Photograph — www.easyvoyage.co.uk

The top search results for Mali online are often stories and images that portray the west Sahelian state in a negative light; stories of the seemingly unending crisis and insecurity, tales of poverty, starvation, and a lack of education, all of which are as a result of years of political unrest.

Indeed, these stories are true, Mali has been plagued by insecurity for quite a while. But what is not true is the global media portrayal of a single story regarding the landlocked country; the stereotypic narrative of Mali as being habitually unsafe and impoverished is incomplete and critically misleading.

Currently, Mali is making tangible practical efforts to transcend its challenges. Malians are building businesses, establishing start-ups and creating evolutionary innovations that are steadily improving and reviving the country’s economy. With the increasing presence of innovation centres and entrepreneurial hubs, there is a new trend of youths becoming entrepreneurs, all of whom are part of the new dynamic for the country.

Here are some of Mali’s budding enterprises and entrepreneurs, key actors in the renaissance of the new evolving Mali.

Lenali – Mamadou Gouro Sidibe

Mamadou Gouro Sidibe is a doctor of Capital Science and the founder of Lenali, the world’s first vocal social network; a platform where users communicate via voice recordings in their local languages. With the country’s literacy level at a meagre 40 percent, Gouro Sidibe is filling a void in the country’s social media and digital space as most Malians cannot access popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

“Approximately only 20 percent of Malian people have access to digital services due to the low level of literacy, that’s why I created this vocal social network which speaks local languages in order to give Malians access to digital tools and also to serve as a starting point for systematic development”, he told Ventures Africa.

Today, there are over 40 thousand users on Lenali from all over the world. “We mostly have Malian users because we started here but we also have users from France, Senegal, Burkina Faso and so on. People can access the service from anywhere,” he said.

Gouro Sidibe, second from Left to Right

To further expand the platform, team Lenali is working to include major languages from different African countries. “For instance, we are now working on Ewé, which is the language spoken in Togo. We are also working on Kinyarwanda, the major language in Rwanda,” he explained, adding that it is the first step to make the tool accessible for the citizens or residents of the aforementioned countries. Plans are also underway to tailor the app to suit the needs of users in different countries.

On how he hopes to compete with big platforms like Facebook, he said, “Unlike these big platforms, Lenali is totally vocal, even in the creation of a profile. Also, we are focused on local languages, and we solve local problems because we know these problems. For example, we invented the GPS navigation call.” The GPS call as Gouro Sidibe explains, functions like a voice call, “If I want to invite you to me, I just place a GPS call to you and when you accept the call, it will direct you.”

Thanks to the Malian government, Gouro Sidibe had the opportunity to be at the CES show in Las Vegas four months ago for the showcase of Lenali. According to him, being in Las Vegas brought him in contact with potential partners and investors with whom he is currently in discussion and quite optimistic about the outcome. 

Zaaban Juice – Aissata Diakite

My dream is for Zaaban to be the Coke of Africa. – Aissata Diakite, CEO Zaaban Juice

A concoction of baobab, tamarin, zaban, kinkeliba, ginger, and hibiscus are what make up the range of one of Mali’s most prominent juices – Zabbaan. Zabbaan is an all-natural blend of locally grown fruits, flowers, and herbs in Mali. The brand’s CEO, 28-year-old Aissata Diakite is one of many returnees who seeks to invest in and promote the Malian economy.

Diakite had the idea to create and start a juice company two years ago while she studied Agribusiness in France. For her, the thought and choice to launch a juice company in Mali came easy because Mali grows a variety of fruits and herbs, particularly in Mopti where she comes from. Also, she often made natural juices for herself at home which she found quite healthy, “And I thought it a good idea to turn it into a business,” she said.

Diakite partners with a network of farmers to supply fruits, flowers and herbs used for her juice. “We work with farmers from Mopti to Kayes to grow and supply what we need to make our juices”, she said. Currently, Zabbaan produces over a thousand bottles of juices daily, one of which is sold for 500 CFA francs ($0.88).

“Only 40 percent of our products are sold in Mali, 10 percent is exported to France and the rest to other African countries, Ivory Coast, Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso,” she said. The company also caters to hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, supplying them as wholesalers, and to consumers at home and at events on demand. So far, all the earnings from sales are put back into the business to fund further production.

