Alieu Jallow enjoyed the setting and simplicity of growing up in a remote north Gambian village, but he did not like the poverty he experienced, or the difficulty of finding good job opportunities.
Speaking in a YALI Voices podcast with the State Department’s Macon Phillips, Jallow said he earned a small amount of money on weekends to help his parents, and those modest earnings ended up sparking an interest in business.
Now he is the founder of The Gambia’s first business incubation center, Startup Incubator Gambia, which trains young entrepreneurs in sectors ranging from agriculture to fashion to renewable energy. He also helps them network with potential investors, social entrepreneurs and government officials.
In the podcast, Jallow explains why most startup businesses fail within the first five years of operation. With his group, “we want to mitigate this by providing them with office space, co- working space, so that they can reduce their rent cost rate. And we also provide them with advisory services, with the mentorship and networking and stuff. That we do.”
Listen to the whole podcast to find out other projects Jallow is working on — and what it was like to grow up without a television set.
Don’t have access to SoundCloud? Hear YALI Voices on Google Play Music or download this podcast on iTunes by searching “YALI Network.” Bandwidth issues? Read a transcript of the podcast below:
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BUREAU OF INTERNATIONAL INFORMATION PROGRAMS (IIP)
“YALI Voices Podcast: Alieu Jallow”
MACON PHILLIPS: Welcome, young African leaders. This is the YALI Voices podcast, a place to share some of the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. My name is Macon Phillips, and I’m so glad you’ve joined us today. Before we get started, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up-to-date on all things YALI. For all you out there listening who might live in a small town, perhaps with limited resources for opportunities, wondering how you can make it, this episode of YALI Voices is for you. Alieu Jallow is a young leader and successful entrepreneur from The Gambia. Alieu’s life story is truly inspiring. He grew up in a small rural town in the north of The Gambia with 25 siblings. All of his free time was spent working to provide for his family. At age 12, he had to leave his town and enter a city for the first time his life. Through the hard times, Alieu remained focused, his determination never wavering from his goal to improve the life of his mother and his family. Today, Alieu is a successful entrepreneur. He runs The Gambia’s first startup incubator, where he mentors young business leaders and helps them navigate the often treacherous task of starting a business. Here is my interview with Alieu Jallow. Alieu, it’s great to have you here.
ALIEU JALLOW: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
MR. PHILLIPS: And we’re looking forward to talking about what you’re up to in The Gambia, what your life’s been about so far, and sort of what you’re looking forward to in terms of the future for your projects. And I want to start by just saying The Gambia, I think, is a place that a lot of people don’t know a lot about. And so, paint a picture of what life is like for you every day in The Gambia.
MR. JALLOW: Yeah, basically, The Gambia is — it’s a beautiful country. We are endowed with a lot of people, like the population is not very much compared to other countries. One of the things that I love most about Gambia, because the people itself, they’re very friendly. And on a daily basis, you have people went to the markets, and some go to the farm. It was really interesting, growing up in the rural areas because we do not have the opportunities like having TVs and all the stuff. So, basically, what we do is — daily routine was going to school, from school we’re going back to the farm. And at night, especially when the moonlight is on, we’ll go at night, play around in the town and stuff like that. So it was really fun growing up in a rural area.
MR. PHILLIPS: You had no television growing up.
MR. JALLOW: Yes. No television.
MR. PHILLIPS: So when was the first time you saw television?
MR. JALLOW: My first time that I saw television was almost — I think I was around 12, 13 years.
MR. PHILLIPS: What’d you think?
MR. JALLOW: When one of, I think a family member, relative, traveled to the U.S. and bought a TV, a black-and-white TV. And we all ran to the TV and just sat down. And just started watching and seeing people. It was like, wow, look at him. Like, we were thinking if we can touch the guy and stuff. So it was really fun.
MR. PHILLIPS: Do you remember what was on the television?
