Fatou Saine Gay: The Gambian Women Empowerer

The Chief Executive Officer of Gaye Njorro Skills Academy, Fatou Saine Gaye, has one motto: to get the youth off the streets and to contribute to the national development of her country, The Gambia. She won the special award on social entrepreneurship during the 2016 Empretec Women in Business Awards “If a woman is supported, a nation is built because a woman will support another and whoever they come across.” Fatou speaks with a fiery passion about women’s empowerment and with a deep sense of pride for her country, The Gambia, a small nation in West Africa, which shares its borders with Senegal. “We are small, but we are big in the way we do things.” As a child, she saw her mother being a dedicated and hardworking housewife, but she also saw the struggles that came along with it. 

Dedicating her youth to a good education, Fatou landed a job in the field of banking and finance. She spent a good amount of time in the United Kingdom where she had to balance college and her part-time job. Hair styling was a field she was good at, so she took a part-time job to make more money but found it difficult when the timetable in college kept changing. She slowly started working with clients who came home to do their hair during her free time. This gave her the motivation to venture into business later on. She started a family and moved back to The Gambia, where she worked as a banker but found it difficult to juggle between work and family. Sometimes she could see her children only on weekends. She wanted to start her own business for the flexibility and independence that would come with it. With her savings, she started her first salon in The Gambia. She quit her job at the bank when she saw that the salon could not manage day-to-day affairs the way she wanted to. She saw many young women wandering, unsure of their capabilities. She felt the need to empower more young women and to help them understand that finding a husband and depending on them as housewives was not something they should rely on. She turned her salon into a skills academy, motivating young women to believe in themselves and become independent, convincing them that they could be a housewives while also making their own money if they had the required skill set. 

Fatou has changed the lives of many young women in her country. Helping them find the courage and confidence to be independent, finding ways to sustain themselves and their families, and getting them off the streets. She would often see a young woman with an old man. Once, Fatou asked one of them why she was with him, and the response stunned her. The young woman said she was making more money being with the old man than what she earned as a maid. She convinced the girl that she could make $100 a day if she believed in herself. The girl joined Fatou in her salon and soon three more girls joined along. She knew that if she wanted to help more girls on the streets, she would need to think big. She approached the government to enquire about the formalities and policies to open a school. After securing government accreditation, she started “Gaye Njorro Skills Academy” providing quality training for women so they could put into practice their skills and be independent. 

2021 marks 13 years of the academy, which has trained more than 3,000 women and has been including men too in its programs. Starting with a skill she was good at – hairdressing – Fatou slowly expanded her center into a skills academy, teaching numerous skills to the youth in The Gambia. With help from NGOs, her academy diversified its training offer into other areas, from hotel management to tailoring. 

The initial phase of starting her academy came with its highs and lows. People in general were reluctant and wanted young women to stay at home. Fatou’s determination to succeed took her to the doorsteps of her students to help their parents and husbands understand the benefits of the school, trying to change their minds and break the paradigm. Among other challenges, the greatest of all was convincing the community when they were starting, as they had no success stories to back them up. For instance, there was a time when a female student had not been allowed to sit for an exam, as she was supposed to get married soon. Fatou convinced the father to grant her permission, but the father asked her to also speak to his son-in-law. Fatou spoke to the groom about how his future wife would be able to help him and together they would be empowered and have a better lifestyle. “With persistence and commitment, everything is possible.” Her voice spoke of the dedication she has towards empowering the youth. The girl’s father later helped the school by promoting it in his village. Fatou politely responds “I wasn’t stubborn, but I had a vision.”

She was coached by an Italian mentor who has been a huge support in developing and planning business strategies. This also paved the way for numerous awards in the years to follow. With several projects in her hands, she trains 300 women every year across the country. The European Union (EU) also noticed her work and partnered with her in her new projects to empower the youth. Fatou has taken the plunge to brand the Gambian identity by promoting handicrafts, ties, and dyes. Meeting people from all over The Gambia, and finding ways to add more value to their work with innovation and creativity. 

Gaye Njorro Skills Academy is unique in a way that it ensures that students are all employed. The academy’s objective is not only building students’ skills but also assuring that they are marketable to help them secure or create jobs. Fatou stands for quality and sincerity above everything. This aspect helps her academy gain recognition as people approach them when they see the students who have graduated. A fashion designer is taught to behave and dress like one, too. The students are taken out on trips to bond, bringing in a sense of connection among them to help each other once they are out of the academy. The team also takes them to their other centers so that students learn from each other. The out-of-the-box thinking makes one thing certain for the academy: no student dropping out of school. One is left curious to know how Fatou manages all this and her family with equal devotion as she had ventured into a business to spend more time with her family. “My husband is the Director, I am the CEO and my daughter is the Public Relations Officer. If you don’t have a family that supports you in business, then it doesn’t work. My family works as one, this makes it grow. We opened a center in the province. My husband has taken the time to be there and set it up and replicate the same thing across the centers. Right now, I am inspiring my kids, as well.”

We are taking this opportunity to congratulate Ms. Fatou Saine Gayne for getting nominated for the SheAwards Gambia 2022 coming on the 5th of March. May this success bring you more and more joy and happiness that you’re looking for with all your best efforts. Wishing you the very best,  Ms. Fatou.

Her patriotism to her country, empowering the youth, contributing to economic development, and politeness captivates a person. “We are not a poor country; we are a small country rich in human resources which is very powerful. I believe we can do a lot more if we come together, stand together, and support each other. ”

She concludes by saying “Read a story that inspires you every day” and we did that just now — a truly inspiring story of a remarkable woman. 

 This article was originally published by the UNCTAD Empretec Social Media Team. SheSight acknowledges the contribution of Ms. Rajeswari Rajoo to this article.