Mustapha Njie is the Chairman/CEO, of Taf Holding Co. Ltd and the owner of TAF Africa Global. Started this company solely from nothing to a multi million USD company. Recognized as Gambian businessman of the year (1993, 2004 and 2006 – 3 times). Gambian Man of the year (2006). 1998 European Counsel for Global Business – For quality and Excellence. 2004 Best SMME in construction in Africa. 2010 ECOWAS honourable businessman. With 28 years experience in running his own business in the housing and real estate industry in Africa, he is passionate in expanding his business in sub Sahara African countries, while sharing his experience with other professionals in the field. In an interview with the Forbes Njie shares his experience in the housing and real estate industry and his plans towards investing in the low income housing.
As it is the first time that you are interviewed for Forbes Global Magazine, would you please give our readers a brief historical background of your company as well as an overview of your activities?
I started my business in 1990. We are generally involved in construction and construction related businesses. The company was initially involved only in construction, but over time we have diversified to include selling of building materials, tourism development, building hotels, executive apartments and housing development, which is the latest of our ventures. So under our holding we basically have construction, building material supplies, estate development and tourism development.
Our readers, which are mainly decision makers, are always curious to know how companies are doing. Would you please provide us with some financial figures like turn over, net profit, number of employees?
Obviously in construction, employment is not always the same as it depends on the work that one has at a given point. On average, however, under the holding company we employ about 500 people and our turnover ranges from 5 to 8 million USD.
An operation “House the Nation” has been launched some time ago in co-operation with Shelter Afrique. They were expected to finance the project. Would you please present that project to us and provide us with the latest developments regarding this agreement.
“Operation House the Nation” started early this year. We have always been interested in housing development and have been doing conventional housing since the inception of the company. People come to us to build their houses. Since housing projects in The Gambia are done by government parastatals, we are the pioneers in housing development by the private sector.
Since 1992, we have been interested and have been testing the market, but never on a large scale. This year, on the contrary, we have started on a large scale. We applied to Shelter Afrique for a co-financing loan, which was approved within a month of submitting the document, and subsequently applied for land from the government. A piece of land had been granted to us in Kanifing but unfortunately, this has resulted in some controversy which is currently being sorted out.
The project caters for all levels of society. It is divided into four categories: one for the very high-income group; the second one is for the moderately high-income group, the third for middle and the fourth for the low-income group. We are looking at low-income housing where it is planned to utilize locally available materials with appropriate technology to produce, among other things, stabilized laterite bricks for the construction of core houses.
TAF Estate Developers recently made a vigorous attempt in setting the pace for private sector involvement in housing infrastructure. This effort has met some difficulties. How frustrated is TAF’s commitment to play in this field?
We are not frustrated at all, in fact, this energizes us. If there are problems, it just helps us better to succeed as entrepreneurs. Yes, there is a temporary stop to the project, but we are in renegotiations with the government and have almost agreed on alternative sites. We are hence going to proceed with the project in one way or another.
In order for a country to develop, it needs the collaboration between public and private sector. Taking into consideration the recent events concerning the Sinchu-Yahi project. How do you think the collaboration between those two sectors could be implemented here in the Gambia?
The public – private sector relationship should be very cordial and complementary. We all have different and important roles to play in our development, which is why our relationship must be complementary. There must be positive dialogue in order for all of us to achieve our goals towards the sustainable socio-economic development of our country. What is important is to be able to overcome problems, such as these, through dialogue.
Could you explain how aggressive your growth strategy is and what your projects for the next future are?
We are quite aggressive in strategy. We are the biggest indigenous construction company in The Gambia and have developed lots of strategies especially in the field of marketing, where we are quite aggressive. The strategic location of our billboards e.g on the only pedestal bridges in the whole of Gambia, ensures that we are noticed by everybody more so by those travelling to or from Banjul. We ensure that nobody comes into the country without noticing us. The company’s name was chosen because it is short, simple and easy to remember. Even when choosing our colour, the emphasis was that it should be eye catching. Apart from that, we do almanacs every year, which are distributed to every office and place of importance to show and remind people of our existence. We are the pioneers in this and as a company we make sure that we are quite visible, which I don’t think we have missed. We do invest quite a lot in marketing both locally and internationally.
Regarding our strategy on development, our goal is to maintain being the leader in construction nationally. But obviously given the size of the country we have our medium and long term plans for expanding both in the sub region and in the continent.
Are you currently planning on diversifying your activities as far as engineering is concerned in order to target new markets?
No, we will continue to concentrate on housing construction and tourism development, but not in road construction with heavy engineering involved. My analysis on that is if we want to go that big we have to, as a matter of necessity, go beyond our borders, because the investments are quite heavy on capital and equipment for this type of works. For the time being we want to stay within our borders. There are no immediate plans for large engineering type of works.
To what extent do you engage your company in investing in new technologies? Could you explain what are the main investments you’ve planned to do in the near future?
