The Gambian Minister of Tourism and Culture, Mrs. Fatou Mass Jobe-Njie, recently spoke to Raheem Akingbolu on her ministry’s mission to use tourism to deepen the bilateral relationship between her country and Nigeria
The 2014 Root Festival was unique. Can you recap the build-up to the event?
The success story of the 2014 edition of the Root Festival can be attributed to the good support the organising committee got from its Nigeria partners. What I’m saying in essence is that Nigerians helped to promote and make it a resoundingly successful programme.
Again, every stakeholder in the Gambian, especially our leader, President Yahya Jammeh, participated very well and gave us the needed guidance, financial and moral support to make the festival successful. Beyond that, I think the entire Gambia population participated in the programme one way or the other.
The highlight of the programme was the visit by all the participants to Junfreh where Kunta Kinte was born and eventually captured. We also had the rite of passage of the Jola tribe which was presided over by the president himself.
It took place in the president’s hometown, Kanilai, where initiation ceremony took place. The whole programme ended with an African Gala Dinner held to bid farewell to participants.
Agriculture is the largest contributor to The Gambian GDP, followed closely by tourism. As a Minister do you have a target to make tourism the largest contributor to the economy?
I think we can do better than agriculture if we continue in the pace we are doing now and work with experts within and outside the country. Tourism contributes 16% to GDP right now. We employ over 75,000 people. Most of them are young people. I only see us exceeding that contribution when we can achieve all-year-tourism.
That is why Nigeria is very important to us. Over the years, our vision is to extend the frontiers of the tourism sector. In terms of the winter, Gambia was described since 1965 as a winter-season destination. But we need to move away from that winter season.
I think The Gambia people deserve to have all year round tourism. So that all the hotels will continue to operate and young people can keep their jobs. And the only way we can achieve this is to focus on Nigeria. That is why we are working with individuals and agencies in Nigeria to try and spread the word and sell The Gambia, as a lasting, peaceful and safe destination, for our brothers and sisters in Nigeria to come.
It is already taking shape as many Nigerians now have investments in The Gambia. For instance, the Coconut Residence is owned by a Nigerian. Generally, Africa nations have a lot to sell in the area of Tourism.
Here in the Gambia, in the next 10 years, I can see Tourism doing better than Agriculture.
We have a Vision 20-20 blueprint and Tourism is a component part of it. Tourism is a productive sector. The only problem that Tourism has in The Gambia is the seasonality of Tourism. If you come to The Gambia during the winter season there are no beds. Our winter season is cool. The summer months are very quiet, hotels are close and people will lose their jobs. So we need to change that.
Our success is when we can have all-year tourism. We are hoping that Nigerians can come in and help us. If our country can have 10% of what Nigerians spend on hotels, holidays and travels, we will be happy. Nigerians spend big and we believe we can attract them to The Gambia.
What do Nigerians stand to gain when and if they decide to come to The Gambia?
In terms of investments in the tourism sector we have incentives. We need more five star hotels; our river is the most navigable river. In Gambia, there is peace and stability. In the tourism sectors, we have gaps that need to be filled. Our River is beautiful. It is one of the most beautiful rivers you will find anywhere in the world.
Along the river, we have over 100 Islands waiting to be discovered. The Islands are there. They need somebody to come and invest and build something very unique on the Islands. We have free land for Nigerians who want to invest in properties.
That is one of the incentives – land is free of charge. We would also help Nigerians with a special incentive certificate, which gives them approval for duty waivers, on all the materials they will need to import. And once the operation starts they will be given corporate tax holidays for five years.
In addition to that you have the Gambian Investment Promotion Agency, which is a one-stop shop for investment. There are a lot of opportunities here for Nigerians. The Gambia is like a box of chocolate waiting to be discovered.
Your handling of the programme spoke volume of your core management acumen. Did you get this in politics or public service?
I am from the private sector, where one is driven by the urge and zeal to succeed. I was a former banker; I worked as a banker for 12 years before I was appointed a Minister. While the recent event lasted, I saw our guests as customers.
They came to The Gambia and it was my responsibility to make sure I exceeded their expectations. The only way I could do that was to get involved. I made up my mind from day one that I would not eat until my guests were satisfied.
Let me also add that it is in our culture in the Gambian to be hospitable and caring. If you study the Vice-President you will see that in her behavior too. She greets you by bowing down. Everybody in The Gambia is very humble and simple.
As an individual, I am a perfectionist, I felt that if I sat down, things might not work the way I wanted it to work. And as a customer service-oriented person I was trained to serve my customers, to make them happy. As a former banker that is my orientation. This also explained why we also have religious harmony in The Gambia. We are taught to live in harmony.
How do you juggle all your roles, as a Minister and as a wife and mother?
It’s work –life balance. I was taught that at Standard Chartered Bank where I worked. You have to balance all you do. You know we women, we can do more things than men. We multi-tax and we enjoy it. I was taught to multi-tax. As a child I was multi-taxing.
It is normal when I am home I am a different person from the Minister. The title of Minister is just a name. I believe in taking care of the home, because as a woman you have to earn your respect in the home by taking care of the man, irrespective of your position, because that is your responsibility as a woman to do, because we all have obligations.