D173. 4 Million NBN Data Center Investment Yet To Accrue Income

Ebrima Sillah, the Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure

By Momodou Jarju

An investment worth over 173 million dalasi for a data center that will serve as the nerves center of communication in The Gambia is yet to realize its full potential to amass the desired income for the country.

The said built data center is part of the National Broadband Network (NBN), a project financed through a loan between the Export-Import Bank (EximBank) of China and the Republic of The Gambia. The signing agreement took place in December, 2017.

The Minister of Information and Communication Infrastructure, Ebrima Sillah, said $3.4 million was spent on building the data center, which is D173, 400, 000.00 as per the dollar to dalasi rate pegged at 51.

Minister Sillah made the statements while responding to a question posed by Upper Saloum lawmaker, Alhagie Mbow, who asked him to inform the national assembly whether the data center has started earning any revenue from the NBN project.

Sillah said everything about the loan contract was rushed in 2017.

“GAMTEL only became part of the picture when the contract was signed, and then they were told about specific tasks. So, this was an extremely difficult thing, ICT is very dynamic… you have to be part of the planning stages, because everything has to flow. So, now when people do their thing and then they want you to come in, you also have to start from the very scratch to ensure that there is compatibility. So, that has always been the problem,” he said.

Nonetheless, Sillah said the NBN infrastructure was built purposely to enhance the scope of connectivity and activities across the country for end users, not only GAMTEL.

He further said a national consultation was done to help them map out the new strategies of ensuring that the data center is properly used to its fullest.

“GAMTEL is only given the mandate to manage it with its experience and also being the state entity that was identified during the contractual negotiations,” he indicated.

Lawmaker Mbow in his second supplementary question asked Sillah whether they are considering the possibility of a separate entity to manage the NBN to give room for the private sector to participate rather than the national entity, GAMTEL managing it entirely.

In response, Minister Sillah said the Government of The Gambia through support from the World Bank recently completed a comprehensive review of the operations of GAMTEL and its management of different facilities on its control including the national broadband data and a suggestion has been forwarded to the Government to look at the possibility of creating a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that will independently run not only the national broadband network but the entire fiber infrastructure of this country.

“Now we have to critically look into this because these are national assets that border on security issues but different options are being explored to ensure that we bring in efficiency in the system, but also without compromising the core security concerns that we have,” he explained.

He added that they have to be very careful to ensure that they don’t give it to an entity that can easily compromise data privacy issues.

Sillah said they are exploring all opportunities and they will accordingly inform the national assembly sub-committee that is responsible for ICT and Education and the critical players that they work with.

He however emphasized that already, work is being done and the research and consultancy that was done by the World Bank on their behalf is being critically studied.

“We prepare a cabinet paper and hopefully the decision will be taken on it,” he said.

Halifa Sallah, Serrekunda lawmaker, asked the minister whether any effort has been made to create a multi-stakeholder committee to look at all the economy, since they are talking about 25 million dollars to be repaid by the contractual partner.

Sillah said the arrangement, currently, is that GAMTEL is paying on behalf of the Government of The Gambia the loan contracted under this particular contract as part of the obligation of the Government of The Gambia.

“Recently, we have as a ministry used the services of a local consultant to help us come up with some policy directives. This is a multi-stakeholders strategy that we have adopted to help us come up with a very robust policy that would help us manage this {data center},” he said.

Speaking further, Minister Sillah clarified that they are already making money from the NBN because customers are already being connected to the network. He however said it is the data center that is yet to start gaining money.

Sillah said when the national assembly approved the loan-project in 2017 and work was completed, the ownership of the data center was not clear then. His ministry had to engage the World Bank to help them sort out the ownership in the contract, found in a thick document of nearly 1000 pages.

“It was when we realized that in fact it is GAMTEL that should manage this and this was finalized in 2019. So since then GAMTEL was instructed to start installing all the other applications to make the data center work. Because as it is the data center is there but the applications that will make sure that the customers are connected, you have the experience and everything, those are the ones that are not there,” Sillah said.

Sillah shared his optimism with the lawmakers in Banjul that the data center will start accruing income for the country, saying more money will be amassed from the center. He said this is because local banks whose ATM services and other data stored outside the country can now be stored locally.

“We can also have other services like the Google, the YouTube and everything to have their activities locally stored in this country to ensure that customers have experience and all this is going bring some form of income for the data center and also local businesses can now have their data stored here and then they can have their own websites built to reach to their customers that are within and outside this country,” Minister Sillah said.