Gambia is poised to become an ICT hub writes SEGUN ORUAME
The Gambia is seeking for a new future beyond tourism. It is turning its gear on ICT in what could potentially turn this
small West African country of 1.5 million people to a technology hub for the ECOWAS market which population exceeds 200
Two key factors appear set to reconfigure’s Gambia’s economy. The first is the landing of the ACE under-sea fibre optic
cable at Banjul, Gambia’s bubbly administrative capital. The ACE (Africa Coast to Europe) submarine communications cable
system connects a host of African countries across the West Coast of Africa From France down to South Africa in what could
be one of the longest undersea connection on the continent stretching over 14,000 km with a minimum capacity of 1.92
ACE comes with Wavelength-Division Multiplexing (DWDM) which works seamlessly with existing submarine cables. Its landing
in Banjul brings broadband to town and opens vast potential for services that feed on a heavy diet of bandwidth. Countries
connected by ACE include France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Canary Islands (Spain), Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal,
Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Sao Tome and
Principe, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo, Angola, Namibia, and South Africa.
The ACE is owned by a consortium of financiers consisting of seventeen telecommunications operators. They operators
include: Benin Telecoms SA, Camtel, Companhia Santomense de Telecomunicações, Côte d’Ivoire Telecom, France Télécom,
Gamtel(Gambia Telecom), Maroc Telecom, Mauritano-Tunisienne des Télécommunications, Orange Bissau, Orange Cameroun, Orange
Guinée, Orange Mali, Orange Niger, Orange Spain, Portugal Telecom, Sonatel and Togo Telecom). The ACE consortium currently
serves as joint owners of the SAT-3/WASC/SAFE and the Atlantis submarine cables.
Once fully in operation, ACE would bring affordable bandwidth and international connectivity to The Gambia; end the long
era of dependency on very costly satellite bandwidth which comes in narrow slices. It would also expand the international
gateway window to private sector players who form part of the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to manage the ACE facility in
The Gambia as a consortium. The government of Gambia owned 19% of the consortium, state-owned telco Gamtel has 30% while
private companies jointly owned 51%.
The second is a pioneering mobile devices assembly company; the result of a pact inked between Ghana based rlg
Communications and Gambia based Unique Solutions. The pact would see rlg Communications investing some $200 million into
the mobile devices company beginning from 2012.
The deal itself is hinged on Gambia’s new policy thrust on human capacity building as part of the objectives of its NICI
policy – the country’s National Information Communication Infrastructure policy. The NICI policy aims to encourage private
sector investment and at the same time create new jobs within the ICT sector for Gambia’s growing population of young
people. Gambia’s demography shows half of its population is within the vibrant age of 15 to 35.
To kick-start the entire process, about 70 Gambian youths were recently trained in the maintenance, repairs, servicing, and
assembling of mobile devices, particularly mobile phones. The training, a pilot scheme tagged ‘Mobile Phone Repair Training
Programme’ was executed at the instance of Gamjobs by rlg Communications and Unique Solutions. Gamjobs is the Gambia
Priority Employment Programme designed by the Gambian government and the Kingdom of Spain with technical support from the
International Labour Organisation (ILO) with other partners to “address youth unemployment, skills gap, and the mismatch
between labour supply and labour demand.”
Under the NICI framework, part of the overall objectives of the GamJobs is to equip Gambian youths with various ICT skills
ranging from the high-end to the low-ends and infuse in the country the capacity to service a growing ICT sector as well as
the expansive technology market in neigbouring ECOWAS countries. The government has invested in this direction, said
Gambia’s Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure Alhaji Cham.
“About two months ago, we have twenty five graduates from Taiwan who did special courses in IT. They have been trained in
ICT and it is the idea of the president, his Excellency Dr. Alhaji Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh. They spent four year there
studying IT; special elite ICT programmes, they graduated three month ago and are back and have been employed in government
ministries. So in a way we are building capacity and obviously, more will be trained, and also the University of Gambia has
its own training, they have the Department of Science and ICT, they are doing everything possible to ensure that we train
as many people as possible to fill that gap, so government is aware of the need for capacity building.”
The Gambia appears keen on addressing one of Africa’s toughest challenges in kitting itself for the Knowledge Economy:
human capacity. Virtually Africa’s entire ICT boom has been built on imported skill sets with little or no local capacity
to sustain the increasing growth in the sector. The continent has had to depend on expatriates to drive its growth, said
Simon Abraham, CEO of Netpage, one of The Gambia’s leading technology solutions providers.
