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Saturday, March 2, 2024

How a young man inspired the revitalisation of GGC

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A former staff of the United Nations, Muhammed Njie was appointed in 2020 to rescue the National Food Security Processing & Marketing Corporation, formerly GGC, which was about to be closed down following years of dormancy. Together with his staff, Mr Njie was able to galvanise the needed support to build a strong team that will go on to start the process of revamping an institution that was considered ineffective to the surprise of many who thought that mission was merely as good as beating a dead horse.

The team focused on addressing the lapses and rebranding the image of the corporation. One thing that has stood out is the amount of appreciation received by Mr Njie who has won admirers from among the staff for his strong stance against corruption, respect for his work and uncompromising stance on service delivery. Some staff admitted that they found it difficult to adapt to his style initially but they later realised that a paradigm shift of that nature was the only way to address the challenges the GGC faced at the time.

In this exclusive with The Standard, we begin by asking Mr Njie about what has impressed him the most about this institution?

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Muhammed Njie: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak with you. I think to go straight to your question, what has impressed me is that, this institution has a capacity to impact the lives of people directly. There is kind of inner feeling and sense of fulfilment that you have when you take positive steps towards impacting the lives of the most vulnerable especially the farming community. It feels like we are the face of government when it comes to agriculture and dealing with the farmers directly. I have always wanted to work with the farmers to build their resilience and put a smile on their faces and make a difference to their lives. The other thing is the institution has a very important role when it comes to the economy of this country and it is gratifying that I am leading an institution that is also contributing to help the government realise its development objectives.

The GGC was in dire strait when you took over in 2020. Is it out of troubled waters?

When I came in 2020 from an international organisation obviously the thinking was different. The first thing I looked at was the human capital and I realised that there was a huge skill gap especially at the level of management because out of 600 staff, we only had three bachelor’s degrees holders. So that was somehow worrying to me because if you want to deliver you need the required skills sets to be able to do so. What we did was to build that capacity and now we have a lot of bachelor’s and master’s degrees holders, a chartered accountant and auditor, and even one doctorate holder. We also looked at the operational aspect and how we were working in terms of our dealings with the farmers. A lot of the processes were done manually and manual systems are prone to errors and manipulations which could lead to income leakages and potential losses for the corporation. So we tried to automate the business processes and I think we have done that with the payroll which is now fully automated. We did the same with the inventory management system by upgrading and automating them to avoid human intervention. We also changed the business model when it comes to paying farmers. Then we used to move with cash to the seccos to pay cash and you know that comes with its own risks. So we had to change that business model and transfer the risk to the banks which are more suited for such types of operations due to their strong internal controls. That is why we hired AGIB to provide us with this service. Now if there is any issue, they or their insurance company will deal with it. We also did the same with the fertiliser because then the fertiliser was delivered to the co-operatives which will then sell and our staff will go around to collect the cash and bring it back to be deposited. This was also prone to a lot of inherent risks. Again, these risks are now transferred to the banks who are better suited for such processes. We have also created departments that we think are very important. I mentioned earlier that there was no internal audit department. A huge corporation like the GGC with an annual budget of almost US$20 million without an audit department was incomprehensible but we were able to put one in place. Also, there was no IT department and when I came, I was the IT manager and it was really difficult but thank God today we have two professional IT staff who are very capable and are helping us in connecting our different depots in the regions to our head office. Now technically, you can sit here and see what is happening in all the other depots. There was also no legal department so we used to have a lot of contracts with farmers and all our legal matters were outsourced. Now we have one in house helping us with all the legal matters internally. So, you can see that there is a big difference. We have also diversified our product portfolio by expanding it to cashew exports and the importation of rice and oil and now trying to include other commodities very soon.

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You found the corporation highly indebted. How far are you in repaying those debts?

The GGC unfortunately doesn’t have its own working capital. What we have found here with regard to our capital and reserves was not adequate so that is the reason why when we are starting our trade season, we have to resort to the commercial banks to borrow funds and buy peanuts, process them and then export, likewise for the rice and oil. But recently, we have in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture prepared a cabinet paper which was approved by cabinet to recapitalise GGC so that we are able to have our own resources without having to go through the banks and plough back the interest payable to important intervention areas. The cabinet paper is approved so we are just waiting for the Ministry of Finance to act upon it.

Are you satisfied with the progress that you have made or are there goals that you have missed out on?

I don’t know if I should say I am satisfied because I am never satisfied but clearly there has been progress with all the things that I have mentioned. However, the only thing I regretted and I always tell my staff members, is the fact that I should have started with automating the entire system. That should have been my first expenditure line because with technology you are able to drive your institution’s growth. We are doing it now but it should have been my first objective. The other thing is the fact that we are not still able to do value addition. It is a missed step but we are looking forward to it especially with the peanut oil because we are only able to process it up to the level of the crude. The objective however, is to refine it and package it here and then sell it locally. With the peanut, you are able to have lot of by-products such as soap and butter and with the groundnut shells you are able to have a briquetting plant for charcoal that would help to reduce deforestation and also manufacture cupboards from it for roofing. We have those in our plans. It will take some time because we have to mobilise resources and look for public-private partnership to implement. These are the steps that we are currently embarking on and for this reason we set up a new department called Strategy Development Planning.

