“Bonne arrivée, Madame”!! The friendly, cheerful greeting I repeatedly received on arrival in this French-speaking West African country made me feel so welcome. Known and appreciated for its beautiful ‘kora’ music (such as Mamadou Diabate), and distinctive bogolan handwoven and naturally dyed cotton fabric, Mali is also landlocked, wrought with security troubles, and poor.
Because of the current situation, even though there are unique world heritage sites to be seen, few tourists are coming here, as it’s currently not deemed to be safe to travel in areas outside of Bamako. It seems, nevertheless, that many efforts are being made to make the best of the situation at hand and encourage and inspire the young (and old) to develop a business, helping Mali to catch up with other African countries that are moving up the economic ladder.
Invited here by an NGO, I am working in the capital city Bamako, a city of 2.5 million inhabitants, with Bamako Incubateur to assist the dynamic Founding Director Fatima Meite with helping startups to develop their business projects. Within our group of 25 participants, there are 4 teams using the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals as the basis of their business ideas to help solve some of the problems that this country is facing.
One team, for example, is looking at starting a company to produce juices, concentrates and jams, to take advantage of, and transform, the tons of fresh mangos, papayas, and other tropical fruits that frequently go to waste due to the lack of refrigeration. Another group is working on an internet platform for the informal economy, and in collaboration with the small business authorities, with a view to helping the small companies expand their businesses and, in turn, professionalize their work. What is unique with all of the projects is that they are starting very small, with little or no financing, and will make special use of the internet to develop their business ideas and reach their markets. During the team presentations, Fatima – who told me her name means ‘luck’ –zeroes in and targets immediately the weak points, pointedly critiques the business proposals, their vision and mission, and skilfully guides the participants in the right direction. She is also working with the government ministry in charge of youth to send trainers to the problem region in the centre of the country to help young people learn about entrepreneurship, and give them hope for their futures.
It’s not only at the incubator that I see dynamic women and signs of entrepreneurship, but also on the TV and in magazines. I casually picked up a free magazine at a local shop and was amazed to find numerous articles about women who are making their mark. One woman who had worked abroad, returned to Mali to be confronted with the difficult reality of finding work, and for this reason decided to start her own cosmetic business she named Soreya Garden.
Karité butter — produced from the karité seed by rural Malian women, the production of which helps them to have financial independence and greater autonomy – is one of the main ingredients used in her all-natural, locally sourced products. Founder Adam Soreya Sylla said that even though mentalities are changing, becoming an entrepreneur in Mali is still difficult. This is mainly due to cultural beliefs that hold women back from becoming entrepreneurs.
Dutch women are also surprisingly active (social) entrepreneurs in Mali! By chance, when I spoke on arrival to a woman at the airport, and asked what to see in Bamako, she suggested that I go to a local restaurant called ‘Taxi Bamako’. I parked that idea for a while, and when I was looking for a place for lunch one day, remembered this suggestion, and was surprised to find out that it was only a few minutes’ walk from my hotel. By chance, it turns out that owner Loes Kuipers is Dutch, and started the mostly vegetarian restaurant a number of years ago to fill a gap in the market for different kinds of dishes that she couldn’t find locally. Another Dutch woman I got to know at Taxi Bamako, Wendela Engelhard, started the artisanal dairy Wassalait in Bamako, and produces creamy yogurt and fresh cheese, which are used in the preparation of the delicious quiches and smoothies at Taxi Bamako! What a surprise it was to find these remarkable Dutch women entrepreneurs literally at my doorstep!
Rondom Baba Foundation
Last but certainly not least, an amazing social entrepreneur of note I learned about is Yvonne Gerner, who started the Rondom Baba foundation in 2007 to help break the vicious circle of poverty through education and work. The foundation is focused on the very poor, and organises programmes and activities in education, health care, and public facilities. The foundation maintains that the conflicts and growing inequality between rich and poor in Mali push the youth in particular into isolation, and, as a result, they become targets for radical organisations. The programmes offered by the Rondom Baba foundation reinforce the feeling of self-worth and give participants their own voice. The foundation produces its own food, and has educational and training programmes, and has its own money-making enterprise producing beautiful leather bags and unique beaded bracelets, with profits returning to the foundation in Mali. If you would like to know more about Rondom Baba, perhaps purchase a product, or make a donation, you don’t have far to look. They are located in The Hague, and more information can be found on the Rondom Baba website.
Adam Soeya Sylla, the founder of Soreya Garden, stated that she believes women are naturally gifted with creativity, agility and have a sense of anticipation: essential elements for entrepreneurial success. She suggests that being an entrepreneur “… is a question of passion and will.” In the short time that I’ve been here, what an eye-opener it’s been to see the strong, competent, and successful women entrepreneurs that I have had the pleasure to either personally meet or get to know about. They are role models for us all, and when I leave Bamako to return home, I hope to be able to say ‘au revoir’ and ‘a la prochaine’.