In the olden days, it was the young men that went out searching for opportunity. They set sail; took to the air, or traversed lands to find places their forefathers could neither set foot nor fort upon. Whether this was in perfect form or not, the two things that are not in doubt are (a) the fact that I am no longer a young man, and (b) the only thrill of traveling to other lands is finding out that the people in the new land behave almost exactly like your neighbour back home. And that is exactly what I found in my first, second, third, fourth and fifth sojourns into the soul of Senegal. It mattered less that the majority of the men there were so much taller and manlier, and more that we were all darker than the next nationality – kissed generously by the beautiful African sun.
But this conversation is less about me, and more about a beautiful country that is often termed the Gateway to Africa. I could tell you about the impressive statue that everyone marvels at when they visit Dakar, but I will not even succeed at capturing the splendour. Also, I could tell you about the music and sheer number of impressive mosques and Islamic architecture. But, again, I will never do these magnificent inanimate objects justice. Thus, I must urge you to go to a country that is much more viable than one could ever think. And when we talk about viability, the best place to start is in the pudding of the investment figures. Over the past three years, the sheer amount of foreign direct investment has grown from approximately $588 million in 2017 to almost a billion dollars in 2019. Given the challenges associated with a certain global pandemic, there’s a chance that Senegal may not hit the $1 billion FDI sweet spot in 2020 – but President Macky Sall and his leadership team will, most definitely, achieve those targets in 2021.
Having said that, although we shall bring this up a little later, we cannot put a lid on the fact that the country is one of the most politically stable polities in sub-Saharan Africa. In a period where Mali has been kicked out of the African Union because of a coup, President Sall just acquiesced to a referendum that reduced the presidential term down from 7-year terms to 5-year ones. Say what you will, but juxtaposed with the neighbourhood, this country is where one could safely bet their fortune upon.
Many an outsider will land at Leopold Seder Senghor International Airport in Dakar, riding along the charming city streets and compare these dwellings to Lome, Togo, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and even Marrakesh. There is something and everything quite French about each of these cities. Aside from the Renaults and Citroëns on the streets, and the Total gas stations as well, Dakar is like a much bigger brother to Lome, a more compressed Abidjan and a much more temperate yet less cosmopolitan Marrakesh. Just as you’ll find baguettes in Paris and Divonne-les-Bains, you’ll find all manner of breads in the capital of Dakar, Lounga which is north of Dakar, Oussoye in the south and Koumpentoum in the centre of Senegal. The breads run the gamut from the crumby and crusty ‘kilo’ (there is a smaller portion, if you’re so inclined) to the softer and sweeter pain au lait. Interestingly, it seems as though Dakarois (if we may call them this) appreciate breads like Tapalapa from neighbouring countries like The Gambia and Guinea. Overall, bread is a great place to start an exposé into Senegal.
The Bread: Insights, Urbanisation, and Industrilization
While some may have thought that people were farmers before they became bakers of bread, archaeologists discovered that over 10,000 years ago people invested time and energy in creating this pastry before they even intentionally grew wheat. Thus, my presupposition is that the ubiquity of bread in Senegal is evidence of an industriousness that is yet to be proofed. What this also translates into is the sheer number of industrious bakeries throughout the country’s regions and provinces. While the country still has to import a sizable amount of wheat, Senegal’s bread consumption is amongst the highest in French Africa. Also, the Senegalese people have been a little more innovative than you think; they have introduced sorghum and millet variations to bread bakeries. But realistically, since households have to have their traditional wheat-driven baguettes alongside vegetables, milk and meat of course wheat importation will have to continue until the country figures out a longer-term solution. In the meantime, those keen to invest in brownfield ventures should see about the whole value chain of grain experts, bakers and nutritionists who festoon Senegal’s bread subsector.
