We meet so many interesting people while exploring the tourist industry and the people deeply involved in it. Our list of individuals that we want to talk to, listen to and learn, and get inspired by, is really long. But there are a few who stand out as stalwarts. Learning more about these people’s extraordinary journeys inspires and motivates us to keep ongoing. Their stories will surely inspire our readers too.
In this issue, we had the opportunity and an honour to speak with Mr Mehdi Bensouda, the suave, yet unassuming co-owner of Aquarius Nightclub, El Sol Mexican Restaurant, Gusto Italian Restaurant and also more recently the Honorary Consul of Italy. We threw as many questions as we could, to bring his journey to you, our readers.
To get started, would you like to tell us of your origins in The Gambia – The Bensouda family name is quite synonymous with success and has links to Morocco – would you tell us briefly about this special relationship between Morocco and The Gambia.
My grandfather Ahmed Bensouda was born in The Gambia, in 1909 in George Town. His parents were from Fez (An imperial city in Morocco). He started trading in the groundnut crop and later included textiles and general merchandise in Kuntaur.
He met and got married to my grandmother Fatoumata Simaha who was born in Kuntaur. She was originally from the Sarahuleh tribe.
In Kuntaur, he started his family to be blessed with three sons and two daughters, Mariam, Abdul Latif (my father), Abed, Fatma and Fettah.
Around the early thirties to early forties, he moved along with his family to Banjul where he established his flagship store (shop) at No 1A Russel Street right opposite the main entrance gate of The Albert Market.
In 1947, he married his second wife Zoubida Benchakroun who was born in St Louis to Moroccan, Wollof, Malian and Mauritanian parenthood. Zoubida's grandfather migrated from Fez Morocco to St Louis Senegal in 1890. With his second wife, he was blessed with additional seven children, three sons and four daughters namely, Fouad, Fouzia, Farid, Farida, Faiza, Wedad and Driss.
The first and second generation of his children were educated in Morocco, the third generation in The United Kingdom and The United States, most of whom returned to The Gambia to start businesses in trade, fashion, and hospitality.
Aquarius is known as one of the best hangouts and popular Night Clubs in The Gambia. How and when did you come up with the name for Aquarius Night Club. What prompted the origin of this as a business?
The name comes from a '70s song called 'the Age of Aquarius', which was referring to a new era of peace, love, and harmony for humanity. We liked the positive vibes associated with it, and we thought it could be a cool name too for a nightclub.
How has Aquarius evolved with the times from 1998 to 2022?
To be honest with you we remained quite the same through the years, offering the same quality of service, atmosphere, and great music. Our unique business proposition also remained the same, which is being a trendy nightspot that can appeal to both residents and tourists at the same time.
After being in the business for over 10 years, you opened a restaurant offering Mexican cuisine and steaks called El Sol, located in Senegambia. El Sol remains to be the only popular Mexican restaurant in The Gambia. Why Mexican – tell us the story?
Mexican dishes are known to be very tasty and rich in spices, so we had the intuition that a restaurant based on Mexican cuisine would work well in a country like The Gambia, where there is a special appreciation for spicy food! Through the years we realised that customers were always very satisfied with our steaks, so we then decided to extend our menu with a wider selection of steaks.
People love the food and service at El Sol. You have also received many awards for the restaurant. How do you maintain standards so high and consistently?
I think the main reason is that I follow the business personally on a daily base, which leaves a smaller margin for errors. Another reason is that I very much have at heart customers' satisfaction and clients complaints are welcomed as advice and not regarded as a criticism.
Business and tourism have been experiencing a hard time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, while you have changed the location of El Sol twice, you seem to take your clientele with you and grow in stature. We know your last move was during the pandemic. What is the secret to this fan following and its success?
The secret is in the saying: "do what you love and love what you do". I really love this business, as well as being around people, making sure they have a memorable dinner in a nice, relaxed atmosphere, with superb service. The recipe and the standards of what we offer didn't change through the many years and different locations we moved to. That's the reason why the clientele stayed loyal.
Three years ago, you opened Gusto with your partners. Again, now is one of the most popular Italian Restaurants in The Gambia. Why Italian - Tell us the story?
I am married to an Italian national, and obviously, I have a very strong link with Italy. One of my partners at Gusto is Italian, and he is also an excellent chef and a very good friend of mine for many years too. We had the idea to open an Italian restaurant in The Gambia while we were sipping a good Italian coffee in Sanremo, a nice little city on the coast, where he comes from.
More recently, you were appointed the Honorary Consul of Italy in The Gambia. There is an Italian connection – with Gusto and the Honorary Consulate – Could you narrate your journey from cuisine to diplomacy!
I think that's the main reason I was offered this position is that I hold a double citizenship Gambian by blood and birth and Italian (from 27 years) when I got married, and this makes it simpler to interact between the two countries. Also, Because I am very involved with work at my businesses, I got to know a lot of people in all the communities in The Gambia, and a lot of people consequently know me; together with the fact that I believe I have always conducted myself in a respectable manner, I feel this might have helped in being offered a diplomatic position.
