Before filling your mouth with flour…
Everyone loves rice – consumers, sellers, and processors like Djénébou Coulibaly. Coulibaly is a woman entrepreneur, president of a processing cooperative that works with 2SCALE in the Sikasso region in Mali. The cooperative processes paddy into nutritious, affordable parboiled rice, sold to both institutional (e.g. schools) and individual buyers. We spoke to Coulibaly on how the cooperative has grown, and what lies ahead.
Four years after the beginning of your partnership with 2SCALE, what has changed?
Four years ago, we could not have imagined that a microfinance institution would be interested in us, let alone giving us loans of several million francs. We would not even have had the courage to take this loan, because as the proverb goes, before filling your mouth with flour, you must ensure that you have enough saliva to moisten and swallow it. Otherwise, you will choke. Today, the microfinance institution Kafo Jiginew is confident in our cooperative. So are the input suppliers and other development partners. This is a huge change. It is the first time we have access to credit.
In the past, some microfinance institutions had approached us, but we (the cooperative) did not want to take loans. Interest rates were high and we all remembered what had happened to some of our friends. Before you take a loan, you must know how you will repay. Do you have a market for your product? At what price should you sell, to make a reasonable profit? With 2SCALE, we learned all these things before we dared take any credit. Now we are not afraid, and the microfinance institutions are going to lower their interest rates again because they see that we are better organized.
What has changed within the cooperative?
There were big changes in rice production as well as processing – remember that most parboilers here are also small-scale rice farmers. In terms of production, yields have doubled. From a small quarter-hectare plot, some women are now harvesting 800 kg, or even 1 ton in some cases.
In the past, we used to broadcast rice seeds. Now we plant in rows, which makes weeding much easier and promotes good development of rice plants. We also used rice varieties that were not homogenous and were vulnerable to disease. When 2SCALE came in, we adopted a variety of rice that gives better grains, and we were taught how to use organic manure correctly. This has reduced our fertilizer costs and improved yields and quality of our rice. Between our situation yesterday and today, it’s really heaven and earth.
What’s the difference between heaven and earth?
In the past, the cooperative processed 250 kilos a week. With the increase in yields, we now do 550 kilos a week. But the real change is quality. We were processing rice long before 2SCALE, but we were not doing it well, the quality of our parboiled rice was really poor. We had not mastered the parboiling process and despite all our effort and pain, the final product often smelled bad
2SCALE hired an expert who trained us on the process from start to finish – in particular we learned how to control the soaking time. Today we are really proud of the quality of our parboiled rice. The bad smell has gone away and the aroma is rich. The texture of the grains is smooth and consistent. In the market here and in the surrounding villages, no one can compare with us, and I am not boasting – this is a fact.
Did all this have an impact on sales and prices?
Naturally. We sold at 250 FCFA per kilo, today we sell at 300 FCFA. That extra income is a big thing for us. Another innovation that 2SCALE introduced is the use of rice husks as a source of energy. More than 50 women are now using this. It makes our life easier because we save time, money and wood.
With the support of 2SCALE, we also joined the World Bank WAAPP program, and we are now integrated into a system that allows women farmers to access subsidized inputs. Women rice farmers in Doumanaba de Zanso received credit worth nearly 36 million FCFA, through Kafo Jiginew, to buy fertilizer! This is an even bigger change than you imagine – earlier, subsidized fertilizers were only for cotton producers, that is to say exclusively for men. At last this inequality has been corrected, at least for women who are in cooperative supported by 2SCALE.
Now, we are functioning as a real cooperative. We keep proper accounts, we record everything, we hold management meetings and make minutes. Formerly, we were not very professional – we did not keep good records or prepare financial statements, people did not even pay their dues to the cooperative. The partners who visit us now are impressed by how well we are organized.
What are the areas where you could not change things as you would have liked?
Our processing equipment is still very basic. Modern equipment is expensive, and we are still looking for ways to raise money. We also need to find packaging that is strong, transparent and attractive but still cheap. This is important because we have started to introduce our rice in Bamako supermarkets, so it must be well presented. In supermarkets, customers are not like our customers here. I saw how the imported rice is packaged. We have a long way to go, but we have begun the journey, and we know we will reach our destination.