MY TRAVEL PLANACCOMMODATION

Interview with Mr Ram Mohan

My Magazine 2022/03
7 min
The Gambia is one of the smallest countries on African continent. Though many people living in The Gambia were born elsewhere, the largest migrant communities in The Gambia are from Senegal, making up close to half of the migrant population, followed by Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone. Beyond regional neighbours, other migrant resident communities include in particular a long-standing Lebanese diaspora (many of whom are 2nd and third generation residents and are Gambian citizens).

Over the last few years (2 to 3 decades) an Indian Community has been growing in numbers and in strength - and are currently contributors and investors in industry and trading businesses, primarily in Textile imports, Construction material, Electronics, Super and Minimarkets and also in Agro exports. In the last few years, they have also entered the tourism-related business, though there have been quite a handful of Restaurants for several years now.

The approximate number of Indian nationals in The Gambia is 2000. 

We spoke to Mr Mohan, The Honorary Consul General of India in The Gambia, Chairman of The Fajara Club, business partner of Vineyard Multicuisine Restaurant, Saffron Spice Kitchen restaurant, Yasmina Bar & Resto, ComAfrique Limited and ComAfrique-Inversol Social Responsible Initiative who has been working and living in The Gambia since 1998.    

To get started, could you tell us why you choose The Gambia as your new home back in 1998?

I used to work for a Swiss-based Company as their regional Vice President, based in Guinea Bissau when a coup in Bissau saw me come to Senegal and then on a business visit to The Gambia, and that happened in 1998.

It was by chance a war had broken out in Guinea Bissau, and thus we were evacuated to Senegal. We received an offer to buy some sesame in The Gambia, so I travelled here in 1998 December. I was so impressed by this friendly country, in the peak of a tourist season, with many supermarkets, restaurants and affordable hotels, that we decided there and then to move our Company HQ here... we moved in in Jan 1999.

When did you become The Honorary Consul General of India in The Gambia? And how did it happen?

This possibly has two stories. The first one being my marriage to my spouse, Jamila, a Moroccan. I visited our Embassy many times to get my marriage registered, and became a household name in the Embassy. The other reason was my proximity to the Embassy when the war broke out in Bissau, I was one point of contact with several Indians staying at home. When I moved to The Gambia, the Embassy kept in touch with me and on one of our visits to the President of The Gambia with our Ambassador, when he was requested to set up an Embassy in The Gambia, our Ambassador suggested we have an Honorary Consul.  They both looked at me. And it just happened. It wasn't anything that I sought but came to me. This happened in 2003.

How did you come up with the idea for ComAfrique Limited?

When we were working here, our parent company had an internal dispute and began collapsing at the HQ in Switzerland. We realised we had to set up on our own and thus started ComAfrique.

Has the mission of ComAfrique ever changed? Why did you start with ComAfrique-Inversol Social Responsible Initiative?

ComAfrique has always been an agro commodity trader. We have intensely involved ourselves with value chains and reaching out to farmers and via NGOs to ensure a better supply chain. ComAfrique prides itself as being the pioneer of cashew nut growth in The Gambia. We worked closely with farmer groups, providing seedlings for free with a booklet on planting and, more importantly, on post-harvest management. This approach with private sector involvement grew the raw cashew nut crop rapidly.  We have grown and operate in other regional countries.

Dealing with farmers, one constant issue used to be their always requesting finances or advances to rebuild their homes that went down in a fire - and a candle was always to blame. So, on one of my trips to India, I chanced upon a Solar torch which seemed extremely good. But the villagers did not have enough saved up money to buy it. Yet they spent about 6 dalasis a day to buy a candle. This gave birth to the idea that they could pay over a period of time using candle money. And when we decided that we could sponsor lights but insist they paid at least 2 Dalasis into a savings fund or a sustainability fund, the Initiative was born. We have completed about 90 villages in The Gambia and 130 in Bissau since we started in 2010.

How has business in general changed in last 24 years in The Gambia?

There is a lot more competition, but availability of raw material has also improved. As some guru said, “Change is the only constant”. We have grown.

Business and tourism have been experiencing a hard time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. You have refurbished Vineyard Multicuisine restaurant and opened 2 new restaurants together with your business partners in a pandemic era. What is the secret of this success?

Full credit to my partners who have sensibly grown. While the pandemic was tough, and we have also struggled but managed to stay afloat. Maintaining staff through tough times too is key. We rely both on local residents and tried to keep service and respect norms high. This has helped too. Maintaining standards with innovative strategies like a good take away service when many others closed, helped increase clientele during the lock downs.

Your companies are very diverse. How do your companies take care of employees, their training, and their ability to create friendly working atmosphere?

Respect is very important. Responsibility and delegating without relegating is key - and of course at the end of the day, you must ensure fair pay for work well done.

