And TOP-SHOP’s first-ever shop still remains right there to this day, along with an African Art Gallery on the same floor! But you can also find a new outlet at the entrance of the Senegambia Beach Hotel and another one at the Kombo Beach Hotel in Kotu.
My Gambia was talking to the owner, Anna, who runs this well-established business.
It all started in 1985, when the founders, Anna and her partner Rolf, moved from Senegal to The Gambia to start a horse-riding stable here. However, sometimes things don’t go as planned…but maybe everything happens for a reason?
The initial plans quickly failed, leaving Anna and Rolf struggling. That didn’t stop them, though! Instead, they got a place inside the Senegambia Beach Hotel to start a leather manufacturing workshop, producing items from locally tanned leather. But when the tannery had supply problems, they switched to the fabric. For many years they only produced their very own style of batik and tie-dye fashion.
Gradually, customer demands changed, pushing TOP-SHOP to expand their offer. They added in bits and pieces of arts and crafts, which eventually led to what is now TOP-SHOP: a business that sells and manufactures a wide range of African arts, crafts, souvenirs and more - things people love to take home as gifts or to keep as a reminder of their holiday. An African Art Gallery is part of the business as well, displaying and selling abstract artworks from some of West-Africa’s finest artists.
Of course, success doesn’t come in one day. And, as Anna explains, there is no secret to it: "It’s just a lot of work, concentration and dedication. We often see people coming here, opening a business and assuming it will run on its own. That’s sadly not the case. If you want your business to succeed, you need to be there, hands-on”. And this is how it has always been. Up until now, Anna is still included in day-to-day operations. “I, fortunately, have a very good sales team, most of whom have been part of TOP-SHOP since the early beginnings. But in terms of purchase, supply, production, one always has to be present and active at all times,” she shares with us.
One of the reasons for the growth of the business in the early days was most certainly the fact that tourism was booming at that time, especially in the late 80s and early 90s. But with the years, there have also been changes in the tourism field and the guests that were coming to The Gambia: “Back then, we had fewer tourists, but a different clientele. Holidays in the Gambia were rather expensive; not everyone could afford them. Later on, it became more accessible, and that was reflected in the tourists we saw. With prices now going up since Covid-19, things are once again changing”.
Today, Anna works with many regular suppliers and travelling tradesmen/women, many of whom really do depend on TOP-SHOP as a main outlet to sell their products. They’re all paid directly in cash; their goods are not taken on sale and return, which is a big asset to them. “We also like to give our suppliers inspiration and ideas for new products, especially for the paintings of the African Art Gallery. We have an insight of what sells”, Anna adds.
With tourism on the rise, many other businesses started popping up; also, local artists started selling souvenirs at craft markets, so the competition was getting bigger and bigger. But that has never stopped the TOP-SHOP team on their way to becoming even more competitive and ambitious: “We see competition as a positive thing, as it always challenges us to strive and improve. It pushes us to always create or source new items that are not available elsewhere. So, I guess you could say it especially affects us in terms of production and purchase of goods.”
Starting with their own tailoring production in the beginning, they even expanded their manufacture into other items over the years. They still run a tailoring workshop, producing various items such as bags, clothes, and stuffed toys. They also do T-shirt printing, make jewellery and create recycling art from soft drink cans. In recent years, they have also gotten into food packaging and production, using resources from their garden, such as moringa, soursop and lemongrass.
TOP-SHOP is known not only for good choice and quality but also for a straightforward pricing, saving the need to barter over every purchase. Another key to good service are the friendly and competent sales assistants, who provide the best service and ensure hassle-free shopping. All of them have been with TOP-SHOP for more than 20 years and some even more than 30 years. This is also the reason why many repeaters who come to The Gambia every year also visit TOP-SHOP. “Some of them have become good friends of ours over the years. Seeing them again is always very nice,” Anna tells us with a smile on her face.
But then, no entrepreneurial story comes without its challenges. Being in the business for so long, TOP-SHOP has experienced many rises and falls in the industry. In November 1994, the Gambian tourism industry collapsed after the attempted Coup d’état against the former president, Yaya Jammeh. Another big challenge was the Ebola year. Not to forget several political crises - for example, from 2016 to 2017, when the former president refused to step down. There were also several bankruptcies of tour operators over the decades. It all shows how tourism is such a fragile industry. But the biggest challenge so far was, without a doubt, Covid-19. And what is the secret to overcoming those obstacles? Anna shares: “We just somehow tried to continue, using up savings, and tried not to lose hope.”
Perseverance is one of the main values of the team. The owner further explains: “Hospitality and tourism are a big part of the Gambian economy; many people here rely on tourists visiting and spending. It is especially now after the time of Covid-19 that we see just how important the tourism and hospitality industry really is.” Luckily tourists are starting to return, and Anna expresses: “Come and visit The Gambia. We’d be very happy to see you!”