We are going into low income housing, as I said, and our plan in the next five years is to build about 1000 units, which in The Gambia is a significant project. You should note that we are not only planning on constructing these houses in the Greater Banjul Area, but also in all the growth centres in the country.
This is a new technology that we are getting into. It is compressed laterite bricks and roof tiles, which are stabilized and environmentally friendly. Sand, which is widely used in all construction activities is at the moment quarried from the beach thus creating lots of problems especially with regards to coastal erosion. We therefore don’t want to use any sand and very little cement. This new material is compressed, very strong, and in fact stronger than ordinary sand and cement blocks, and yet still cheaper. The technology which is being imported from Belgium, is very labour intensive, creating thus a lot of employment.
For a company, investment in Human Resources is the key word for success. Would you explain how important it is for TAF?
My dream is actually to build a training / skills centre for young people to encourage them into the field of construction but looking at it from a private sector perspective. Already there are similar institutions run by government and people generally think that it is the government’s responsibility and the private sector simply employs, but we are thinking to invest in training to benefit our company and also as a contribution to society.
As a successful entrepreneur we just don’t have to be seen as making money and being in business but must also be seen to be pumping back some of the profits that are being made into society, creating, in this way, a positive corporate image as well.
In creating this training facility we will be very selective in the enrolment, hiring good people with the right potentials, teaching them construction and eventually employing them directly or indirectly. We have been discussing this issue with various government institutions, but it is a long term project which will need quite a lot of financing and a site for its location. It is when all these pieces have been set into place that building the centre would commence in phases and over a period of time.
TAF is importing its raw material from abroad: wood from Brazil, ceramic from Morocco, and cement from Indonesia even if The Gambia produces some cement: How competitive are the Gambian producers here?
I think we are pretty competitive. As I talk to you now, we are no longer importing cement. We use the local cement and now there are further negotiations being made to see how we can increase our volumes. If you look at market prices now, it is definitely cheaper than the imported cement. People, however, still want to have a choice of buying the imported product rather than the local one. But as you know, even the local product is imported.
Do you think the market could be taxed less?
Yes of course. I mean any tax reduction will boost the market. It is not only Gambia, I think it is a global fact. However, compared to our neighbours, our taxes are lower, but it is clear that we could do better with lower taxes.
Are you working on a joint venture with foreign companies or are you planning on doing so?
We are always looking for new joint ventures, because local finances are very scarce and interest rates are way too high, so we will be looking in every sector that we are in, for joint ventures. We are open to any offers. Whatever we do, we can do better with a partner, and more human, material and financial resources.
Our mid term plans are not to stay a privately owned company, but create global partnerships and joint ventures in order to be enlisted on the open market in the future.
As a final question, what has been your main achievement since you are Chairman of TAF and what will be your challenge for the next future?
I am probably most proud of my hotel project. It is not only because we own the majority, but also because the hotel is managed entirely by us, up to now. We just hired Gambians to manage it and are very proud about the fact that it is 100% Gambian. Generally in this sector hotels always look for expertise from outside.
What do you think is going to be or has been your greatest challenge?
My greatest challenge is going to be the provision of housing for Gambians. We want to make sure that Gambians are housed. We plan to provide affordable housing or shelter for every Gambian. When I say affordable, I mean very cheap but high quality housing.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I would like to talk to you about the new African entrepreneurs.
I just came back from Addis Ababa where we decided to launch the African Enterprise Network, which now has a membership of over 500 from over 31 African countries. That is quite an achievement.
We started in 1993, and are financed and sponsored by OECD, USAID and other donors. Initially we started in West Africa with a membership of 200 from 13 Regional countries.
The success of the West African Enterprise Network, where I served as an executive committee member led to the setting up of the East and South African Networks in 1998. And now in Addis Ababa we have just launched the African Enterprise Network. We are proud to say that our newest member is Noa Samora, the CEO of World Space.
When we talk about the new African Entrepreneurs we are not only speaking about age, but it is more the way we do business. The objective is to engage governments in a dialogue on policy changes for sustainable development and to encourage cross border trade and investment within the continent.
This is something I really believe in. While there is a lot of talk about globalisation, we want to focus more on regionalism and on the African Continent. Unless we can trade with ourselves, there is no use targeting other continents. We want to trade and make sure that the environment exists in order to trade. We should be able to drive from here to Nigeria and get our goods across borders without harassment. I think these are issues that must be addressed, and when they are, as a sub region, we will attract more interest in this part of the world. There are too many obstacles in doing business here. One, our markets are too small as nations, and two, there are listed constraints in doing business. Compared to other continents, if you wanted to drive from Dakar to Lagos, it will take you up to two days in Europe, but here it can take you up to three months. We want to get all these barriers out, making sure customs duties and tariffs are harmonized and so forth. Once this is achieved we will be in a better position to compete globally.
What is your final message to our readers?
The image of Africa is changing. Africa should no longer be seen as a continent asking for aid, where drought, famines and wars are part of daily life. In Africa today we have many success stories and people ready to do business. And we are too.