With Alagie Manneh

Gallo Saidy is a Sukuta born award winningGambian civil engineer. He left a top paying post as a group manager of infrastructure services at Horowhenua District Council, New Zealand to relocate back to The Gambia to set up his own civil engineering company, Doku Group. Alagie Manneh met him and he shared his successes, challenges of doing business in The Gambia among other important issues.

You are a native of Sukuta Sabiji who left for studies in Europe after completing high school. What did you study?
I did my university education in the United Kingdom.I studied civil engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University. I graduated first-class with a degree in Civil Engineering and then returned back to The Gambia. I later left for Holland to do my master’s degree in sanitary engineering. I then got another scholarship and did my Master of Science there. I came back to The Gambia again and after a while, I left for New Zealandwhere I did my MBA and my chartership.

You could have continued living and working at your highly paid job in New Zealand. Why did you decide to return home?
Gambia is our Gambia. It belongs to us all. As citizens of this country, if we don’t come back to develop our country, who is going to develop it for us? The West need us,but we are needed more here. Capacity is not here. For me, it was time to come back home and participate in the development of my country. It has been a passion of mine for a very long time. I love The Gambia. Gambia is where I want to be. It’s a place in which I’d love to make a difference.

Is that why you set up Doku Group
Well Doku Group stemmed from the idea of coming back to participate in developing The Gambia and moving it from a third world to first world country. To do that, we had some decisions to make. One of the decisions that we landed on is actually to form a private company in The Gambia. I have other two partners. Through the private sector, we believe we can participate better in the development of our country. Doku is a Mandinka word. We are civil engineers. Civil engineering is very diverse but for me, I want to focus on water supply and sanitation. I think that is greatly needed in this country.

Exactly what can you do differently to ease the burden of water supply?
I think we can contribute. Notonly the private sector can deliver; it has to be delivered by government. If the platform is there for us, I guess we can participate as a private sector and help make water accessible to all.

It is two years now since you started operations in the country. What major works have you done so far in The Gambia?
A major highlight for us was the work we did in Banjul. I actually came here to do some groundwork and went to the city. What I saw in the city left me very sad. Our city looks like…… one of the major areas there was the sewage system in Banjul. I realised that this pipe which evaporates in Banjul to the sewage, has been like that for two years. They couldn’t use it but they were just pumping waste into it, into the drains and the outer of the drains where the children and the fish swim… So, I decided that if I come into the country, this is one thing I am going to solve. So, we came and made a proposal to NAWEC to try and fix the seaholepipe. We had a lot of doubters because there was no expertise in this country. They tried to get some companies, but it was too expensive. The then managing director of Nawec had confidence in us and gave us the opportunity to showcase our capabilities. I can proudly say we delivered. For me that’s a big highlight for a young startup. We fixed the problem. It shows that you don’t have to be big to do stuff like that. You just have to be given the opportunity.

The Gambia government is notorious for giving major contracts to foreign companies when we have indigenous companies that can do better and the money stays here. How is this affecting locally owned enterprises?
I think foreign participation is okay. There is nothing wrong with that. I think what needs to be encouraged is giving Gambian companies the avenues, making it easier for Gambian companies to participate. If theskill set and the capability are in this country, I think the procurement system needs to be tailored to encourage Gambian companies to be able to be in those contracts and deliver. That’s the only way startups in this country can actually work. If government does not make avenues for us to find it easierto participate, what will end up happening is that we will always be relying on outsiders coming here to do work for us. If small companies in this country grow, we employ Gambians and we develop capacity so that Gambians in five, ten fifteen years’ time, we will have big companies here. Yes, the international competition is goodbut then the government need to make sure that the framework encourages Gambian companies to find it easier to participate and grow.

Do you think the procurement processes in the country is transparent?
I wouldn’t say the procurement system is not transparent. What I would say is that the procurement processes, in some form or another, are designed in such a way that it doesn’t encourage startups, even competent startups. There would be jobs like you said, Gambians can deliver but they cannot go as a Gambian company to tender for that work. So what happens is they end up as sub-contractors to outside companies who would come now and use them for that work. That’s what I was saying; the capability and skill set is here. The framework should encourage Gambian companies to be able to deliver those projects and allow them to grow in the process.

Jammeh once pronounced that he would turn Gambia into a city state like Singapore. As an engineer, do you honestly think Gambia can catch up to Singapore within a decade?
I honestly believe it is attainable if we have the right framework. The Gambia is a very small country and with the right mindset, this country can be heaven. Gambia can be one of the best countries in West Africa. The Gambia is a very small country. If we are properly organised, and properly planned, a good strategy, yes this country can catch up. I won’t say it will be exactly like Singapore in 10 years, but it could be one of the best in Africa.

