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Mindset changes in Mali

By: Arno Maatman, Project Director 2SCALE

Arouna, on va manger?” The president, who must have had a name, but everyone calls him le president, of the producer organization of M’pègnèsso invites me cordially for dinner, even if with a provocative smile. I understand why, he wants to see me eating with my hands. Rice with groundnut sauce, a little meat and some tasty leaves, fantastic. Eating with my hands … that is not a challenge for me after so many years in Africa. The president is enjoying the company anyway and starts another long story in Bambara; a good one, apparently. I am quietly sitting back to observe the crowd. There is Adama Dissa, the Managing Director of SONAF (“Société Nama et Fils”), the business champion of our yellow maize partnership in Mali, and another major story teller, visibly at ease in this environment; and then there are Daouda Bamba, Boureima Bamba, Drissa Sylla, and a few other members of the producer group, who joined later. Adama, the mayor of the village, and the coach of the agribusiness cluster (NB. The coach facilitates linkages within the agribusiness cluster, coordinates local level capacity strengthening activities and encourages bottom-up innovation) is there as well, looking around to see if all goes well. Some children are bringing water: one clearly the son of the president; another, a lovely girl with henna or so paintings on her hands and arms. They are smiling and curiously looking at us; a delicious mixture of respect and excitement. And then there is 2SCALE: Baba Togola, our team leader in Mali, Youssouf Traore, the partnership facilitator, and me. The village was visited at the onset of our annual strategic partnership meeting in Sikasso, it had been raining and we were sitting just outside the president’s warehouse.

We had been discussing the results so far of our yellow maize partnership. The partnership started in 2014, and aims to develop an alternative source of income for (smallholder) cotton producers in this area. Cotton, according to some of these farmers, is nowadays mainly cultivated to access services and inputs, not to make (much) money. SONAF collects, aggregates and re-sells the yellow maize to clients in Mali and beyond. The yellow maize is used for the poultry industry (feed). Adama Dissa however is embarking on a new and interesting adventure: he wants to establish a processing line, to transform the yellow maize into maize-based flours for human consumption. The new facility is anticipated to boost relations with the yellow maize clusters. The farmers say to be ready for the journey: seed supply systems are in place, linkages with agro-input dealers and micro-finance institutions established; and quality-control committees established. According to the president, many more farmers are interested to join. I hope that Adama Dissa is ready as well. Until now he has been a successful trader. Buying just what he needs, when he needs it, and – to a very large extent – from wherever he can get it. The factory however will require a longer-term vision, and related planning: nothing short of a mindset change. We hope that this goes together with stronger (formal/ informal) contractual arrangements with farmers, indicating things like target (minimum) quantities, quality criteria, services/ incentives and pricing mechanisms.

We are clearly not yet there. On the other hand, much progress has been made, and some major foundations for a yellow maize supply chain put in place. Youssouf Traore, our partnership facilitator, gets a lot of praise for this. The farmers specifically mention what they see as the key characteristics of a good facilitator: honesty (frankness), competence, and courteousness. The latter puzzles me for a while. Tact and respect are indeed critical capacities of a good facilitator and Youssouf certainly has those qualities. However, when the president showed us his fields (at least 6 ha of yellow maize, 3 ha of white maize, certainly a large area of cotton somewhere, closed areas with vegetables and papaya), I got this troubling feeling that we might also be too nice, too much with the elders, and the already powerful. Where are the women, the youth? I see change, but where are the transformative changes?

Youssouf and Baba appear to be conscious of these challenges. According to them however, SONAF should first establish its processing facility. They have only just started. The farmers they are working with are the front-runners, the most motivated; farmers that can drive the supply chain. Youssouf also stressed that you need to have the elders on your side to get anywhere. In the next months and year(s), more emphasis will be given on the inclusion of smallholders, and of women and youth wherever there are real opportunities. That sounds good, even though it does not make the troubling feeling go away entirely. We should not use the concept of inclusive business to easily. Inclusive business is more than economic growth; nor can we just assume so-called trickle down effects. Inclusive business requires a dedicated pro-active approach to empower and support the inclusion of vulnerable groups, i.e., smallholder farmers; women and the youth. Their “voice” must be heard and taken into account.

The next day, I ask my question again and the president takes the floor. His smile is gone, fortunately just for a short time. He asserts that the partnership is not exclusive; many women however have other priorities, including collecting sheanuts, which generates significant income. They also have smaller plots, and thus limited space for and probably less interest in growing yellow maize. Some of these things are changing however, and the president would welcome women and youth on board in the partnership, in whatever kind of roles. That is good and comforting to hear; as it was good to see the two women, and some younger coaches as well during the meeting. We’ll meet again.

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