How were you able to address the capacity gap?

The first thing we did was to attract staff from other key institutions to join us and now that we have them on board, we are building the capacities of the ones we have. We have signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Science, Engineering & Technology so that they can also send us their interns to learn from us. The objective is when they learn and understand how we operate, we can bring them on board so that they can take the institution to the next level.

Where are we in terms of infrastructure?

That is a very good question because when I came the machines that were here, were over 40 years old. These are legacy issues that we inherited but there is currently a project that is nearing completion funded by the IDB. It will have a new shelling plant, crushing plant and a new power plant of 3.5 megawatts that will power our facilities and the excess will be sold to Nawec which will give us additional revenue that we can use to invest in other areas. This project will be commissioned by end of December 2024 in shaa Allah. But in the meantime, what we have done is to hire mobile shellers and took them to the depots to shell the groundnuts to avoid having carryover of stock from one year to the other. The expectation is that by 2024 the new plants will be operational.

Where did you find the price of groundnut and where it is today?

When I came in 2020, I think the price of groundnut was D15,000 per tonne. With government’s support and GGC’s advocacy on the need for the government to support the farmers and build their resilience, the price has been going up year after year from D15,000 to D28,000 to D32,000 and now D38,000 which is more than 100% increment since 2020.

Despite the increments, the farmers are still demanding more. How do intend to meet their expectation?

I think the farmers deserve to ask for more because it is not easy with the subsistence farming but the realities are that we also rely on the international market and the international market fluctuates, up and down, depending on the stock exchange market but what I can assure is that when this new plant is ready, it is going to increase efficiency in our operations and the savings we are going to generate from that can be ploughed back to the farmers so that the prices can actually reflect what their expectations are. Also, if you do value addition that means we are selling our products at a premium and that excess profit can again be ploughed back to the farmers. But that is work in progress.

How were you able to bring the price of fertiliser down this year from D2,200 to little over a D1,000 per bag?

Well, I think it is all thanks to government because this reduction is actually a subsidy that is paid by the government at a cost of D1,500 per bag and the farmer is only paying D1,150. The government’s subsidy is more than 50% and the government has also realised that fertiliser is an essential input to increase production and productivity. In 2021, the production and productivity went down significantly not only in groundnuts but other crops such as maize, millet and others including horticulture and thus affecting some of the macroeconomic indicators. So the government deemed it fitting to intervene and make the price affordable and we have started seeing the results because it has been a bumper harvest for groundnut this year and the farmers are very appreciative of what the government has done and the output is very good compared to the past.

Do you have as part of your plans to manufacture fertiliser in The Gambia?

I always have big plans; I remember when I was talking about our plans to start the importation of rice and oil, some people think it was too ambitious and asking when will it happen but we did it. Yes, fertiliser is something that we desire to have even though we might not be able to manufacture it here at this point in time but we can have a blending facility in The Gambia where we can import the raw material and then blend them locally and then sell it. In fact, we want to use this depot as an industrial hub that would address the entire value chain and all that fits within our vision and mandate. That is the thinking that we have, so I would say it is something that we would want to do.

You have just launched the Smart Farming Initiative, a very ambitious project. How optimistic are you that it will be successful?

You know, currently we are faced with challenges of aflatoxin on our crops and as a result we are not able to export them to European markets at a premium. To address that, we need to produce locally. All that is lacking with the farmers are the required tools to improve their production and productivity. So, when we had these partners from Holland whom we have visited twice and saw their capacity, we decided to team up with them. Holland is actually number two in terms of export of agricultural produce in the world behind USA and imagine the size of Holland. They are able to do that because they are able to utilise the limited land they have to its potential and with one hectare they can produce up to 80 tonnes of potatoes or onions. But we don’t have that yet in The Gambia and that is the reason we are partnering with them to mechanise agriculture to increase our production and with this system you can use your mobile phone to water your farm. We are going to have storage facilities in all the farms using 40 containers powered by a solar system. The implementation has already started. Our Dutch partners are currently in URR and installation is on-going.

Thank you Mr Njie, any final words?

First of all, I would like to thank His Excellency, the President for having the confidence to appoint me as the managing director of this noble institution and provide me with the platform to serve the farming community. I also like to thank my board for its continued guidance and support. My staff have been with me through the ups and downs. To the farmers, I always say they are the most vulnerable and we need to support them and try to understand their pleas and align ourselves with them. I want to thank them for their positive collaboration with the corporation. I also want to thank the Ministry of Agriculture especially the honourable minister, Demba Sabally, who has been a strong supporter of this institution. To our financial partners Agib, from the chairman Muhammed Jah, the managing director Isatou Jawara, OJ and all his staff for being with us on this important journey. Finally to my family, especially my parents, for their blessings and guidance.

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