Gambia is getting ready to host the OIC summit. Given the state of our airport, roads, erratic electricity and water supply, do you think this country is ready for this major event infra structurwise?
The infrastructure as it is now, I don’t think it’s ready for the OIC. But the planned infrastructure, if implemented yes, I would say yes, The Gambia would be able to host the OIC. I think the opportunity is there to get the infrastructure ready. But then it needs speed. To build infrastructure of that nature is not like flicking a coin. There needs to be consultation and making sure that everybody participates so that you have good outcome, and that takes time. The planning process needs to step up.

You are one of the most educated, respected international award-winning engineers to have ever emerged from The Gambia and because of this, some people thought you would have been appointed as head of some department or ministry. Why didn’t that happen?
I think for me, my passion is what I do. What I am doing with Doku, I enjoy doing that. I want to change lives and I think one way to do that is through the private sector. I have worked in departments, at State House, at Nawec. So, I know. But working in the private sector is one avenue to actually participate in the development of this country. Yes, one would say why is Mr Saidy not a minister but for me, my focus is my company today, to build Doku. I think if I can build this company, I can build capacity, I can employ Gambians and have a very good water company in this country. It’s one legacy I would like to leave behind. I left a very high paying and luxurious life for this job. I came to participate in the development of my country.

I discovered that you once helped move a stuck plane off the runway at Banjul International Airport after all aviation engineers tried and failed. How did you do this?
I think that was a surprise to myself because I have nothing to do with planes. I am a civil engineer. I just got a call and was told that there is a plane stuck on the runway and they wanted my help. I was asked to just go. And it’s not that everybody have tried and failed, I think they tried and couldn’t get it off. I just helped them out through common sense. I thought that was an interesting one.

A lot of extraordinarily talented engineers and scientists like you are still out there. What can we do to motivate these people to come back home and reverse the brain drain?
If this country wants to arrest the brain drain syndrome and also encourage Gambians that are out there skilled come back home, they have to create the platform that will encourage these people to come and participate fairly. They have their skills. When they do come, they need to be able to participate; they don’t need to be caught in bureaucracy.They need to be able to do what they want to do. That’s the only way you can encourage skilled Gambians abroad to come back home. The government should encourage Gambians who are outside to come back and participate in the development of our country.

We have very few engineers and engineering companies. What do you think Gambia can do to encourage engineering education in The Gambia?
We should look at how to build capacity in this country. You see, the education system need to be looked atproperly. The Gambia needs skill labour, a lot of skill labour. Most of the skill labour in this country is from outside, and the reason is that, it is the fault of the school system. We seem to have a lot of lawyers, accountants, economists… not that that’s not a good education but the technical part is missing. Places like GTTI, more of that need to be encouraged. We need that skill set. These are the builders; these are the hands-on workers we need to propel Gambia from a third world country to a first world country. The Gambia really needs to take a serious look at vocational training.

You have designed and constructed bridges and won national award-winning projects in New Zealand. Looking back, do you have any regrets about quitting your high level, high paying job to set up your own engineering company in The Gambia?
For me, whether the decision is right or wrong, that is something I don’t think about. My focus is… I have a big heart and want this company to grow and be here for 100 years and much more. Unless I see a trend that is backwards, then I would start thinking about whether this is the right thing for me. I have been here for less than two years, so it’s too early to make that call. It’s not easy. There is a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy in the system. And all Gambians need to know that to develop this country, everybody have to have their hands-on deck. I wouldn’t say it is the wrong decision. I still belief it’s the right decision. The future is bright for usbut the government needs to provide the right environment for Gambian startups to have the edge, to get the opportunity to get those jobs and grow the economy. If you want small startups to compete against international companies that have been here for 10-15 years, there is no way we will make it.

Before you went for studies, you played the guitar as a pioneering member of the Juffureh Band of Sukuta. What is assessment of the music industry today?
I will not dojustice to that question because I have been detached from music for some time now. But I really love music. Surprisingly, when I was doing my master’s, one of my lecturers gave me a CD from Sona Jobarteh. Nice music really.

What is your assessment of Barrow’s government so far?
After 22 years, there need to be a transition period which is not going to be easy. I think we should cherish the peace. Secondly, for Adama Barrow’s government to really propel and develop this country, the mindset of people need to change. But these are the same people who have been in our government for more than 22 years. So that mindset is still there. It needs to change but it’s not going to be easy.

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