With Alagie Manneh
Talib Ahmed Bensouda was born in 1986 to Ahmed Bensouda, former Permanent Secretary (retired) and lawyer Amie Bensouda from Bakau.
An entrepreneur at heart, Talib started his own painting company aged 19, employing at least a dozen staff.
He attended Marina International School and graduated in 2003, upon completion of his IGCS. Talib later moved to Hamilton, Canada where he studied for a college diploma and then to city of Mississauga, where he enrolled in the university of Toronto to earn his Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Communications Technology in 2007. He also completed his Insurance Foundation Diploma from the West African Insurance Institute in 2012.
He later did electives in the fields of sociology, political science and anthropology.
In 2009, he worked in stint as an insurance salesperson with Grey Power Insurance and later joined 1800-GOT-JUNK, a junk collection company as a sales lead where he sold recycles to the Toronto municipal waste management company.
In 2010, Mr Bensouda returned home and worked for Takaful Gambia limited, an Islamic insurance company as a marketing manager. Instrumental in making the concept of Islamic insurance known in the country, he became operations director and secretary to the board but resigned in 2013 to pursue personal goals.
He is currently a director on the board of Insist Global, a software company and Blue Oceans Properties, an estate developer. He is also the founder of Safaro Trading, designing his own brands and developing the now successful ‘baby Mariam’ brand, the ‘sohnasi’ sanitary pad and the Amie Tomato paste. Talib is also the founder of Gamsense, a charitable organisation which aspires to promote the concept of self-help amongst communities.
In this week’s Mayors’ Podium, the businessman-turned-politician talks sharp on his plans and vision for KMC, his entrepreneurial work and why he is the right man for the KMC job.
At 31, you are already a successful man. Why ask more from life by aspiring to become mayor?
In my last interview, I told a story of a welder man who asked why I left Canada to come and work in an insurance company in Gambia. I said ‘I wanted to come home’. Why stay in another man’s country when I can do more and better here? The next time he saw me, I started my small business selling diapers, so he could not understand again that I left an office with AC to selling diapers in Banjul. I did not have a car but I bought a bicycle eventually. So when I take fair to Banjul, I will ride it and go shop to shop. He could not understand why I subjected myself to so much pain. The next time he saw me again, I was advertising my candidacy for mayor. Again he couldn’t understand my personality.
What I am saying is that the reason I want to be mayor is because we all suffered 22 years of no progress and people like myself who were doing business in the Jammeh years, were always at a knife’s edge and saw no future in the Gambia. We were always yearning for democracy and better business opportunities. We envied young people in Dakar and in other African countries who were making progress. So when Yahya Jammeh said he will not step down, we started the #Gambia Has Decided movement. Once that happened I said look, ‘Gambia did not decide for Yahya Jammeh to go, we decided for everything Jammeh represented to go, with the lack of job opportunities and scarcity of everything and in order to ensure we get those things, we have to guide the new democracy to that’. So that is why young people like myself, who have the capacity, was not only looking to be a politician but was encouraging friends to run for parliamentary elections, for councils. Because at the end of the day it’s our future we are fighting for; a better future for ourselves and for our children. This is why I went into politics, to change the Gambia to be a better place.
Those are part of the positives of your life. Moving on, many said you are a smart young man and well educated, but that you don’t have any experience in managing a public institution or a big municipality like KM
Is capacity about age or what is in your head? I think I am a very productive person. The things I can achieve in a year, maybe others achieve it in five years. I am 31 but this is my third business. I am 31 but I worked in five different professional organisations and at some, I reached the level of operations director. When I was 19, when I had my painting company, I had 12 employees, two of which were 45 and 50 years, respectively. And they did everything required and in that summer, we made $200,000 in sales. I am 31 but I have a university degree and other diplomas. I am 31 and I own my own business right now with two branches and 35 employees.
But that’s my point. Your critics said while you may have all these things, you still have no experience in politics.
