Visionary Innovation: A Journey into Tech Entrepreneurship with Ramatoulie Jallow By: Awa Conteh 

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Ramatoulie Jallow, a dynamic entrepreneur and the founder of SmileAfric Bookings, the first-ever booking site in The Gambia

In this week’s edition of our Women in STEM column, where we shine a spotlight on inspiring women who are making significant strides in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, we are thrilled to feature Ramatoulie Jallow, a dynamic entrepreneur and the founder of SmileAfric Bookings, the first-ever booking site in The Gambia, which was launched just last week.

Ramatoulie is not only a trailblazer in the tech industry but also a business development professional with a unique academic background—a bachelor’s degree holder in both Economics and Computer Science. Her journey is evidence of the fusion of diverse skills and a passion for innovation. She has demonstrated the power of combining economic insights with technological acumen to drive positive change throughout her career.

As we delve into her story, we’ll explore the challenges she overcame, the milestones she achieved, and the impact SmileAfric Bookings is poised to make in The Gambia’s Tech landscape. Join us in celebrating the accomplishments of this visionary woman who is not only breaking barriers but also paving the way for a new generation of women in STEM in The Gambia and beyond.

Ramatoulie Jallow is a 26-year-old young lady who kickstarted her journey as the high school valedictorian at Nusrat Senior Secondary School, where she assumed leadership roles in NUSWA and the ICT club. Transitioning to the University of The Gambia, she pursued a major in economics and a minor in computer science, leaving her mark as the Information Minister for the University of The Gambia Economics and Management Students Association (ECOMANSA) for the academic year 2019/2020.

In 2019, Rama founded Smileafric Bookings, a digital travel company with a mission to elevate The Gambia’s travel industry. Her dedication and innovative approach earned her the title of National Pitching Champion by the Gambia Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2023. Further, she was bestowed with the prestigious Africa Travel 100 under 40 awards in September of the same year.

Passionate about the convergence of business and technology, Rama actively discusses the future of business in The Gambia. She is a staunch advocate for youth involvement, firmly believing in the transformative power of the younger generation. Beyond her professional endeavors, Rama enjoys extensive reading, especially in business, and thrives on technology and socio-economic development conversations. 

In her formative years, technology remained a distant concept for young Ramatoulie. Despite attending schools with computer labs, the exposure needed to be improved, and the teaching methods didn’t ignite any interest. In the 10th grade in high school, a teacher, Mr. Faal, changed the game. His engaging approach opened her eyes to the possibilities within the technology field.

“The first spark of interest was in my ninth grade when I attended the Girls in ICT conference held at the joint Officers Mess in 2016 with notable women in STEM who were there inspiring us. Some of them, I share the same platform as WiSTEM members now, which is so inspiring”, she told TAT. 

Fast forward to her 10th grade, and the significant moment arrived when she typed her first “Hello World” on Mr. Faal’s computer. From that point onward, her interest in technology skyrocketed. Late nights turned into early mornings as she immersed herself in coding languages like HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Despite not having a laptop, she borrowed a friend’s to fuel her passion.

Looking back, I see that the transformation is astounding—from someone who once avoided ICT classes to a woman who passionately discusses technology on every occasion. Now, she proudly stands as the founder of SmileAfric Bookings, The Gambia’s first travel technology company. Her journey from a Tech novice to an industry pioneer underscores the impact of a dedicated teacher, a moment of inspiration, and the determination to pursue a new-found passion.

The founding inspiration for SmileAfric Bookings sprouted from a pivotal moment in 2018 when The Gambia won a global tourism award. Realizing that over 90% of tourism revenue exited the country due to foreign ownership, a compelling opportunity emerged for Gambians to play a central role in the travel industry. The journey involved tackling foreign dominance, persuading stakeholders of the need for a homegrown solution, and overcoming technical hurdles to establish The Gambia’s first-ever industry-standard booking site. It demanded perseverance, expertise, and an unwavering commitment to retaining revenue within the country.

Amid numerous challenges, a prominent issue surfaced—the lack of attention from authorities to the vast potential held by small businesses. Unlike developed nations where small businesses thrive, The Gambia faces a different scenario. The absence of meaningful conversations with authorities acts as a hindrance for ventures like SmileAfric Bookings.

“SmileAfric Bookings is not just a personal endeavor; it’s a venture with a larger purpose, and we believe that the benefits our startup brings to the country far exceed our gains. Our goal is clear: to contribute to The Gambia’s economic prosperity by keeping funds within our borders, promoting domestic tourism, envisioning a future where unbearable cyclical unemployment is curbed, and our skilled youth in the industry find meaningful opportunities, preventing the desperate paths like the ‘backway’ some might take”, Rama explained. 

With a background in Economics and Computer Science, Ms. Jallow’s interdisciplinary expertise has become the bedrock for shaping the vision and strategy of SmileAfric Bookings. This unique fusion of skills enables her to bridge the gap between technology development and economic considerations seamlessly. Having delved into computer science since the 10th grade, she possesses a deep understanding of the development side of the platform, allowing for effective project management, glitch resolution, and meaningful technical engagement with the development team.

