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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Gambia, we consume everything, produce nothing: a creative society – not an inventive one

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Dr Sulayman Njie

For our brief history, as a country, we have been dealt a very heavy hand in the arena of resources – except for the people and bodies of water, which, if used properly or harnessed, could be the greatest resources, ever. With regard to the people, we are not cultivating human capital the way we should. We are not producing competent, capable and skilled trainees to “Invent the Future.”

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In my observation, we are a very creative people, but not inventive, for we lack innovation and ingenuity. This is due to a plethora of factors, among which is our mass production of graduates and over saturation of certain sectors of the job market. The so called fast track focus on quantity – giving a cold shoulder treatment to quality – has been one of the biggest policy blunders of the current administration. We are basically warehousing students, not giving them the right training, and haphazardly dumping them into the real world upon graduation. In America, they have the school to PRISON pipeline; well, in my country, we have the school to NOWHERE pipeline.

These factors, among other things, have limited our capacity to produce the things we consume, for the most part. Rice, which happens to be a staple food in the country, is still not produced enough to meet the demand, meaning we have to import a sizable chunk of the rice we consume. To boot, during the month of Ramadan, we consume a lot of sugar, yet we are still not producing the goods to meet the demand. We consume a lot of beef and mutton during the Tobaski festivities – but we still import a lot of the cattle and sheep during the aforementioned period. You’d be hard pressed to find anything that we consume in mass that’s produced in the country.

By dint of a colloquial conversation with a good friend of mine, who is heavily involved in the agribusiness, youth development, education, and capacity building space; we got to the topic of production and consumption in Gambian society. As a result – I went to the Serekunda market to specifically look at the market at its finest hour. In economics – we are taught about supply and demand, the invisible hand, competition and the market. At the serekunda market – all of these theories lay bare: the ringing bells, the commotion, the bargaining, the place where the market, practically and literally, meets the community. It’s an amazing sight to see from a researcher’s point of view.

Upon my arrival at the market – I walked into a cosmetics store – and started looking at the make of the items – and pretty much everything was foreign made. I asked the vendor where he gets his products from – and he told me Senegal, and some from wholesalers in and around the Kombo St. Mary Region – but virtually everything was imported.
Ergo, I stopped by a local palm oil trader – and asked her where she gets her supply from – and she answered — Bissau, sometimes, Senegal. This is disheartening – I mean, even the most basic of what we consume – come from our neighboring countries. I have not even mentioned the gadgets: torch lights, kerosene lamps, light bulbs, fans, padlocks, bicycles; and other technology stuff that we consume. I’m basically touching on our basic needs, and how much of it we consume, and practically producing a fraction of it. Even most of the soap we use is imported – and boy – do we consume a lot of it.

Thereupon, in the faculty of industrialization and teeming industries, most developed countries went through different stages: from agrarian to industrialization, to the now post-industrialization period, service economy. We, on the other hand, seem to be jumping from agrarian to consumerism. We consume literally everything from rice, soap, clothes, fans, cosmetic products, palm, vegetable oil – just to name a few – but produce a minuscule of the aforesaid. Perhaps, there’s another path to self-sufficiency that has not been realistically put to the test yet. However, given the economic development paths that are there to learn from – we are most certainly an anomaly – etching and sketching our way to LaLaLand.

At present, about 22.5% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is remittance based. That is almost a quarter of our GDP. Utterly jarring! Remittances have huge effects on Gambia’s economy. They keep many families going, and for some families, it is their only source of income. Furthermore, remittances have financed a construction boom in The Gambia and thereby created some employment for some Gambians with artisan skills; however, the majority of folks that are with such skills happened to be foreign born. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of receivers of remittances use the money for consumption. They seldom produce or invest any part of the money. It’s akin to basically throwing money into a hole – the money keeps the receivers above water – but seldom multiply or grow – and wait for the next round of dough.

When I got to The Gambia – my Mom pulled me aside and told me about a family member who needed help – due to the fact that her husband had recently been laid off from his job in the tourism industry. A job in the tourism industry is quite unstable – since it is seasonal. Be that as it may, I told the family member about my conversation with my old lady – and asked her what she needed and how I can help. She responded by saying that she wanted a wardrobe.

I mean, how in the name of sweet baby Jesus is that going to improve anyone’s life? How is that going to alleviate the conundrum she and her family is currently facing? How is a piece of wood going to fix any of her problems, given the fact that she is basically getting by? I, sincerely, was hoping for a different answer. One that involves her ingenuity or even creativity; one that includes how she is going to help herself, as well, in the process – producing something – rather than a one-stop consumption. This is just one scenario – and it is not, in anyway, the archetype mentality of all Gambians; however, it does point to how consumeristic we are as a society – that even folks who are struggling to have a decent meal – are more worried about consuming than producing.

On a brighter note, I met some very pioneering and entrepreneurial young women during the recently ended African Youth Charter Summit in Kololi. As a case in point, I had interesting conversations with two amazing women: one was a 23 year old lady from Jarra Soma – who’s involved in tailoring. She started with one sewing machine 8 months ago, with one employee, she’s now expanded her business to four sewing machines, 4 employees and 3 apprentices. The other lady is a 22 year old entrepreneur from Bakau – who’s involved in the poultry business. She’s expanded her business by 2 fold in the past year – with a profit margin of 65% and en route to more growth. Such people give me hope – they are the true manifestation of what’s best of my country. But these stories, as we say in economies, are outliers, albeit on the modest ascendancy.

In the aggregate, we, collectively as a society, need a change of mindset, pronto. And, on the government policy side, we ought to revamp the entire education system, where we can produce capable, competent, skilled trainees who are going to charter a better Gambia for posterity. As of now, though, we are sadly, a consumer society, where we consume everything, and produce statistically naught. But, as an optimist, I see an innovative Gambia in the horizon, under the aegis of my agribusiness friend, the entrepreneurial spirit of the young lady from Jarra Soma, and the enterprising poultry farmer from Bakau.
First published in 2016

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