In this conversation, urbanization cannot go unaddressed. Just like France, where the vast majority of the country’s 122 million people live near urban areas, a large number of the Senegalese people live in the urban areas and around Dakar. Though the country still relies on the farming of groundnuts and other commodities, there is also a large number of people engaged in the service sector; they work in the urban areas and send their hard-earned resources to their family in the more rural areas. Similarly, if one wanted to start a textile or bread factory, there is no doubt that labour would be in plenty. Of course, you must remember that like French culture dictates, there is a break during the day for people to rest. The country is majority Muslim; people will be called to pray very early in the morning and will observe their religion on a regular basis throughout the day. The only difference is that unlike the Middle East, the week starts on Monday instead of Sunday. Also, while Friday is a mosque day, the country is typically open for business.
The Secret Sauce
At this juncture, we must go back to the country’s political stability. In a period when countries like Cote d’Ivoire continue to face political inconveniences, Senegal seems to have leveraged its enviable position as an entry point into Africa and the relative change of government; most recently when President Macky Sall won more than 65% of the popular vote against his predecessor and former boss Abdoulaye Wade in 2012. Former President Wade conceded his runoff election loss within a few hours, drawing praise from many of those who had been horrified that he may have sought to introduce dynastic rule into Senegal by giving his son Karim a ministerial job.
In the post-Wade Senegal, the country’s economy has grown by over 6% per annum. With the World Bank establishing that the outlook is even rosier with the discovery and production of oil. As expected in 2022, the Emerging Senegal Plan, or Plan Sénégal Emergent (PSE), packs an optimistic punch because of how it combines large infrastructure investments and what the World Bank termed ‘robust external demand’. Ostensibly, while the country has not collected a significant amount of household data, the reality is that the remarkable public investments may have contributed to poverty reduction, especially in the rural areas and the growth of service sectors in the urban areas. In this regard, if both the service sector and agriculture productivity are growing, one can only hope that the PSE reforms will only increase the trajectory of positive growth that has been observed since 2016.
Despite the praise political stability garners for contributing to Senegal’s success, we really must not underestimate the power of cohesion amongst the Senegalese people. Considering that the Wolof make up two-fifths of the country’s population, and considering that their language is used just as ubiquitously as French, it matters less that Wolof have a semi-caste system, and more that the Wolof have intermarried with other major tribes such as the Serer and the Tukulor; meaning that even if there are still issues with different levels of development throughout the country, one could even suggest that this is not necessarily Senegal’s fault. You see, Senegal is one of the few countries in the world where you must cross through another country to get from north to south. Senegal is split into two by The Gambia which was curved into the heart of Senegal along both sides of the River Gambia. A former British colony, The Gambia starts at the Atlantic Ocean and enters deep into the Tambacounda, one of the country’s 14 regions. In this case, if you want to get from Dakar in the West to Ziguinchor in the South West, it makes less sense to travel a full day by going east towards Tambacounda and then do another 500 kilometers west to Ziguinchor.
Instead, there’s the newly commissioned Senegambia Bridge at Farafenni that not only connects North and South Gambia, but also North Senegal to its Casamance province in the south. A typical journey from northern Senegal to the south takes up to 5 hours; such an improvement to the trade and trade facilitation regimes of both countries. Interestingly, Senegal and The Gambia also represent one of the most successful confederations between a former British and a former French colony. While the Senegambia Confederation was self-serving and short-lived, there is no doubt that the pragmatic nature of this political union between the two countries was driven by the shared culture and negritude; something Senegal’s independence leader Leopold Senghor considered sacrosanct in organic African unification.
Setting the stage for the future of Senegal
In 2015, the African Development Bank argued that despite the limitations of its rainy and dry seasons, there are immense opportunities for Senegal to engage in horticulture, rice and other commercial agricultural activity like poultry and stockbreeding. Like then, Senegal today encourages vocational training of farmers so that traditional farming methods could be augmented by more productive ones; a synergy between agribusiness and family farming, and the diversification of production into off-season fruit, vegetables, onions and rice. However, what is perhaps most impressive about Senegal under these specific circumstances is the fact that in a region whose governments engage in window dressing, the Senegalese government has actually invested in growing its irrigated land from approximately 10,000 hectares in the 1970’s to over 110,000 hectares by 2012. What is additionally impressive is that multilateral donors consider Senegal a viable place to infuse irrigation resources because the government has had extensive experience with irrigation schemes, especially in the Senegal River Valley and in Podor district. Similarly, because the various farmers’ associations in Senegal have been remarkably successful at managing large-scale irrigation schemes, one can be comfortable that the duality of government and civil society will balance environmental health and social costs with the essence of irrigation.