The Covid-19 virus pandemic has affected the entire world economy, especially the industries where service is the dominant segment. Now, we are facing new challenges.
Do you have any concerns regarding current global Covid-19 and political situation? Will that have an impact on your businesses?

The Covid Pandemic has definitely been the toughest challenge everyone has faced in the world. And yet it seems surreal that in these parts of Africa, it was completely like a strange dream - villages have never seen so much of aid and goodwill, for something that hasn’t been affecting them directly. More people die for other reasons, yet they were getting more assistance, ambulances, and food aid than ever before.

While personally Covid did not affect The Gambia as seriously as seen in Europe, it did slow down business.  Shipment transit times and freights increased. But since we have been long players in the Cashew export business, trustworthy buyers and missing speculators did permit a sensible season. It definitely has and will help when you have strong long term business relationships - while you may not make windfall profits, you can stand on your feet in troubled times.

We are now going to face a bigger one with this crazy conflict in Europe, and dealing with this may not be as easy as Covid if the battle escalates and gets prolonged.

You are also the Chairman of The Fajara Club. Please tell us more about your role and activities at the club.

Well, I’ve been a member of the Club since 1999, and the Club has been an integral part of our life. I learnt my golf here, and when I had to start a business on my own, it was a golf club liaison and further meetings that resulted in one of our first lines of credit. That golf is a sport for networking became a personal reason for me to get further attached to the Club. Having served on several golf committees earlier, I was approached by a few friends who had held positions to steer the Club and was elected Chairman in 2017. This term will be my 6th year as Chairman and while it’s time to let youngsters step in, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time as Chairman especially dealing with two and a half years through the pandemic, completely short of funds - pulling through was thanks to a few sponsors who found value in our sales pitch. We are on a strong wicket now, and I see a bright future for the Club.

 

What practical tips do you have to share on survival for other business and tourism startups out there?

Long term relationships, respecting your commitments/contracts - do not go overboard on speculation, learn to take losses (I consider losses as school or univ fees- just imagine you went to Harvard, and have learnt a lesson). And certainly don’t keep repeating the lessons.

In your opinion how much do your companies take part in changing The Gambia for the better?

That would be for The Gambia to evaluate on what change we have made. Ask me, and I'd proudly say bringing cashew with training programs to The Gambia, putting The Gambia on a world map of cashew is one significant change. Changing lives from the ground-up.

Our CSR Light up a Village initiative has completed 90 villages in The Gambia since 2010, all through sponsorships. Saving one candle a day means a saving of 6 to 8 Dalasis per day. If one were to calculate the savings on imported candles, we have made, we have put in about 5000 lights since 11 years would be a figure of about 68 Million Dalasis of savings without looking at health, eyesight, education, happiness benefits .. that's another legacy we are proud of.

 

Tourism potentials of The Gambia are not utilized to the maximum. What do you think of the present situation and what is the going forward direction for tourism here?

I believe The Gambia has done well in tourism, for the simple fact that while you may not have a million tourists, a large percentage are repeat tourists. To improve, primarily easy access, flight connections and easy of entry and departure are critical. On the infrastructure side, I could suggest that river travel must be improved, electricity and water delivery, and roads and infrastructure need to be constantly improved. The Gambia is a beautiful river, and thus it must protect it also from over-exploitation, over-fishing is a menace that has killed many tourist economies. More quality accommodation upcountry will help.

But I must say, a lot of people feel that too much of modernization also is not ideal and a balance between development and tradition must be maintained.

Leading so many important businesses requires much responsibility and devotion. How do you cope with stress? How did you find work/life balance?

Investing in people with trust and being honest to them helps build a long-term team and I have to thank my close associates and partners in all my businesses who reciprocate and ensure that we are able to grow. I communicate a lot on my phone and thus my phone is my office and am able to spend a good amount of time with friends, interesting people and indulge in my hobbies and pastimes - that theres very little bad stress. Positive stress is good to keep you going.

Besides your management/ownership post at the companies, you're involved in charity. How do you find yourself in this position?

I don’t believe it’s Charity - it’s a social responsibility and if everyone did their bit, life would be so much happier.

In your opinion what are the key changes The Gambia must undergo in order to be a tourist super-power?

I think tourists need to be able to move around safely. Quality of vehicles, reduction in petty crime, lesser check points - possibly seamless clearance at the airport - The Gambia has it all despite not having the Pyramids or The Taj Mahal, we have the bolongs, the river, the stone circles, Katchikally - more importantly diverse cuisine and of course the friendly people of The Gambia.

Also, I must say this - there are some amazing initiatives and businesses that are transforming The Gambia and providing access to information. My Magazine ( My-Gambia) and its team are possibly one of the major contributors to sharing information about The Gambia. Kudos to you.

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