MR. JALLOW: I can’t remember really. But I remember the first one that I watched was a football match. That day, I think, that was Senegal and something playing. So there was a football match, so the whole village like — the house was full, so they had to remove the TV from the house and put it outside so that everybody can watch. So it was really interesting. That was the only TV we had in the village at the time, so —
MR. PHILLIPS: So when did you figure out that you wanted to leave the village and come into the city and sort of set your course?
MR. JALLOW: Yeah. I think it wasn’t like personally figuring out. It was a time that I studied, and I was going to school. And I was like pretty much smart student, doing well in primary school. But after I finished my primary school — so our village do, we only had a primary school and then I have to go for a junior school. So I have to move from my village to another village, and do that. So at the time, my parents were like, OK, you have to go to this particular village. Suwareh Kunda with a different ethnics group, a different people, a different lifestyle. And during that time was also another experience, an interesting experience, because I have to learn their language. I have to learn to eat their foods. I had to learn to understand their culture. So it was really an eye opening for me at that age. So I had to move from there. That’s the time I left the entire region of North Bank, and come to the city. That’s when I finished my grade 9 exams. So I moved into the city. So it was nice.
MR. PHILLIPS: And what was the transition like coming from country to the city?
MR. JALLOW: So my expectation of the city was way different from what I find. What I found in the city was like — I thought the city was all nice and rosy. Like you have all the street light and stuff that we saw on TV. Remember, we had a TV in the village. So we saw all these nice streetlights and stuff. I was like, wow, I want to be in this place. But when I get to the city, I realize that there’s not much difference. Well, the only difference was I think they had a — electricity was there. Like, you didn’t have to go to schools. You get taxis and cars and all over — because growing up in a village, you didn’t have a lot of cars, once in a while.
And as a kid, we used to be very funny when a car passed by. We look at the model, and we’ll go and take a carton and start to make the car. And say, oh, this is my car. When I grow, I’m going to drive this kind of car, something like that. So those are the kinds of things we would do.
MR. PHILLIPS: But now you grown up, and you’re focusing on business and startups and that sort of thing. So how did you go from being a kid that was watching cars and making cartons out in the country to come in the city and really decided to start building things?
MR. JALLOW: Yeah, I think my passion was, initially, it was in — my first thing was I’d grown up in a family of over 25 siblings. And we struggled for the few resources that our parents had. So my mom, who didn’t go to school, has to shoulder the responsibility of sending me to school. So I watch her go to — buy mangoes and buy stuff and selling it in the village with the little money she has to be able to give me lunch, to go to school, to be able to give me books, to buy books, and stuff like that. So she was doing this petty trading and family activities. So during my weekends and holidays, I’ll go out and help her to make sure that she has enough capital to — my only desire, other than, was to lift my parents, my mother especially, from that condition. To make sure that we have food, we don’t have to go to school thinking, what are we going to do to put food on the table the next day. But going to school will realize that when I come back home, there will be food, mom will be happy, and don’t worry about stuff. So I really wanted to lift my parents from that condition at the time. That was my motivation. So coming to the city, especially, I think, going to the university, one of the things I did was — I was still interested. I remember when I moved from the village to the city because of my grades and because I was like a one mark away from the pass mark. So I literally didn’t pass the exams of the transfer. Because of the education systems were different. The village didn’t have proper teachers, and books and everything. We didn’t have like all of these opportunities. But when I came into the city, I spent almost two months to three months not going to school. So my guardian, the one that was taking care of me, was selling, and the — I remember helping him sell. Let’s go. We will go to the market. And he will also sell. And stuff like that. So I would help him sell and stuff like keep records on what he’s doing. And I remember on weekends, we have like a donkey cart where we will go around and go by, pick up stuff. And people would pay us to do that. So I used to have some small money from that. That sparked my interest in business. And seeing then I wanted to do something. With all the small money I was getting, even while I was going to school, I was taking it, sending something to my parents.