According to Diakite, one of the major challenges of running her company is the lack of factories in Mali. “Sourcing for packaging is difficult a there are no factories in Mali making the bottles. The plastic bottles are easier to get here but this one isn’t,” she said holding up a bottle of juice. “I have to import them from Europe,” she added.

As an entrepreneur, Aissata Diakite has about 80 employees on her payroll, excluding the large network of farmers she works with across Mali.

SoDa – Sirandou Diawara

Sirandou Diawara is Founder and Manager of SoDa architecture, a firm she established 13 years ago. SoDa which means “the threshold of the house” in Bambara, is one of the most prominent architectural firms in Mali currently. Diawara is responsible for the complete renovation of buildings in the business district of Bamako and the hotel Azalai Independence in Ouagadougou. As a consultant, she has worked on key projects like the recently opened, insanely beautiful Sheraton Hotel, Bamako and the construction of the 14 presidential villas for the Africa-France 2017 Summit.

Having studied architecture in France and Berlin, Diawara created SoDa in 2005 and juggled work between France and Mali before deciding to settle in the capital of Bamako five years ago as a good number of people were asking for her input in the country’s gradual growing architectural landscape. “Lagos is a modern city, but nothing was here in Mali five years ago,” she said, trying to explain what the Malian architectural landscape was like some years ago.

Being a woman in a male-dominated space was not easy for her at first, she had to work twice as hard to prove that she was just as capable, if not more capable than her male counterparts. Now that Diawara has been established as a prominent name in Mali, she intends to expand her business craft to Lagos, Nigeria. When I was in Paris, my best friend was from Lagos, and he’s been asking me to take SoDa there. But I needed time to establish my brand here at home in Mali. Now that I’ve done that, my next move is Lagos,” she said.

Sirandou Diawara hopes to improve the housing and development plan in Mali from what she currently describes as “chaotic”, and also expand her brand throughout the continent, city by city, one country at a time. “It is all about building Africa,” she said. She recently completed a commercial gallery in Abidjan and has some contract jobs in the pipeline in Guinea.

Sahel Tea – Mme Toure Aminatou Abdou Souley

“If we want to end poverty, we have to patronize and increase the consumption of local products.” – Aminatou Souley, CEO, Sahel Tea

Aminatou Souley is the owner of an all-natural tea company that makes tea from local Malian grown produce. Batou’s choice of business was born out of a need to innovate; to take something that was part of the Malian culture and make it better. She also wanted to do something different from other startups in Mali.

However, she soon realised that her choice of business was a challenge as not too many farmers grew the plants and herbs she needed for her range of tea, and in the quantity she needed them. “The people who do often do so in small quantities for home use or for retail sales in the market,” Souley said.

To get the plants needed, Batou got into partnership with and built relationships with farmers, providing them with large acres of land to grow plants and herbs solely for her company; lemongrass, mint, ginger and hibiscus. Farmers who already owned large acres of lands are paid to only grow products for her tea.

At the start, Sahel Tea also battled with market reception in Mali; “Malians would rather get the plants and ingredients from the market and make tea at home as is the culture, than get already made tea”, Souley explained.

But in time, people have begun to recognize the advantage of already made tea, and patronage for Sahel tea is on a gradual steady rise in Mali. For now, Sahel tea gets more patronage outside the country, in France, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and the U.S. “Because in Mali, people already have these products (herbs and flowers), but people are searching for them outside the country. Hence the proliferation of my tea outside Mali.”

Although Souley runs the business with three other partners, the idea for the business is hers and she manages the company as she has the most experience. In the next few years, Batou hopes to improve the tea experience for her customers, “We want to make instant tea; tea in powder form”, she said.

Ikalook – Namissa Thera

Namissa Thera is the creator of Ikalook, a Malian ready-to-wear brand that offers a contemporary mix of African prints with European wears. The brand name Ikalook which literally translates as “your style”, is a combination of two words – Ika, meaning “Your” in Bambara, and the English word – Look, which also translates as style.

Thera who is passionate about fashion and entrepreneurship conceived the idea for a fashion brand in 2008 in her quest to find clothes that suit her style and taste in fashion. “I often designed clothes for myself and take them to a tailor, and when I wore them, a lot of people showed interest,” she said in an interview with VA. After some years of research and a lot of thought, she finally launched Ikalook in 2013. “In order to develop something original, I needed to understand my environment”, she said.

