By RFI’s Daniel Finnan
It was the first time Hassan Jallow crossed the Gambia River. The young man had never traversed the winding waterway that geographically divides The Gambia in two, nor had he ever encountered the internet.
It was 2006 and he wanted to set up his first ever email address, yet the nearest internet cafe was far from his village.
“The first day I wasn’t allowed to use the computers because they thought that I was going to mess it up. So they just created my email address and that was it,” says the 26-year-old, describing his first Yahoo webmail account.
Crossing the river that day proved to be a life-changing moment for Jallow. It sparked his interest in computers, eventually leading to the creation of his software engineering company Assutech. The company now occupies an office space at a new mall development in Brufut Gardens, about 10 kilometres from Serrekunda, the largest urban area in The Gambia.
“Since then, I’ve always gone back to the internet cafe and I don’t exactly remember the first webpage that I looked at – maybe because I was too excited,” says the Assutech founder, laughing as he describes the origins of his interest in computing.
He eventually managed to get himself a PC and became interested in programming. After finishing school he pursued computer science at university. Jallow enjoyed learning new programming languages, spending time teaching himself via online tutorials, he could be described as an autodidact.
Offering his skills commercially came about during his studies. It demonstrates his entrepreneurial spirit and desire to create solutions using technology.
“In second year of university, a very reputable company had some issue that my friend told me about,” says Jallow. “Something that they were doing manually and it was really tedious so I built a software solution and sold it to them.”
The first software the young Gambian developed replaced a government system using an old typewriter to produce certificates of origin for exports. Jallow designed software to replace the manual processes and automate the creation of the certificates. It has been deployed for the last two years.
“I built a system that to some extent the state depends on – so it’s quite exciting,” says Jallow. “I thought that there are so many other institutions that are having similar problems,” he adds, explaining how this initial opportunity sparked more coding work.
Sitting at a bank of monitors displaying a software development environment or IDE as it is known, Jallow says Assutech has recently developed a real estate app called Deka Housing. It is available for the iPhone and aims to help Gambians search property listings to buy, sell or rent houses. Assutech uses programming languages such as Node.js, among others.
Jallow employs five staff currently, many of them friends he made at university, although he says he does not pay himself a wage as such, preferring to call it an “allowance”. Any profit is plowed back into the business, “organic growth”, Jallow says. He has never received any investment, although his family and friends have supported him along the way.
Assutech produced an app for the elections last year, providing information on candidates and results. The small software engineering firm has also secured some contracts in the US and eastern Europe. Jallow has taken a break from university for the moment, while he develops the business.
Supporting digital skills to grow the economy
Assutech is by no means the only software engineering or information technology company in The Gambia. But Hassan Jallow exemplifies the opportunities that the information technology could provide for some young people. Especially in a country with high youth unemployment.
Job creation remains a top priority for the government over a year after the departure of former Gambian strongman leader Yahya Jammeh.
And to help the government create the environment for new jobs and opportunities, the EU-funded Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) is pushing the IT sector as a possible growth area. YEP formally launched earlier this year and has already showcased Assutech in a trade fair.
Jallow has also been involved in a YEP-supported pitching contest and Assutech was contracted for the project’s website design. The young entrepreneur sometimes runs informal coding workshops at his offices during weekends and is hopeful YEP will further support the initiative.
The EU-funded programme carried out a full assessment of Gambia’s tech sector to develop a roadmap. It sees lots of potential and YEP wants to support more young people to get the right skills and experience so they can compete for jobs.
“You have a fairly small core of software developers who have started, but I think there is a need to widen, especially for young people who are coming into the business,” says Modou Touray, YEP’s technical advisor and monitoring, evaluation specialist.
Touray says the creation of a computer science department at the University of The Gambia is starting to bring young people through. “With this, people like Hassan quickly came up, so we have more of his type who really we want to support,” he says.
The demand for tech skills is clear. Many businesses feel the need to offer online services with the increased use of smartphones and apps. However, much of the designing and engineering work does not necessarily benefit Gambian software developers.
“There is really demand for these things and most of the services that are provided are given to people outside the country,” says Touray, justifying their support to entrepreneurs like Jallow.
Boosting the Gambian tech scene is not without challenges – principally, internet connectivity and available skills or knowledge.
Companies in The Gambia identify the lack of Information Communications Technology (ICT) knowledge and competence to be a major constraint, according to a report from the International Trade Centre, a multilateral agency which supports the implementation of YEP.
Internet access can also be a problem. Companies like Assutech not only need the internet during their development cycle. Stable internet access is also vital if consumers are going to regularly use online services.
Connectivity is slowly improving with better 4G coverage. Fibre access is also being rolled out across the country – a submarine fibre connection was landed in The Gambia a few years ago.
Over the next four years, YEP aims to support growth in tech through a number of different initiatives – improving the quality and relevance of skills in the ICT sector, boosting entrepreneurship and strengthening coordination and regulation.
“I do understand that we have a long way to go,” says the Assutech founder, when asked about the possibility of The Gambia becoming a tech hub like Nairobi or Lagos. “The tech community is growing and people are becoming increasingly interested in technology.”
“People are learning cutting-edge technology and I think we’ll probably have a huge leap,” says Jallow. “But of course at this point we have a long way to go.”
Reporting assignment supported by the International Trade Centre