Feeding the Big Cities: A Complex Opportunity for Small Vegetable Producers

Mali has one of the fastest rates of urbanization in Africa (5.08 percent per year), and Bamako, like many West African capitals, has become a huge food market, driven by three constants: Rapidly increasing population growth (from 3 to 15 million since 1960), a growing middle class, and changing eating habits.
Over the past decade, the vegetable consumption rate (of tomato, cucumber, and particularly onion) has skyrocketed, driven by demand of urban households and street restaurants. Street restaurants employ most of the female entrepreneurs in Bamako, similar to most West African emerging metropoles.

How culture influences agriculture

Culture and agriculture are more intimately linked than they seem. In growing cities, many people go out to have dinner. For thousands of vegetable producers, this cultural and gastronomic revolution creates a volatile and complex growing market. How is this domestic market captured in a way that balances the interests of small vegetable producers with those of their partners in the value chain? The vegetable partnership supported by 2SCALE in Segou is a tentative response to this market revolution. Field activities began with demonstrations of onion seeds from East West-Seed International (EWIT) in June 2014.

The problems within the onion value chain can be very different if you are in Bancoumana, Segou, or Sikasso. There are specific challenges within the local clusters in Segou, but listening to the people involved in this cluster, some preconceptions have proven inaccurate:

  • Low yields were evident, but not entirely due to the degeneration of local seed varieties or non-availability of alternative seed varieties. Most women producers lacked access to technical knowledge, resulting in low yields, high post-harvest losses, and a shorter shelf life.
  • Preliminary investigation suggested access to credit was not an issue in purchasing seed, fertilizers, and pesticides. Most of the vegetable producers were already linked to Ginna Agricole, a company that provides them with inputs on credit. By taking time to understand, 2SCALE avoided the common trap of “credit for credit at any cost.”
  • Limited access to land was also an issue, as women do not inherit land. Most female vegetable producers in Segou operate less than 25 hectares (ha), mostly lent by men. Some are widows, and income from selling the onions is quickly swallowed up by family expenses. Even though Ginna Agricole does not pressure its female clients to reimburse their input credit, this daily pressure of family care often forces them to sell the harvest at farm gate, usually below the market price.
  • Women’s financial insecurity is exacerbated by the volatility of the market, which is characterized by periods of high and low trading prices. Between June and December, most of the onions consumed in Mali, including in Segou in the Office du Niger, are imported from neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, or even from the Netherlands (300,000 tons in 2014, estimated at 13 billion FCFA [$22 million]), causing a deccrease in onion price.

In this context, the shorter the onion’s shelf life, the bigger the risk of failure. Low shelf life results largely from low-quality seed varieties, inadequate use of fertilizers and pesticides, low capacity in post-harvest management, and poor quality of infrastructure to store the product. These factors represent a significant loss of competitiveness, and 2SCALE has focused its efforts on alleviating these challenges.

Actions and results so far

1. Build on the existing foundation, and align with local priorities: The business relationships that existed before 2SCALE came into the picture was essentially based on trust. Ginna Agricole not only provides women with agricultural inputs, but the company also does not require any collateral or guarantee other than the good faith of its customers. This type of capital remains as uncertain as the rainy seasons and as volatile as market prices. A bacterial attack, as well as poor marketing strategies, can ruin a small vegetable producer and make him or her unable to pay back input credit.

To reduce this risk, 2SCALE facilitated the establishment of learning plots and variety demonstrations in all three villages involved in the partnership. The selected sites were owned by women. These demonstration plots compared EWIT seeds, those of other companies, and local varieties. EWIT not only sells seeds, but also provides fundamental training in vegetable production. In addition to these trainings, Ginna Agricole granted their clients input credits worth 40,076,000 FCFA ($68,000), a rare occurrence in regard to vegetable crops that are relatively risky. As a result, women in Sebougou (a small village 10 km to Segou) experienced increased yields from 10 tons (t) of onions per ha to 13 t/ha in 2014. In 2015, this trend was confirmed as recorded yields increased from 8 t/ha to 11 t/ha.