How in your opinion have businesses in The Gambia in general changed since you commenced?
I think the number of businesses in our industry has increased significantly, with an offer of bars, nightclubs and restaurants that is now very wide and also diverse, although there are very different standards. There has been also a shift in terms of customers, from tourists and expatriate clients to local Gambian customers, who in the years have definitely acquired more spending power and have started populating even the most exclusive venues. More and more Gambians through the years have become loyal customers to both our restaurants and night club, although we still have a considerable number of tourists and expatriates. But as a Gambian, I can say that I am very satisfied to see my local Gambian clientele grow consistently.
Have Lifestyles changed? For businesspeople?
Lifestyle for business people has become more hectic in general, I guess The Gambia is becoming ever more attractive to European expatriates, travellers, tourists, even those coming from neighbouring countries and the sub-region, although the infrastructures did not develop accordingly, and this certainly affects businesses, especially the traffic and the circulation, but hopefully, soon there will be some progress in that sector.
For Gambians in General?
Lifestyle for Gambians has changed in the sense that there is a slow but steady and clear development in the living standard of Gambians, who can afford and enjoy their leisure time going out in bars and restaurants much more than before.
Has the Tourism industry changed or evolved since you commenced?
The Tourism industry has changed a lot through the years, reflecting the economical changes that happened in Europe, like the crisis of 2008. Since then, unfortunately, The Gambia as a destination has had difficulties in attracting high spending tourism from European countries, so there has been a general lowering in the level of tourism, decreasing the benefits for all the local businesses related to this industry.
Have employment standards changed in the Tourism Industry?
The skills and competitiveness of Gambian personnel employed in the industry have surely evolved and improved. But there is still a lot to do in order to make positive changes towards increasing the number of Gambians who hold head positions in the tourist sector. A good team is always the key to success, and we really make an effort to form our employees in the right way and make sure they are happy to stay with us as long as possible.
Do you have any concerns regarding Covid-19 which gradually seems to be losing headline space and world political situations which are hitting the headlines now? What kind of an impact will this have on your businesses? And for the economies of countries like The Gambia?
Tourist destinations have not yet recovered from the covid 19 crisis. In The Gambia, we still did not have a tourism season since the beginning of the crisis, so it is hard to tell what the future of the sector will be like, if people will be confident enough to return to mass tourism in the coming months or not. There is also to consider that the impact of the epidemic on the world's economies will surely, at least to a certain extent, affect discretionary expenditures like leisure travelling. What is happening right now in Europe is just adding a tremendous extra amount of uncertainty to a situation that has been extremely critical for over two years.
In your opinion how could tourism-related businesses like yours contribute more to changing The Gambia for the better?
I believe that any business in my sector should adopt a long-term strategy, implementing actions with a much wider perspective than a fast profit-maximising. Creating and building businesses that have a uniqueness, strong foundations, and that are the result of intense and dedicated efforts; focusing on the quality of the services you offer; working day by day on capacity building and on enhancing the skills and the standards of your team; looking at the future with the idea of leaving something of value behind you on this land, rather than just exploiting what is in your hands. I think this should be the right work ethic, and I believe it is also the most profitable one in the long run, for both businessmen and The Gambia as a country, with all its huge potential as an attractive destination for tourists, and not only.
Running Restaurants and now an Honorary Consulate which we believe is quite demanding, requires much responsibility and devotion. How do you cope with stress? How did you find work/life balance?
It is indeed very challenging; I need to organize my time very well every day to be able to cope with many different tasks. And whenever I have the possibility to do so, I take some time off duty to recharge my batteries.
In your opinion what are the key changes The Gambia has to undergo in order to grow in this competitive tourist industry in the sub-region?
My suggestion is to take into account the major changes brought about by the pandemic. I foresee a future where there will be maybe less mass tourism, but more travellers, especially significant numbers of the so-called ‘digital nomads’ - that is independent professionals and remote workers who are no longer asked to work from their head offices. This new category of travellers is ever more oriented to medium length ‘workstation’ – the hybrid concept between work and vacation - in sunny destinations close to Europe, that are capable of offering a friendly environment and competitive infrastructures. I think The Gambia has a great potential for this new market, and we should be prepared for this, and also invest accordingly.
We understand that you are expanding your businesses – your daughter is soon opening a restaurant of her own – Tell us how the family plays a role in the business.
I have a very good relationship with my daughter, and we share the same passion for the hospitality industry and the good food! She is really looking forward to this new venture, a beach bar and restaurant in a really lovely spot in the Kombo’s area, which will be named Playa Del Sol. She will be totally in charge, but I will obviously offer her all my support and expertise.
Finally, While we hope you follow our magazine which has a following of close to 60,000 followers, what would you want a magazine like ours to do to help grow tourism in The Gambia.
You are doing really well in depicting the beauties of our beloved country and its people, describing the richness that we offer, the hidden gems and the talents of this nation, and also narrating the success stories of many Gambians. It is of paramount importance for the media in general to offer a positive image of Africa, representing all the beautiful gifts and the enormous potential for the growth of this amazing continent. Please continue with the good job.