The apex body of the Gambia private sector has seen the exit of several of its presidents who have worked very hard to take the chamber to higher levels in its over 40-year existence. The seventh in that trend is Bai Matarr Drammeh, who served the chamber for six years (2006 - 2012). In this interview, the astute economist and private investor, who has served at senior capacity in many institutions in The Gambia and beyond, speaks to MatketPlace Business newspaper on his tenure as President of the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI).
|Bai Matarr Drammeh|
Having served the private sector of The Gambia for six years as president of the GCCI, how would you explain your term of service?
It was eventful; I will say that I am very pleased because if you were at the annual general meeting [held on 5 October 2012] you would see the interest members have in the Chamber now.
During the AGM in 2006, when I was elected as the president, I said that I was coming in for two reasons: one, to make sure that the Chamber has a head office, and secondly to increase the number and quality of members. These were my mission and I have been able to achieve them.
There were other things you could have chosen to be your mission as the president, why did you choose these particular ones?
I realised that for over 40 years of existence of the GCCI, we were renting, could not identify a place for our own property, our own home. If an organization is to be looked upon as a very serious organization it should have something to be identified with, your own office and there was nothing the Chamber had to show to the public that is worth emulating. So when I realised that, I said to myself somebody got to do it. I was the seventh president, so before me there were six presidents and my immediate predecessor, [Abdoulie Baks Touray] often told me that ‘What you have done is what I wanted to do and is what all the previous presidents of the Chamber wanted to do, but God has allowed you to get it done so we should all be happy; you are the one who has been able to do what we could not do’.
What were your strengths as the president of the Chamber?
My strength was the fact that I am a very patient guy, I used to be calm in doing things - I am very calm and understanding. That aside, I am a very good listener. All these together gave me an easy ride. In difficult moments or in moments of misunderstanding I will be strong enough to say ‘no!’ I will say ‘no this is where I am going, if you are with me we go this way; if you are not with me I still go the way I was going’.
I have had good times with the board members and rough times with some of them who had other agenda, who wanted to do other things different from what I wanted but then I have stayed on course and I got up to where we are now and at the end they are all happy about it.
Sometimes it’s not very easy though, but we got things done, because I had very good board members who were sincere, committed, and open and if they were convinced something was good, or was in the interest of the Chamber they would go along.
And I was particularly pleased with the female board members because they are very, very loyal and supportive. I can tell you that the female members of any organization are always the best members of the organization – they are always loyal and dedicated.
What were some of your weaknesses?
Indeed I have weakness; some people in the end call it virtue, but I think it was a weakness, it was a weakness in that I over controlled my temperament. There were moments when I could have said awful things to my people because of the way they reacted but I was able to keep calm and in the end I would blame myself for not having done so – get angry and say things that may not be nice. So, that I thought was a weakness but others tell me ‘no it is a virtue, it’s wisdom and it comes with maturity’ but I thought it as a weakness. I think that is my only weakness.
I am sure you may have had some things you wanted to accomplish during your tenure but could not for one thing or the other. Can you share these with us?
Yes, yes absolutely that is true. I really, really wanted to get a trade fair complex for the Chamber. The government has been kind enough to allocate a piece of land for that purpose and it’s located near the Sukuta Women’s Garden, in Sukuta. I have started talking to some outside partners to get the place constructed. We were on the verge of getting a suitable plan as to how the place should be built but I have every confidence that the new president will take it up because when I was the president he was my trade fair manager, so he knows everything that is important to know about the trade fair and I think he will dedicate some time in making sure that the complex is built.
In every human endeavour, particularly in leadership, there are bound to be challenges here and there, what were some of your challenges?
The biggest challenge I had was getting the members fully understand the structure and character of a chamber. Chambers of commerce in more advanced countries - richer countries - are usually very rich organizations but in our own part of the world, we have to struggle to even pay salaries.
When I just took over, or before I took over, we were on overdraft – it means the account were in red – thank God during my tenure we had outgrown that stage and have started to pay salaries without overdraft. So the challenge was really payment of membership dues because there are some people who want personal benefit and if they don’t have that, they say ‘what is the Chamber doing, what is the Chamber doing for me?’ If you talk like that you may not pay your dues and because of lack of payment of membership dues some of the things that the Chamber wanted to do it could not get them done. There were things we wanted to do like bringing in professionals to come in and lecture members on different issues including information technology, business management and other pertinent aspects of business.
So the challenge is indeed getting members to pay their dues. If every business in the country becomes member of the GCCI and regularly pays membership dues then the Chamber can do most of the things for them personally as well as collectively.
For six years during your term, the GCCI did not hold any AGM, why?
It was a very peculiar time when I took over. When I just took over we had one very good accountant and he was offered a lot of money to go somewhere else shortly after we took over. The chief executive officer at the time was Mam Cherno Jallow; so it was his task to compile the accounts and have it audited. You cannot have an AGM without audited accounts and the auditing was not done. We pushed it to the next year to try and get somebody to get the accounts compiled, because sitting here I am not a day-to-day runner of the Chamber; somebody else, the CEO, is responsible for that. The second to the third year, we had another accountant who in the end either could not do the work - according to what I heard, or was messed up. Fortunately we were able to get those accounts audited and then we had another accountant who came in and later said he got tuberculosis; on the whole he got another job and he didn’t know how to get out so he created tuberculosis. We had to get every member of staff of the Chamber to go to MRC [the
Medical Research Council] to test for tuberculosis to see whether they are all free of tuberculosis and the result indicated that none of the staff is having tuberculosis not even the guy who claimed to have tuberculosis. The MRC said whoever told us that he got tuberculosis perhaps the person should tell us which clinic he went to that confirmed him to have tuberculosis.