2. Inspire a truly entrepreneurial spirit: Although crucial, the technology package is not enough to develop a sustainable partnership model. Taking the time to change mindsets is especially critical in an environment where a tradition of aid and assistance (free distribution of seeds, per diem payment to producers as a condition of their participation in a training dedicated to improving their own business) leaves little room for the emergence of a competitive and sustainable model of agribusiness entrepreneurship.

To make this shift, 2SCALE has directly contracted producers associations and business support services, namely AMASSA Afrique Verte, which intervenes only as a service provider, paid to perform a service, not as the implementer of an actors’ action plan.

3. Diversify market gateways: Local markets are often flooded by imported onion and most of the time, they do not offer competitive prices. To reduce this risk, 2SCALE used the Agri-Hub Mali business forum to identify alternative markets for producers. Madougou S.A. appeared to be an alternative and remunerative market, so 2SCALE facilitated several workshops to design joint action plans (where Madougou expressed its annual demand and negotiated contracts with producers). In 2015, the company purchased onions for 250 FCFA ($0.43)/ kg, while the local market was selling at 200 FCFA ($0.34)/kg. Madougou supplies onions to Bara Muso, the largest Malian vegetable processing company. Recently questioned by consumers about the origin and quality of its products, Bara Muso sees local sourcing as an ultimate way to win the hearts of millions of consumers, but Madougou is not yet able to meet even 50 percent of Bara Muso’s demand.

4. Make the business environment friendly: In Segou, as said before, land is almost exclusively owned by men. Past efforts – which generally focused on women’s civil rights rather than their economic empowerment – have not been very effective. Learning from earlier failures, 2SCALE started by identifying and involving men of influence in strategic issues such as women’s access to land. From the pulse of the vegetable partnership, 2SCALE included the chief of Sébougou village in all meetings surrounding the onion business. As a result, in 2015, under the gentle pressure of Chief Mamary Coulibaly, the municipality of Sébougou decided to grant 19 ha of fertile land to women associations, an unprecedented move in the history of the village.

Keep questioning the sustainability of the business

During his visit to Sébougou on 22 June 2016, the Netherlands Ambassador in Mali, Maarten Brouwer, said that in his perspective, there are some clear indicators of 2SCALE’s sustainability. “What makes 2SCALE sustainable is the nature of 2SCALE itself. 2SCALE works closely with local actors. Its approach in strengthening local dynamics of networking and focusing on economic aspects is what generates sustainable results, which is really impressive. As you can see, this is not a project on paper. Here in Sébougou, we are meeting real entrepreneurs, mostly women and young people, who are in business relationships with other actors, such as traders and seed sellers. Together, all these people create wealth, and, moreover, they create social stability. Did you hear the testimony of women? Girls no longer migrate from their homes, and peace is back in most families. If most of the project’s efforts exclusively rely on donor funding, it will not run for a long time. These women involved in 2SCALE are not in a position to wait for assistance. They generate resources, support their children, and feed their families. The most important thing is that this is a guarantee of sustainability. This is a specific added value that makes 2SCALE an outstanding project.”


However, for Madougou S.A., it is still too early to talk about autonomy. The company complains that 15 percent of the onion it sources is of bad quality, because good agricultural practices and post-harvest strategies have not been mastered yet, despite obvious progress. There is still a need to strengthen the capacities of women, especially as many new villages are being connected to this partnership. “Who will cover the training costs? One day we will be able to walk alone. Not now, not today.”, said Tambadou, Madougou S.A general manager.

In early 2016, Bara Muso expressed a need for 300,000 t of onion, and Madougou has committed to provide this volume. This new opportunity presents new challenge. Madougou S.A. will need to extend to new areas (Markala and M’Béwani), and scaling up the success of Segou will require a financial capacity that will triple their current performance. 2SCALE supports this new development in two major ways: By financial intermediation with local banks to deal with the new challenges of both companies up and down the value chain, and by the deployment of 8 coaches on the field, who now support and advise a network of 17,150 farmers (60% women). The challenge is to strengthen business relations between partnering companies and cooperatives of vegetable producers, while reinforcing their organization skills in developing competitive strategies.

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