What is politics? Politics is just a social science and it is not about what you know, but your personality. Can you lead and bring people together? Can you sell them ideas and execute those ideas? This is what I have been doing in my various capacities over the years. At the end of the day I want to bring the KMC together to see my vision and the municipal government to a position of executing this vision. That I have experience and if that’s the experience they are talking about, they can be comfortable I will do well.
Why should people vote for you?
People should vote for me for these reasons I stated. I don’t need the municipality to have a good life. The mayor’s salary is D10,000. My highest paid employee probably gets twice that. So the reason I am doing this is I want to make the difference and I am in pole position to make a difference. I have a company that is running itself. I am young and have good ideas and can take this KMC faster to places than any other candidate can. I have the ability to lead. I maybe young but I take my time and very open to ideas and advice and partnering. But at the end of the day I have principles and will always trust in my conviction. So I may be older than my actual age.
What is your vison for the KMC?
I have lived in well run cities in Toronto, Canada. I worked with them. I know what it takes for a municipality to function well and provide services that people need. So at the end of the day these are vital experiences I will bring to KMC. I am not expecting KMC to be Barcelona or London overnight but we should be in a position to provide the very basic services. KMC, as it is, is only providing a very small percentage of its mandate. The Local Government Act allows the municipality to provide any services they see necessary for their people including schooling but the municipality is only focused on garbage collection, which they are not doing well at all.
For me coming in, I will not add anything the municipality is not already doing, will not reduce they are not already doing. I will look at the situation and make sure what they are doing actually works first, and it is actually delivering. So my vision for KMC for the next four years is to build the institution to a point where it is delivering on the very basic of services for the citizens of the municipality.
Surely, other aspirants feel they can do the same. What makes you any different?
Well there are many players who can probably do it. But do they have the capacity to take it where we need it? That’s the big question. I believe I am the right man but I am sure others believe they are too. For me it’s very simple. I think I have the capacity, the right experience and I think youth, in my case is an advantage because it’s youth that go with capacity and experience and maturity and so in that sense my youth is an asset.
Tell us on what party ticket you wish to contest?
I am a UDP member. If I have interest to be independent, I would have declared by now my intentions to go independent. I am looking for the UDP candidacy and if I get it, that will make me extremely happy. If I don’t I will not be happy but still support UDP.
Do you have a political philosophy?
My political philosophy is no different from my life’s philosophy or business. I think with society, corporations or any institution or company or anything that brings people together, we have to look at each other as stakeholders and ensure we all put in and we all benefit. So if also the organisation we setup is not taking out positives, then we all have to share the losses. And if we generate profit, it goes the same way. So my philosophy is that all stakeholders have to look at whatever brings them together, whether it’s a company, or a municipality that it’s ours to share both the bad and the good. So that’s my philosophy with everything I do. So that philosophy if we can bring it to the municipality where all stakeholders look at the municipality as something they own, then we will succeed.
But once we treat it as somebody else’s, it dilapidates. Your critics said you are a newcomer who is relying on his financial muscle to immerse for political support inthe race for KMC mayor. What do you make of this observation?
New in what sense?
A new face in politics
Isn’t everyone these days? There is no person running right now for mayor I myself have heard of prior to 2016 December. There is nobody. Arguably I think I was even more famous than the rest because I was in #Gambia Has Decided, I was in Takaful, I think I was more active in my life than anybody I know of right now in the public sphere. I don’t think there is anybody who is not a newcomer. Everybody in politics today is a newcomer. All these parliamentarians, nobody knows them, except for a few.
On the perception that I have some finances, I wish I have it like they said. I will tell you, the speed at which I grew financially started in 2015 but I was struggling in 2014. I never dreamed I will sell diapers for a living. If I was financially comfortable like they said, why would I struggle to do all these things, why would I start a business? The thing about Bensoudas is there is a perception, which is unfounded. A lot of people actually believe the wealth came from somewhere else but my mother is the breadwinner of the family. She was a solicitor general working on government wage together with my father, who was PS till 1994 when the coup happened. Then In 1995 my mother started her law firm.
