Much has been known and said about the symbolic River Gambia, a unique natural endowment that the country derives its name from. This feature, which divides the country into two halves – North and South –
and empties in the Atlantic Ocean, draws its source from the Futa Diallon Highland in Guinea. In fact history has it that one of the main reasons The Gambia is being reduced to its current snake-size by its former colonialists is the fact that they were only interested in the river, which could simply explain why the land size on both ends is not fast.
For a many people, this beautiful feature is the country’s ”goldmine”, in that its enormous potentials – that are yet to be fully exploited – could contribute to a great extent in making The Gambia more economically viable. This is thanks mainly to its navigability, making it one of its kinds in the sub-region. Its beauty and nature is such that it passes through major provincial towns and communities, which makes it possible for any kind of venture.
But the focus of this article is the noticeable fact that this beautiful natural resource is seriously under tapped, with private sector – the engine of economic growth – apparently not interested in taking the risk to invest heavily in the river through various means. But of course the stakes should be high here since the harnessing of the river’s potentials affects many key development sectors; from agriculture to tourism, transport and fisheries, which are major indicators of the country’s economic advancement.
Experts’ view about the River
A lot of development experts have since talked about how the River could accelerate the country’s growth had its potentials were fully exploited. The latest comments came from the resident representative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in The Gambia, Gaston Mpatswe, who during my exclusive interview with him on the eve of The Gambia’s 49th Independence Anniversary cited the exploration of the River’s potentials as a key source to augmenting our economy. ”The Gambia River is an open highway for transport, which together with port, has the potential to make the country a competitive transit hub for the countries in the region. This could help narrow the external deficits,” Congolese-born IMF Gambia chief told me in an interview at his office.
Going by his words, the River has greater potentials, which ought to be fully exploited. Of course in most countries, it is the private
sector that fuels the engine of growth. Most of the times, their complaint is that they are not empowered enough by governments to fuel that very engine. But that differs from the situations in countries like The Gambia where the enabling environment has been created for the private sector to thrive and lead the economic development. Such was enshrined in the government’s medium-term blueprint – the Programme for Accelerated Growth and Employment (PAGE). It is therefore imperative that the private sector mobilises resources with development partners to invest heavily in the River.
Investment could be done in the area of river transport across the country given that it is a navigable river. Since incidence of the
famous ‘Lady Chilel Jawara’, a six-deck boat that sunk in The Gambia River around Farafenni in 1984 and killed three tourists and a girl, there has been no public vessel that ferries people from Banjul to Basse with the exception of a few locally made boats that sail from Denton Bridge to James Island. Imagine the number of employment that such a thing had created; talk less of the revenue it had generated during its time for the national economy. But also more importantly, such a system had also created informal jobs and created markets for local dwellers along the bank, as well as provided an alternative source of transportation in the country. Such a thing was a recipe for poverty reduction. So it raised the question as to why Gambian own investors are scared of exploring this potentially rewarding venture. But of course investment is all about taking the necessary risks, and one cannot conclude on anything without that trial. In fact taking the risk is very typical of life itself since one would hardly jump to progress with too much hesitation.
One sector that is sure to benefit a lot from this alternative source of transportation is the country’s tourism sector, the second highest earner of foreign exchange that contributes about 16 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since tourists are naturally adventurers, they are sure to be enticed to explore the country’s hinterland through a day’s voyage through River Gambia. The beauty of that expedition is that not only would the tourists experience the navigability of the River, they are also likely to see the many hundreds of bird species that are reported to be in the country. In fact they are bound to see other wild species such as warthogs, hippopotami, crocodiles, Green Vervet, Red Patas monkeys, snakes, turtles, as well as some fishes. If tourism products around this could be developed and marketed abroad, it would not only add value to the sector and give it the needed impetus, but would make it as diversified as possible. Of course we are aware of the authorities’ efforts in marketing the River as a product; however it would be critical if stakeholders make concerted efforts to create partnership that will re-launch voyage on the River all the way to Basse. This way, high-spending tourists would be attracted into the destination. Ultimately, this would yield the economy more revenue and provides the opportunity for potential investors to invest along the banks. Such would only create employment and reduce rural poverty.
But even the director general of The Gambia Tourism Board (GTBoard) agreed with me on the need to look at exploring the potentials of the Gambia River for tourist attractions when I recently sat down with him for an exclusively interview, taking stock of the challenges and achievements of the sector thus far.
”Hatab, I cannot agree with you more! What we believe here at the Gambia Tourism Board is that we have not done much in terms of the River; we have not exploited the tourism opportunities along the River. We need to be conscious of the realities and the trends that are unfolding.
The focus of tourism in The Gambia has been leisure on the Atlantic Coast and not the entire coast. And if you look at what is happening on the beach, we are gradually losing the size of our beach in certain areas. Now what that tells is for us as a country (it goes beyond the GTBoard) is to look at diversifying and the only other opportunity that we have is actually on the river. Now if we are to get the average expenditure, we need to look at eco-tourism and the River is the perfect answer to eco-tourism. So we need to find and tailor investment. But unfortunately, The Gambia Tourism Board cannot undertake investments because if we do that then we would be deviating from our core activity,” Benjamin Roberts told me in an interview at the start of this tourism season at his office in Kotu.
Going by the words of Roberts, the GTBoard has given way to the private sector to take those investment responsibilities along the
River Gambia. The Gambia as a nation has made significant strides over the last two decades with quite a stable economy despite some bottlenecks. Sectors have experienced some growth with the GDP this year projected to hit 7.5 percent. However, there is still more to be done in augmenting the development process, and harnessing fully the potentials of the River Gambia could be the better answer.