29 November 2017 Issue 20 Dec/Jan

Dakar: Bringing Gelato to West Africa

Monica Gelati co-owner Ndary Sylla left his Senegal home for Italy, in search of work. Little did he know that 14 years later he would be back, making a living from gelato.

The first Monica Gelati was not aimed at local Senegalese people. A popular tourist destination, the majority of Saly’s customers were European. This has changed over the past two years, with artisanal ice cream now popular among Senegal’s middle and upper classes.

‘They complained a bit about the prices,’ Sylla admits, ‘but they can taste the difference. I was surprised because people here don’t usually care about quality.’ Artisanal ice cream is not a Senegalese staple, but Monica Gelati benefits from a strong expat community. However, building the demand for luxury items takes time and dedication.

‘Selling ice cream is not so easy,’ Sylla says. To attract new customers, he drives an ice cream van around Dakar, stopping at landmarks to sell ice cream and promote his business.

Raw ingredients

Back in the Italian town of Pescara, Sylla developed a strong friendship with Giovanni and his wife Monica, who worked in a patisserie. ‘We were chatting about life in Italy,’ Sylla recalls. ‘Giovanni felt times had changed, that business was becoming difficult. I said Senegal is changing as well – the economy is developing, it is peaceful – let’s check it out.’

In 2014, Sylla and the couple were initially set on the restaurant sector, until Monica pointed out Senegal’s lack of proper gelato.

Senegal’s economy is developing fast. It’s the third fastest-growing country in Africa after Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania. Its service industry now accounts for over half of total GDP. Most of this growth is concentrated in the capital. Dakar’s once deserted stretch
of sand along the Corniche des Almadies is now dotted with seaside restaurants. Supermarkets are gradually replacing small-scale grocery vendors and a glitzy shopping mall opened in 2010 has become a popular spot.

The government has made efforts to encourage entrepreneurship. New businesses like Monica Gelati pay reduced import tariffs and are exempted from certain taxes during their first three years of activity.

In 2013, the Ministry of Commerce set up Agence de developpement et d’encadrement des petites et moyennes entreprises (ADEPME) a support programme specifically designed to assist SMEs. It mainly provides business advice and mentoring, but it also partially subsidises SMEs that provide non-financial services.

Efforts have also been made to harness the economic potential of the diaspora. It’s estimated that almost three million Senegalese people live outside the country, which is 20% of the total population. The money sent back is an important part of the economy, but is often used to cover expenses rather than create jobs and fuel growth.

For this reason the d’Appui à l’Investissement des Sénégalais state fund (FAISE) was set up in 2008 to encourage emigrants like Sylla to invest in local economic projects. Sylla obtained a loan of CFA 5m (£6,765) from FAISE.

Tough climate

There are fewer barriers to launching in Senegal, Sylla says, with lower taxes and quicker registration than in Europe, and the ability to negotiate prices with landlords and suppliers. ‘But there are also many problems you don’t have abroad,’ he adds.

For instance, it’s not easy to run an ice cream shop in a city where power cuts are frequent. Sylla plans to install a generator, but for the time being he relies on a refrigerator with built-in power reserves.

Ingredients are also an issue. Everything used at Monica Gelati is imported from Italy, including eggs, milk and sugar. ‘I would like to use local products but cannot afford to risk the quality.’ He has been experimenting with sorbets, however, making local flavours with hibiscus flower, ginger and baobab fruit.

Local bureaucracy is difficult to navigate. Relying on imports means Sylla spends a lot of time with customs officers at Dakar’s port. The day Monica Gelati was scheduled to open, Sylla was unable to retrieve some of the new equipment from the port.

Customs officials claimed his papers were not in order, and Sylla said it took two days of ‘negotiating’ and ‘using his contacts’ before he could access them. By that time, other business partners who had flown in for the occasion had returned to Italy.

‘We have to improve bureaucracy,’ he says. ‘How can you expect to boost trade and economic growth in this situation?’

Finding the funds

Funding is Sylla’s primary concern. The FAISE loan was small and he has been unable to borrow more capital from a local bank – a common problem in Senegal, where only 16% of all bank loans go to small businesses.

‘Banks here will not lend you any money,’ he says. ‘This is what frustrates me most about Senegal. Without Monica and Giovanni I would be nowhere.’ Sylla hopes to extend the Dakar branch, but he needs funds more urgently to fix some of the appliances.

Sweet spot

Sylla firmly believes in the economic potential of both Dakar and Senegal. And despite the challenges, there are growth opportunities. Telecommunications is booming and there has been a spectacular growth in the use of mobile phones. Mobile cellular subscriptions rose from 30% of the population in 2007 to over 98% last year.

Elsewhere a budding tech industry is being driven by local startups, a new airport is getting built, as well as a digital technology park about 30 kilometres south of Dakar. However, Sylla says the government should be doing more to facilitate business.

The cost of living is rising, and rent prices are unsustainable. He stresses the need to resolve these issues and create incentives for banks to lend money to small businesses.

‘In Italy I didn’t make much money but I gained a lot of experience,’ Sylla says. ‘I like ice cream of course, but what I really want is to change my country and people’s mentalities. We are in 2017 and Senegal is still sleeping. But I believe we can develop with what we have. We simply need to wake up and put our heads to it.’