Her first client paid her a computer. I watched her struggle and she still finds time to make sure we, her children, were working hard and studying. But she was a Bakau girl, from a poor family. My grandma used to sell porridge for living. She came from a humble beginning. Everything she gets today she worked hard for it. I watched her, blood, sweat and tears. And it is the same values that are in us, all my brothers. That’s why we are leaders because we have resilience, we have principles and this was all ingrained in us by our mother. It’s in our blood. When I was in Canada during my studies, I had to do things I am embarrassed to say. I had to collect garbage.
What first thing will you do if elected into office?
Just to diagnose the problem; the municipality is broken. Everything is not working. But my first priority is why is everything not working? And from outside I have diagnosed it as a capacity issue the municipal administration has. This is my diagnosis. But when I go in, I intend to research and prove my hypothesis correct. And if it is correct, then my first order of business is to restructure it because if you do not restructure and you go and try to make changes, remember the problems exist because of capacity issues. So anything you do you will end up in the same place. So you have to first look at the source which I believe is capacity issue and a cultural problem institutionally with corporate government, etc. So as a mayor going in, that’s what I intend to tackle first. And when the municipality’s restructured and is under strong platform, strong foundation then I can start executing my other plans.
Tell us about your charitable foundation Gamsense
So Gamsense is… let’s do things that make Gambia sense. Meaning there are sensible solutions tailor-made for The Gambia, meaning they are sustainable. So what Gamsense does is they try to source funds locally. We try to get ideas on how to solve problems locally and we try to get local implementation. This way we know it is sustainable because the funding, know-how, implementation all come from Gambians. With Gamsense, we prefer to do things locally and believe that way Gambians will take ownership of anything we give them. These bins we gave to the market I believe they will treat it better because it was a Gambian who gave it to them and not a UN organisation. And I am here to monitor the usage. I am here to ask questions. Just right now I was calling and saying ‘I want it labeled.’ I want it spread in different corners of the market and rest assured, once in a blue moon I will take a walk to see how things are. This is why it is sustainable.
What do you do when not at work?
Okay my hobbies? I have many hobbies but I don’t stop to think about them (laughs). Well I enjoy work the most which is a little bit sad but because it’s not work for me, it is life. This is why I love business. It’s so real. On weekends I am bored because I enjoy work, I enjoy being productive. From my life’s story you know I love challenges. I like watching news, I consume local news a lot because now it’s credible. I enjoy sports, football a lot. I support Barcelona. In the Premier League, I enjoy Manchester City because of their amazing ‘tiki-taka’ style of play. They are like the new Barcelona. I also enjoy watching Gambian football, although I cannot play so much anymore.
You used to be a football player?
Yeah I used to be a defender. They used to call me ‘Super T’. When I was in Canada, what I enjoyed the most was indoor football for its intensity. I also enjoy running but now I am a little heavier.
What about your personal life? Are you married?
Yeah I am married and I have a son, my first and only. He was born the day Barrow was inaugurated. I am looking for a girl now (laughs).
Do you believe you will win?
I believe so.
And if you don’t?
Then life gets back to normal. I continue with Gamsense which is interesting and my business which is also interesting. But I believe I will win, that is why I am running.
What is your message for the electorate?
Yeah for the first time we have a free elections. And what does that mean? It means people are free to advertise as they wish, free to promise as they wish. They are free to say what they need to say to win. So for the first time in the history of Gambian elections, the electorate have a big problem because now they actually have to use their head and take their time and research what candidates are saying to them. I think also they should be very careful because we don’t want to pick people for the wrong reason.
Don’t pick somebody because he knows somebody you know, because he is from your tribe or from the same village or because you like them. No. You want to make sure by 2022 you can say my life in this municipality has improved. You want to say the standard of my life has improved. Vote for the person who can do the job. This municipality is not a game or a talent show. This is very real as it affects our livelihood, our health, our children’s future and our environment. So it is as serious as it gets.