The self-taught designer and stylist developed her knowledge and her taste in fashion from studying big brands like Chanel, Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent. According to her, the passion and originality of these brands are what makes them great, characters she channels into the development of her brand as well.

Namissa Thera

Thera sternly advocates for consuming and patronising Made in Mali and Made in Africa products and brands. “You do not have to go anywhere else to be at the forefront of fashion. There are many young African designers who offer very stylish and quality clothes; consume what is done at home.”

But she also believes that the government has a significant role to play in the development of the Malian fashion industry and that they are not doing enough. It is disappointing that Mali has no factories to process cotton despite being the first producer of cotton on the African continent. Thera asserts that focusing on the local market is an opportunity to develop Mali as the country is copiously blessed with the resources and manpower. Hence, she works with Malian weavers and textile dyers for some of her fabrics. Through her brand, Namissa Thera contributes to the development of her country by creating jobs and helping to improve the lives of people around her.

Although Ikalook is mainly available in Mali, the brand has an international clientele; clients can shop and order for clothes through the brand’s online store and have their goods shipped and delivered to them wherever they are.

Impact Hub, Bamako

“African youth are often criticized as being lazy. That’s not true. African youths are creating a lot of amazing projects across the board. We need to realise that fact that if our youth are equipped with the right tools and resources they can do anything. Do not blame the youth, equip them.” – Makhan Sacko, Project Manager, Impact Hub, Bamako.

When Impact Hub (IH) opened in Bamako in 2016, there were no other hubs, but in two years, that has changed with the city boasting of 10 hubs currently. Part innovation lab, part business incubator, part social enterprise community centre, the goal of Impact Hub is to create a work environment that inspires and motivate; a space where businesses can make connections, learn from each other and develop new skills.

Located in over 80 countries around the world, Impact Hub Bamako is the first of the network in Francophone Africa. Here, the hub trains entrepreneurs, offer acceleration programs to early-stage entrepreneurs and also provides an affordable co-working space, five dollars a month. “It’s basically a business model for innovation centres. However, our specificity is that we are more focused on agribusiness”, Makhan Sacko, Project Manager, IH Bamako told Ventures Africa. Mali is an agricultural country with more than 80 percent of the population into agriculture, hence it makes sense that the hub chooses to focus on that sector. Plus, Mali’s most successful hubs are agribusiness centred.

Centres like IH has influenced the growing number of youth entrepreneurs in Mali and other Francophone African countries, a trend that was lacking a few years ago. “Entrepreneurship was not part of the options for youths in francophone Africa; Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, we were lagging behind compared to countries like Nigeria and Ghana”, Sacko said. “Now there is increased awareness on the benefits of entrepreneurship and more opportunities for youths, hence an increasing interest of youths in entrepreneurship”, he added.

The Malian government is also playing a role in encouraging this new trend. Having realised the fact that entrepreneurship is a solution to youth unemployment, the government is collaborating with hubs, organizing pitch programs, financing projects in conjunction with the world bank and also working towards opening a hub as well.

Makhan Sacko, Project Manager, Impact Hub, Bamako

However, Sacko believes the government can and should do more, particularly in building an ecosystem. “It’s not just about financing the youth, it’s building an ecosystem. Because even in cases where you have banks and financing, the right human resources is needed, education is needed. The government needs to invest in human capital and also create a market that will facilitate the access of entrepreneurs”, he said.

“Because even if you finance agribusiness if the entrepreneur doesn’t have the right skill and doesn’t have access to the market, it doesn’t really make sense. So what the government can do is to strengthen the ecosystem, not just in financing but in infrastructure as well. And this should be done not only in Mali but all around Africa, the government should play an active role in building ecosystems”, Sacko added.

At the moment, IH is located in seven African cities, Lagos, Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Kigali, Harare and Bujumbura. The idea is to be present in all African countries and build a really strong network of hubs and innovation centres. So more funds can be raised and leveraged on an international level. And also to facilitate integration and encourage more collaboration between different countries. “In West Africa, there is a lot of collaboration between Impact Hub, Bamako, and Impact Hub, Dakar. One will be opened in Abidjan this year, so there will be a lot of collaboration between these three so that Malian entrepreneurs can move freely and easily through Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire” said Sacko.

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