“[Human capacity] is the biggest problem in Africa, not only in West Africa or The Gambia, it is a problem everywhere.
Sometimes you just have to balance it out with a hybrid of human resources of both foreign and local staff.”
Partnership for growth: Unique Solutions and rlg Communications
With their new deal to provide locally assembled mobile devices, computers and LCDs in The Gambia, rlg Communications and
Unique Solutions are fostering the growth of their business on the building of local human capacity to drive their brand.
Since 2006, rlg Communications has modeled its business growth on addressing Africa’s key hindrance to technology
development and at the same time use the trained skill set to build and promote its products.
It has been the company’s unique selling point which has helped to promote ready acceptance among governments while
ensuring steady market growth against the much established foreign brands. The Ghanaian company in 2008 entered into
partnership with Ghana’s Ministry of Youth and Sports to pilot an ICT training scheme of the National Youth Employment
Programme (NYEP) which initially benefitted about 1000 youths in mobile phone repairs and assembly. More than 6,000 youths
were trained in 2009 and an additional 24,000 are already scheduled to complete training by mid 2012. Many of these are
absolved into the rlg factory and further exposed to advanced technology.
The company has signed similar training deals with several Nigerian state governments that should enhance its visibility in
Africa’s largest ICT market of some 95 million mobile phone subscribers with the greatest share of smart-phones. While it
grows the continent’s manpower, it has also shore up acceptability of its brand with more than 25,000 laptops and PCs
making its way into corporate Ghana, educational institutions and government services in the last 18 months to make it
about the fastest growing brand. It has recorded greater success with its mobile handsets which account for well over 50%
of its market visibility. They include its high-end smartphones and Ipad devices.
“The first thing is investing in the human resource base because training the people in the first place was one of the
areas we have to establish the human resource. If we didn’t have people in the mobile phone repair business who have been
to the training, who know the right component in the production process; you cannot wake up and have mobile phone to sell
in the market, there is no way you will survive in it. But we have created the human resource base that is technically
inclined in handling these gadgets, so have people confident in bringing a product from the scratch to the end,” said ,
Chief Executive Officer of rlg Communications, Roland Agambire.
All these are the competitive strength that rlg Communications is bringing to The Gambia with its local partner, Unique
Solutions. According to CEO of Unique Solutions, Papa Njie, “ rlg Gambia is going to roll out in Gambia as they have done
in Ghana. So rlg Gambia is going to be the commercial arm whereby these people trained now will enter rlg Gambia doors as
mobile vendors, repair and assembling guys, technical, sales and marketing. The plan is for rlg Gambia to roll out a
portfolio of equipment including tablets, phones, desktops, laptops, different models, LCDs and everything. And on top of
that we will have service, training centres and we will also put sales outlet right across the country. I think we want to
do something that Africa is not used to; when something is broken, you park it up; there is no maintenance culture. With
rlg Gambia, we are saying if there is a problem, come back, you will find a solution here, you can’t beat that.”
Njie sees a link between the coming of the ACE cable and the potential growth for locally assembled mobile devices. All
operators led by Gamtel are working on their last mile infrastructure to tap into the ACE cable. “All operators are working
on their networks, there is no secret about that, some are 3G networks, some are rolling out 4G networks. This has the
potential of revolutionizing everything technology. This also takes us to a lot of things we need to do with rlg
Communications because when you have a lot bandwidth, you need to have lot of equipment to take advantage of it. What kind
of facility are you going to put in the hands of these people, you talk about 3G, 4G network; they need cheap devices and
not the one that cost $500. We are very much focused on this. By the time the ACE cable is in operation, we would have the
type of first class equipment needed to enjoy the service, whether it is tablets, laptops or phones.”
“In private sector participation as you may be aware, Gambia has four GSM operators, one of them is government and the
other three are all private, all of them are major players in terms of helping to drive connectivity, so the private sector
involvement is there. When you also talk about the ACE project, there is private participation; government is taking 49%
with the Gamtel, and private sector has 51%. We involved them to ensure that they are part and parcel of the expansion
process of the telecommunication services because we are talking about vision 2020. We are talking of private sector led
growth. So we are working closely with the private sector to ensure that we provide all the services needed.”
Famous as one of the favourite tourist destinations in Africa, The Gambia appears to be searching for a future like many
other countries in the new Knowledge Economy where soft codes and soft skills hold the ace to leapfrog your economy. India,
China and tiny Singapore have proven the point. The Gambia may have just begun its own journey to become more than a