The Emerging Senegal Plan
While we are on the subject of economic development growth and all those good things, we must give the Emerging Senegal plan a shout-out. Without the comprehensive and clearly elaborated plans around infrastructure development, electricity investment, agricultural reforms and upward mobility of the country’s social safety net, foreign direct investment would not have flowed at the current level it is flowing today. Yes, the ubiquity of the French influence is somewhat overbearing. Some may even argue that Senegal cannot do as well as it is doing without Europe, but that would also be wholesomely unfair. The country remains in cultural sync with its former colonial master, and there is nothing wrong with that. If countries like Kenya and Egypt can benefit from Great Britain, then there is nothing wrong with trying to infuse more negritude into the French way of life. With French resources carousing the Senegalese veins, other important investment has emanated from China, Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. There is also no denying the potential relationship between the United States and Senegal. Ever since former U.S. President Obama appeared in Dakar next to his counterpart Macky Sall, there has been a louder buzz around the opportunities that could be scaled up before the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) expires in 2025.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Senegal has had to take its share of the 1.8% negative economic growth as projected by the Economic Commission of Africa. Conversely, if one looks at the efficient way that Senegal has managed its Coronavirus exposure tests are commonplace, and results are known in 24 hours. There is a chance that country will bounce back much faster than many other African countries.
To shore its finances during the pandemic, the country undertook a significant fiscal stimulus package and managed to raise over $100 million from multilateral donors like the World Bank. At the same time, the country continues to leverage international commercial debt hoping that its March 2018 successes in raising $10 billion in orders for a $2.2 billion Eurobond will continue to propel its development forward. In 2019, Senegal’s debt fell to a record low, and the country sought to obtain more resources to fund new infrastructure projects and further shore up its public enterprises.
Nonetheless, whereas Senegal has favourable links to Europe, North and South Africa and much of West Africa, the country must rise beyond depending on its good democratic fortune and the social cohesion that contributes to its favourable business climate. For instance, although the judiciary continues to be an independent entity, there is evidence of Senegalese officials acting with impunity. Similarly, although the country is on a path to reform, electricity is still very expensive. There are bureaucratic bottlenecks and the government has had to subsidize its own operations, growing budget deficits. It does not help that Senegal is like other countries in its neighbourhood with outmoded regulations, high costs and scarce access to private sector resources.
When juxtaposed with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, Senegal is definitely on the rise. As one of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)’s biggest proponents, Senegal went beyond simply ratifying the AfCFTA instrument in April 2019. It put its regional integration money where its mouth is by pushing to open up the road network with The Gambia. Yes, there are mutual benefits in doing the road network between the two countries. The Gambians will likely complain that shrewd Senegalese businesspeople buy Gambian agricultural produce for cheap and disadvantage Gambian middlemen. However, The Gambia has its own trade facilitation challenges, and Senegal contributes to Africa’s cross-border trade by ensuring that Gambian groundnuts can be tested for aflatoxins in Senegalese laboratories when the Gambian ones cannot affordably obtain sanitary and phyto-sanitary details of their potential exports and provide these to their export partners in Europe. In this instance, the Senegambia Federation is very much alive and well. Yes, Senegalese speak French and Gambians speak English. But Wolof is spoken by some Gambians and most Senegalese, so you can see the connection there. Thus, the optimistic expectation is that Senegal will be amongst those countries that will take advantage of economies of scale to improve productivity and attract foreign direct investment. On the other hand, although infrastructure investment continues even during the COVID-19 pandemic, one has to worry that Senegal does not have much more access to other countries like Mali and Niger. It is currently working with Mauritania to take advantage of the world’s largest free trade area, and the World Bank projects that real income in Senegal will increase by up to 6% if it appropriately implements the AfCFTA.
Cover photo by SEYLLOU DIALLO/AFP via Getty Images