MR. PHILLIPS: So you came into the village. You’re now in the city, and focused on incubators and businesses. In some way, taking the energy from your time selling things off a donkey cart. But now trying to look at businesses that are little bit bigger, a little bit more profitable, hopefully.
MR. JALLOW: Sure.
MR. PHILLIPS: So tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing now.
MR. JALLOW: Currently the work I’m doing, it’s — we’re supporting entrepreneurs. We’ve set up the first business incubation center in Gambia, which we bring young entrepreneurs from various sectors, from agriculture, to fashion, to renewable energy, to all these sectors. So the first batch, we’ve trained over 20 entrepreneurs. And we don’t only train them, we provide them with access to mentors. We also provide them with access to networks. We also provide them with a little access to finance in some instance. So, basically, one of the things that we do is a six months incubation program that these young entrepreneurs apply to come into, to be able to learn entrepreneur skills and get the network that they need to grow their businesses. And part of the things that we also do at the Young Entrepreneurs Association is to provide a networking opportunity for all these young entrepreneurs. So on a monthly basis, almost every month, last Friday of the month, we organize a networking event where we invite all members from different industries — from social entrepreneurs to government officials to diplomat, and everybody, just to come to network together and see how best they can share ideas and also create a new network.
MR. PHILLIPS: And what are some of the challenges that face businesses trying to get going in The Gambia?
MR. JALLOW: Pretty much a lot. Because that’s why we set up the incubation center with a co-working space. One of the key challenges is most of the startups, when they’re just starting up, they have a lot of overhead costs, in terms of high, expensive rents. And also tax rates are very high. And one of the, also, the key things that they also have, the inexperience that they have in running, actually, those businesses. People will have just ideas or see a friend set up something, and they just want to set up the same thing. But they don’t know that they have to be innovative. They have to solve a problem when they’re trying to set up a business, not only this would be customer driven, but not only because you want to set up something. So these are all key things that most of these businesses will fail probably in the first five years of operation in The Gambia. So we want to mitigate this by providing them with office space, co-working space, so that they can reduce their rent cost rate. And we also provide them with advisory services, with the mentorship and networking and stuff. That we do.
MR. PHILLIPS: That’s great.
MR. JALLOW: So these are also key things. And when it comes to access to finances, is also a huge challenge for startups because they don’t have access to finance. We have interest rate over 27 percent. And it’s a no-no for startups because the banks, conventional banks, think startups are risky, so they’re not giving them loans, because they don’t know the startup, the likelihood for it to fail. It’s very hard. So these are some of the challenges that these young entrepreneurs are facing.
MR. PHILLIPS: So can you tell me, in terms of how you’re trying to rise up to those challenges and address them, some of the different strategies you have to encourage more investment in capital or other types of things?
MR. JALLOW: Yes. Some of the plans we have, currently we’re working on a young entrepreneurship summit in Gambia which we are already working on, to bring stakeholders together, to be able to push up to making sure the current policy that is there on entrepreneurship inculcates access to finance for these young entrepreneurs. And most especially, one of the things that we’re working on is to see how best we can get like a mutual fund for these young entrepreneurs. A fund that entrepreneurs can compete with some of their business ideas, and then they can get access to these funds to be able to implement this. But we are not only going to give out the funds, but we were able to help them with — providing them with mentorship, because I think it’s very key as they learn and grow from their businesses. And the other thing that we also are working on, it’s to make sure — most of them like there’s many people didn’t take business as a career. They think of it as a second opportunity. They’re taking it like a fallback, like a Plan B, like it’s not their Plan A. It’s not something that they go out of university and want to be. It’s something that, you know, they — if I don’t have a job, then I can get my uncle to give me $200 or $100 to start selling some stuff. But not like, oh, if I finish university, I want to be an entrepreneur. And this is what I want to do, this is the area, there’s a problem I want to solve in my community. So one of the things we’re doing is, I do a lot of talks and inspirational speech on entrepreneurship at universities to try to encourage, inculcate the spirit of entrepreneurship among the students. One of the things is our education system has not been preparing us — especially in Gambia — it’s not preparing us to be entrepreneurs. They’re preparing us to be employees, and not to be creative. You have a specific syllabus. You do specific things, and you have to pass the grade exams to be able to move on in life or get a job and stuff like that. That’s a challenge. And what other things we’re doing currently, we’ve already started piloting with five schools to be able to inculcate the spirit of enterprise by having entrepreneurship clubs in these schools, to try to see how best we can encourage them to listen to experienced entrepreneurs to inspire them. That took — I was a Gambian, this is where I was born, and this is where I started, and here is where I am today. And it’s OK to be an entrepreneur, and you can be successful being an entrepreneur, and it is possible. So we also want to expose them to all these techniques of business plan writings, and business model canvas, and all these opportunities that are available, most especially on the YALI Network with the YALI Learns, on entrepreneurship and things like that. So we — that’s the project we are currently planning on working on. We already wrote letters to the schools, and we have a positive response that they will —
MR. PHILLIPS: And you’ve done some work already with YALI Learns too. So tell us about what you put together there.
