread between the cost of funds and the amount of money that people give them some percentage say 16 percent and the amount of money they used to give as loan they will say 22 percent. But the spread they are adding is 6 percent. If you look at the way of life of banks it is too expensive. They are putting all the inefficiencies of improper banking management on the heads of the investment. I Europe the spreads are 0.5 percent. Even in the next door CFA zone the spread is 1 percent or 1.5 percent. Why are they adding the spread? The Gambia is one of the best places to come when it comes to doing business in Africa. When it comes to funding business in The Gambia they don’t fund agriculture so it means they are only funding trading and in The Gambia we do not have that sufficient mass to be involved in trade. The banks are only taking our deposits without giving value .They would buy series of four wheel drives and we are carrying their inefficiency .The impact of investment is not determined by the state but other factors or environment .If you look at the environment we have the best environment for doing business in Africa because the country is peaceful. If you were to go to Liberia today you cannot go out in the streets. There is a lot of places in Africa where it is a problem taking your children to school. So there are a lot of good things we should say aloud. The deterrent for doing business in The Gambia is the cost of funds and not only the cost of funds but selective banking. For example banks in The Gambia do not have anything to do with agriculture.


So you think they should be dynamic?

The banks will never be dynamic because it is the nature of their business. We have to make them dynamic. We have put mechanism in place and tell the banks portfolio banking is certain percentage of their loans should go to agriculture because we want to promote agriculture. Nigeria has done that and will tell banks that their spread cannot this high. We should make sure that banks don’t have a spread of 12 percent because we should try for the money to go back to the people. It is all about regulation because usually they should make only 1 percent in such transactions. For those who send remittances back home, they have already paid for sending the money but why should it be given here at a rate that is well below the rate of the market. They are taking my money away. In a situation where institutions are parasitic, when they make money, they don’t fulfill their mandate. Therefore in The Gambia, the cost of funds is a big deterrent to investment. 


What would be your last words? 

I know it is difficult because we have already invested in agriculture but it requires all of us to be focused on making it work. Vision 2016 is a good vision and so let all in our little ways try to make it work for our people. You cannot be in a good condition when your neighbor is not. There are people who sit under the baobab tree with no job and we have to put them back to work. Agriculture is a mechanism and there has to be some form of protection. If we are to ban the importation of rice and chicken so that the poor people can find work, no one will fight against that. There will be problems but I think it is a noble agenda that we must all try to achieve. 


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