So we tried to get him to go to MRC or to tell us which clinic he went to that confirmed him to be having tuberculosis; that was not the case until when one of the staff of the Chamber went to one of the companies in the country and saw this particular person working there.
At some point, I asked the treasurer of my board, Fatou Sinyan Mergan - who is an accountant by profession - to help compile the accounts and she did and got three-year account at the same time and then it was audited.
So the problem was, having the accounts compiled because the accountants were going in and out and there was nobody to compile the accounts.
I was made to understand that the Chamber is currently undergoing a lot of challenges, financial and human resources, which accrued either during your time, or inherited by you. What is your comment on this?
We certainly have employed new employees - quite a number of new employees. We have confirmed some people who were there on attachment prior to our term but now they are full staff of the Chamber. The CEO was employed, an accountant was employed and there are few others who we employed during our time.
So we have done that in the area of human resources. However, there were constraints, financial constraints, because we needed to look for outside funding; it’s not enough to look for local funding, so we need to have funding outside.
Just before I left we were about to have about 20,000 US dollars from ECOWAS. So I have just started pulling in funds to the Chamber. I have also brought in a loan scheme to the Chamber, a microfinance scheme for the female members of the Chamber. I got the funding from abroad and the female members are enjoying the scheme.
If you are asked to enumerate qualities of a good GCCI president, what will you say?
The GCCI president should have high quality characters that will see him through. Number one, you are heading an organization that a lot of people who are members do not understand what the Chamber should do, a lot of our members are members because they want the membership certificate, to have the certificate of the GCCI, which is a reputable and well-recognised organization. But the true essence of a chamber of commerce is to expose what happens locally, as far as commerce is concerned, nationally first, regionally and then internationally in preparation for global competition. This is very important, it’s very important that members of the chamber travel abroad to see what obtains there, what are the new trends, and what’s going on there.
Secondly, you must be engaged at all times, engaged at all times because we are competing internationally to become well known; you most work hard enough and go to different meetings and activities to be recognised.
Also, you have to be patient, very patient, perhaps this is more important than anything else. People will through things at you, whatever they think of, they will say it so you must be very patient.
Third, you must be very focused as to what you want to achieve because we each owe it to the Chamber to commit ourselves to do something.
Again, you should be very clear as to what exactly you want to achieve during your term, though it’s not possible to achieve everything but notwithstanding you should be focused on what you want to achieve during your term. If you don’t have any focus at all then it could be difficult for you.
Do you think the new president has all these characters or attributes?
Yes, I think he does because during my presidency he was with me and he showed interest in the Chamber, he showed interest in achieving something. So I think if the members give him the right type of support he will be able to do whatever is on his agenda.
In The Gambia many entrepreneurs are calling for protectionism, what is your comment on this?
When you want to be protected in whatever you are doing, you have to be able to show real commitment to that thing you are doing. Government has tried it once and in the end the government was surprised that the protection given did not translate into benefit for the citizens. The government hoped that the protection will lead to lowering of prices but that was not the case. We, the local businesses, did not honour that.
For instance, the sugar prices were the same from those local businesses who were enjoying protection, not paying duty at customs, and were all charging the same prices as those who were not protected.
If you, as a business, are not paying duty then your commodity should be cheaper than those paying duty but this was not the case and this was government’s argument.
If we want to be protected we have to first ask ourselves what does it mean to be protected. If you don’t know what it means or if you think to be protected will translate into more money, more profit into your pocket, then you don’t know what it means.
To be protected means the citizens must ultimately benefit from the protection, it cannot be self-centered, it has to be extended to the benefit of the citizenry; if that is not the case then the essence of protection is lost.
Secondly, we have to look at our operations and standardize it - bring it to standard. If we don’t have enough money to bring our operations to standard then lets us come to partnership with those who have the technical know-how, the equipment, the IT software and everything that is needed to standardize the business, because you have to produce something that can compete globally. You cannot bring anything and say you should be protected, no. You have to take it to a level to see that you need protection so that you can grow, but then the level has to be there.
What did you inherit from your predecessor?
During my predecessor’s time I was the first vice president. I inherited the attitude that he had in that he wanted to take the Chamber to another level, he always worked to take the Chamber to another level and then I knew about that I knew that he wanted to upgrade the Chamber so I inherited that attitude from him and I moved on with it.
He was very busy trying to get a land for the head office, trying to get a land for the trade fair complex and these are things I inherited from my predecessor [Abdoulie Touray] because I was the first vice president I was aware of all of these things that he wanted to do and I got them done. So I inherited that.
I inherited his ability to expect the unexpected. That was one of his habits. He always told me that in this country nobody say thank you for the work you have done or for the service you rendered. I carried on with that thought in mind that you have to get things done but don’t expect anybody to say thank you, and that enabled me to move on without expecting thank you from anybody but to get the job done. Because in
The Gambia we don’t have the culture of celebrating each other and since we don’t have that culture, we don’t say thank you to each other, then you just have to move on and get the job done without expecting a thank you.
So those are valuable cultures I learnt from him. But I also inherited lack of participation of members. They may come to the AGM but once that is done you may never hear from them again because the AGM is a place where they can come and make noise and go. Lack of participation of members has been a problem and I am sure even the new president will inherit it.