MR. JALLOW: Yes. I did some work with the YALI Learns, especially when I just returned back from The Gambia. I was assigned to say, OK, recruitment drive. We should help recruit members to apply for YALI and all the stuff. So I said to the PAO, the public diplomacy officer, hey, I want to go back my community. I want to go back to my village. I want to go back to my people. And I want them to see me like a success story. I was here with them. I lived with them. I grew with them. And this is where I am today. That they can also be the same place or even better than where I am.
So I went in there, and we organized — I was able to do it through a partnership with one of those local organizations. And they mobilized over 60 people in the North Bank region. And I trained with YALI Learns on entrepreneurship. We also trained them on leadership. And we also give them like some exercise on how to develop their business model [canvas] and their ideas. And I also helped them apply for like a demo of the YALI application and what is required and what is expected with some of these things.
MR. PHILLIPS: That’s terrific. So are you someone who likes to get up early in the morning and get things done? Or are you someone who typically finds yourself awake late at night?
MR. JALLOW: I typically find myself way awake at night. Yes. I think the best time that I write stuff is at night. So, especially when everybody’s sleeping, around 12, 1, I’ll be writing a lot of stuff. Yeah.
MR. PHILLIPS: Do you find that there’s things you do every day or every week that help you be more organized or help you be more focused on your work?
MR. JALLOW: Yes. One of them is planning myself out, especially when I know if I go to work, I know that, OK, when I go to work today, I have this and this and this to do. So I have like a list of myself that I have. I also have a notepad, also have it back there. That if I have ideas and stuff that I want to do, it’s oh, let’s write it down. So writing stuff down is always good. Works for me. And one of the things also is that I always plan ahead. Like when I plan ahead, if stuff [gets me by] surprise, I also try to maneuver, but I plan ahead. It gives me more time to prepare and have some thoughts about it.
MR. PHILLIPS: All right. Well, Alieu, it’s been great to talk to you. I really appreciate you making time. This is been a great conversation. And I wish you the best of luck back in The Gambia.
MR. JALLOW: All right. Thank you very much. It’s been great talking to you too. And shout out to the YALI Network.
MR. PHILLIPS: Absolutely. And I want to thank everyone for tuning in, and have a great day. I had a great time chatting with Alieu. He’s proof that no matter your circumstances, you can succeed in life if you have the will and determination to keep pushing forward. Thank you to Alieu for sharing your incredible story with us. If you’d like to get in touch with them, you can find him on Facebook under Alieu Jallow, that’s A-L-I-E-U J-A-L-L-O-W. You can check out his organizations, Startup Incubator Gambia, which is at startupincubator.gm. And the Young Entrepreneurship Association at yea.gm. Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast. Join the YALI Network at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com and be part of something bigger. Our theme music is “E Go Happen” by Grace Jerry, produced by the Presidential Precinct. The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government. Thanks, everyone.