On the economic front, Rama’s knowledge is leveraged to extract economic gains from the standardized system she has meticulously built. This involves assessing market fit, making informed decisions with her team, and ensuring the platform’s economic contribution. The superpower at SmileAfric Bookings lies in the ability to balance technical excellence with effective monetization strategies. This facilitates the creation of a standard product and ensures economic success in the dynamic realm of technology and entrepreneurship.

Since the launch just a week ago, Ramatoulie and her team have begun comprehending how the market responds to their product. They are actively planning for a thriving business based on the economic data they receive, a feat made possible through their adept understanding of data usage. This underscores their commitment to building a platform and ensuring its success in the ever-evolving landscape of technology and entrepreneurship.

“Despite being named a top 10 finalist in the TAF Startups pitching contest in 2019 when SmileAfric.com was just an idea, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us unexpectedly before we started our business. Instead of succumbing to the adversity the pandemic brought, this became a turning point for resilience and inspiration”, Ms Jallow narrated.

As the travel industry plummeted, they chose not to retreat but to intensify their efforts—learning, refining their platform, acquiring new skills, and honing their strategy. What set them apart was their unwavering belief that, despite the uncertainty, the travel industry would recover. While many startups folded during the pandemic, their team showcased remarkable resilience.

After three years of inactivity due to the tourism sector shutdown, they resurfaced and started building the SmileAfric.com platform in a new way in December of the previous year (2022). One year later, Rama and her team proudly launched Gambia’s first industry-standard booking site. This achievement is proof of the seeds of perseverance and resilience sown during those challenging moments, making it a profoundly gratifying and inspiring milestone in their entrepreneurial journey.

SmileAfric Bookings emerges as a transformative force in The Gambia’s economic landscape. Addressing the challenge of revenue outflow from tourism, the platform provides a homegrown booking site and hotel management system, aiming to retain a substantial portion of tourism revenue within the country. This invigorates the local economy and promotes economic sustainability in a dynamic business environment.

With a focus on promoting domestic tourism, SmileAfric Bookings aims to fill the void left by departing tourists, minimizing cyclical unemployment. This commitment contributes to a more stable and resilient economy, offering continuous opportunities for skilled young individuals in The Gambia.

As pioneers in Gambian Tech entrepreneurship, SmileAfric Bookings sets a precedent for startups. Their journey, particularly during the challenges of COVID-19, showcases resilience and determination, inspiring other entrepreneurs to overcome uncertainties and demonstrating technology’s potential to thrive in adverse conditions. Ms. Mallow believes that through collaboration, knowledge sharing, and contributing to a robust middle-class economy, SmileAfric Bookings will catalyze positive change in The Gambia’s entrepreneurial landscape.

As a young woman in STEM, Ms Jallow challenges women aspiring to venture into technology and entrepreneurship to embrace their unique perspectives and skills. She believes combining diverse fields of study can lead to groundbreaking innovations, as evidenced by the journey of SmileAfric Bookings.

“If your passion lies in business development, use it to create a product and explore its economic implications. Learning the language of technology, even if it’s not your major, empowers you to make informed decisions, manage projects effectively, and contribute meaningfully to technical conversations”, the Techpreneur said. 

With several years of experience in her domain, Ramatoulie recognizes the role of networking with other women in technology, seeking mentors, and fostering a supportive community. According to her, the Tech sector thrives on diverse voices, and unique insights of women can drive positive change. She encourages her kids to be resilient, view challenges as opportunities to learn, and recognize that their contributions can significantly impact both the technological landscape and the broader economy. 

Throughout her journey as a young girl in technology, Rama acknowledges the support of men who have surrounded and guided her, considering them integral to her success in tech. She attributes her ability to resonate and communicate effectively with men to not provoking their masculinity or appearing as a threat.

In conversations, she emphasizes her capacity to learn from both men and women, never experiencing a position where men perceived her as less capable. She assumed leadership roles in tech from high school, even when working alongside men. 

“Today, I can talk to the developer team at Smileafric Bookings, who are my partners, and never have we disagreed in a way that leads to tension,» she narrated. 

As a leader in the Tech industry, Ms. Jallow believes there exist initiatives or strategies that are crucial for encouraging more women to pursue careers in STEM and entrepreneurship, such as early exposure to STEM education, mentorship programs, and equitable access to resources are deemed essential. She is convinced that collaborative efforts between educational institutions and industry leaders and targeted support for women entrepreneurs can pave the way for success. The significance lies not only in the scale but in the impact on at least one person’s life, whether through big or small changes.

Recognizing women’s achievements, challenging stereotypes, and fostering community engagements are crucial in changing perceptions about Women in STEM. These elements are vital to creating an environment where women can thrive and make meaningful contributions in science, technology, engineering, and entrepreneurship. In addition, she also emphasizes the importance of acquiring the right skill set, enabling active participation in discussions about their business. Passion is highlighted as a driving force, allowing individuals to persevere through challenging times. Three words sum this up: Resilience, Passion, and Skills.

To every Gambian woman in STEM, know your unique qualities mark your journey. Embrace the right skills, for they are the keys to actively shaping the narrative around your endeavors. Let passion be the heartbeat that fuels your persistence through every challenge, for the unwavering force propels you forward. Each woman contributes a unique thread, weaving a story of innovation, determination, and triumph. Let this journey inspire every aspiring woman in STEM to recognize the boundless potential within, for the future is shaped by those who dare to dream, persist, and break barriers with resilience, passion, and skills at their core.

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