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Mali’s First Woman Seed Entrepreneur Helps Improve Food Security

June 04, 2012

For more coverage on women's rights and participation in Rio+20, the upcoming "Earth Summit", please see Jennifer James' post, "The Push for Women's Rights at Rio+20".

During last month’s G8 meeting, President Barack Obama announced The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a global partnership highlighting the importance of the private sector in promoting agricultural development.

The goals of this New Alliance are to “increase responsible domestic and foreign private investments in African agriculture, take innovations that can enhance agricultural productivity to scale, and reduce the risk borne by vulnerable economies and communities.” The best way to picture how this could happen is through real life examples like Mrs Maimouna Coulibaly, the founder of Faso Kaba Seed Company in Mali.

Denbagnouma means the good mother. That’s the local name we’ve given this new variety of groundnut (peanut) because they give good nourishment. And that’s because they’re so rich in protein and oil. Just rub the skins a little and you see how oily they are.” Maimouna talks about groundnuts with real passion. No wonder she’s the first woman in Mali to have a thriving seed business.

This is why I know things will change,” Maimouna shouts over the voices. “When the seeds are good, so are the yields."

An hour’s drive from the capital Bamako, where Maimouna started her first agribusiness shop, a group of women wait to try the different dishes made from the seeds she sells. Old tins of double concentrated tomato puree display three varieties of sorghum seeds. Bowls of sorghum porridge and couscous covered with pools of peanut sauce sit near the tins. Everyone tucks in and debates the qualities of the seeds—not only the taste of the grains or nut and how tasty a porridge or sauce they make, but also how well the seeds grow, how little water they need, and how quickly they give a harvest. The discussion is animated and you see where Maimouna gets her obsession with seeds.

After eating, the women wrap their babies onto their backs and start singing and dancing around the tins. Soda bottle caps jangle from belts and shells rattle against traditional gourds to rejoice the flavours and yields. “This is why I know things will change,” Maimouna shouts over the voices. “When the seeds are good, so are the yields. But people need to like the taste to buy it at the market. When we do food tastings like this we find out what works. Look at this bowl; it’s almost finished. They loved it—the porridge as well as the Denbagnouma peanut sauce.” Maimouna is working with ICRISAT to spread these drought-tolerant and high-yielding seeds among farmers, which are proving popular in their communities.

Things aren’t always straightforward.

In 2009 Maimouna distributed these groundnut seeds to a group of women, as she is keen to get more women involved in agribusiness. They would grow the seeds and she would buy back from them. But, they didn’t grow anything, because they didn’t have their own land. The year after, Maimouna held a meeting with the village men and their families to insist that she wanted these women to grow the seeds since there was a high demand for them. She would buy back the best quality seeds for her business and they would keep the rest for household consumption or to sell at local markets.  After coming to an arrangement whereby the women would have access to a plot of land, the women now grow and supply the seeds to Maimouna. “We have many challenges but sometimes we find ways around them. This is just the start—we need to do so much more.”

In Mali, 68% of the population is considered poor and they are mainly in rural areas. This is just one of many countries in the developing world with chronic rural poverty and where women in particular are vulnerable due to their limited access to capital, land, training, etc.

Leaders at the G8 meeting recognized the need to act upon the critical role played by smallholder farmers, especially women, in transforming agriculture. Given that women produce up to 80 percent of the food, they should be a major target for the G8. Supporting these women to improve their farm production means benefits are passed on to their family, especially the next generation, as well as their communities.

The drought, displacement, and famine in east Africa and the looming food crisis in the western Sahel region clearly shows how badly long term solutions are needed. Yes, these must involve the private and public sector. But most importantly, the small-scale farmer needs to be a central part of the process. They grow up to 90% of the food in some African countries, so innovative ideas and partnerships need to improve their harvests and incomes.

Maimouna is an excellent example of the type of partnership President Obama is calling for in the New Alliance. She promotes high yielding seeds such as sorghum and groundnut varieties adapted to the climate, needs, and tastes of local farmers. These seeds are produced and processed in and around neighboring communities. 

Rio+20, the "Earth Summit", to be held from June 20–22, has recognized that women are the majority of smallholder farmers, and the importance of their access to land and resources.

By selling these seeds in small packets at local markets as well as in her shops, they are more accessible and affordable for resource poor women farmers. She works closely with farmers by discussing varieties and techniques on demonstration plots, in their fields, at markets, and over the radio. Maimouna also insists on the importance of global partnerships. She works with G8 donors such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (through AGRA) and USAID, with national and international research institutes such as Rural Economy Institute in Mali and ICRISAT specializing in agricultural research to improve smallholder farmer productivity, as well as with international agribusinesses (for example to distribute vegetable seeds).

“The farmer, and especially the woman, must be at the forefront of our action if we really want to make a difference in the long term,” she adds.

Rio+20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held from June 20–22, has recognized that women are the majority of smallholder farmers, and the importance of their access to land and resources. Ahead of this summit, the Women’s Major Group want to make sure that Rio commits to effective measures to support women’s and smallholder’s rights. They are calling for women to share their stories, and Maimouna’s is one that shows how things can change for the better.

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