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Touching down at the Banjul International Airport, a first-time visitor would be impressed with the petit nature of the continent’s fifteenth least populated country.
At the arrival lobby where the ATM machines are, several banners of telecoms companies encourage travellers to choose their network as preferred roaming service.
Getting an active line is free at the airport and its activation takes few minutes of registration and Banjul’s streets and main roads are lined with billboards advertising various offerings by telecoms providers and internet service providers.
With several operators and operational ISPs, one would expect basic tech devices such as the PoS machine to be readily available. But this is not the case in most of Banjul’s major stores, restaurants and other merchant outlets.
The PoS phenomenon
Even though the banks are issuing ATM cards, hotels, restaurants and merchants across the country are more accustomed to counting currency notes issued by the Central Bank of The Gambia than anything else.
Most of the country’s bank notes have the face of the exiled former president of the country Yahya Jammeh who reportedly stole $50-million from the government’s coffers – a daily reminder to those in The Gambia’s of the country’s inglorious past.
‘Maybe having foreign guys competing in The Gambia’s tech ecosystem is what we need to record rapid growth’
But those like Alieu Jallow, who heads Startup Incubator Gambia, the country’s first incubator for young entrepreneurs, are optimistic for the new Gambia post-Jammeh.
“I can say that the startup landscape in the Gambia is just taking off and mobile subscribers are now getting to know what other stuffs they can do on their devices in addition to making calls and sending messages,” he says, while speaking at Fajara, in the heart of the country’s capital city.
Startup Incubator Gambia was launched in 2015 by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in partnership with the US Embassy. Jallow supported his claim by making reference to an increasing number of those here embracing mobile money.
“The operators are aggressively promoting mobile money and subscribers are realising that they can do more with USSD,” he reckons.
Kadidjatou Fatu, a final year high school student on industrial training at the MRC Unit Fajara, for example uses her Samsung Galaxy J5 smartphone to access multimedia content.
“I watch Mark Angel Comedy skits featuring Emmanuella (Nigeria’s young comedienne). I also use my mobile devices to keep track of latest music from across the world especially Nigeria. I love Runtown a lot,” she told Ventureburn.
Expensive mobile data, ubiquitous free Wi-Fi
But there is a major problem mobile subscribers in Gambia struggle with — the high cost of data. Fatu said she minimises her data consumption by keeping her device offline whenever she is not using it to cut data costs.
For those that want to use more data, public places including the La Parisienne restaurant opposite the US Embassy and Alaeldin Restaurant and Mini Market are favourite free Wi-Fi destinations.
At the former, tech gadget users can obtain login details after making a purchase and can stay for as long as they want.
It has since become an unofficial meeting point for tech entrepreneurs building solutions that they hope would be embraced in The Gambia. One such entrepreneur plans to launch an ecommerce platform.
“I’m about to complete my computer science programme at the University of Gambia and after graduation, I will like to be my own boss which is why I am building my own ecommerce platform.
“Many Gambians shop online, particularly from foreign websites and I strongly believe that they will patronise me if my platform is up to the standard they are familiar with,” Sheikh Abdoulie told Ventureburn over a plate of chicken Afra at La Parisiene.
Ecommerce is not the only genre that could get the attraction of residents of the Gambia. Jallow added that the country is witnessing a rapid rate of development in technology. He said solutions that can improve transactions and ease of movement.
“Someone at our incubator is also developing a real-estate platform that could assist individuals that are new in the country to rent or buy houses without knowing anybody here,” he says.
Jallow reckons many Gambians living outside the country are returning to launch their own startup.
While he admits that more advanced tech ecosystems in Nigeria, Ghana and other African countries could pose significant threat to the ability of local tech startups to sign up corporate clients in the Gambia, Jallow said the government is making efforts to protect startups in the country through legislation and support.
“The ecosystem is very young and we are enjoying the support of the government.
“Within the ecosystem, there is a strong sense of trust. We trust the new government to stay true to the promises they’ve made to us; and we also trust the corporate sector to support the local tech start-ups by making opportunities available to them,” he said.
He believes Gambian entrepreneurs can compete favourably with their counterparts in other parts of Africa.
“Maybe having foreign guys competing in the local ecosystem is what we need to record rapid growth. Let’s see what happens in the next five years,” said Jallow.
Featured image: Street scene in Banjul, The Gambia (Paul Adepoju)