Incubators making a difference in Mali

The challenges faced by small agro-based businesses and entrepreneurs in developing new, innovative, value-added products has proved overwhelming for many due to factors as the lack of business expertise, access to affordable finance, technical know-how and the inability of start-up SME’s to break into new markets. This was the main inspiration for the development of The West African Agri-business Resource Incubator (WAARI) in Selingue, Mali.WAARI as it is better known, has opened its doors to graduates and potential entrepreneurs in the agriculture and agro-forestry sectors to start training and using the Incubator’s services and facilities to develop new business ideas while also facilitating workshops on gender awareness and seed varieties and production in West Africa.
This first ever full-fledged agribusiness incubator is the brain child of Dr. Ibrahim Togola who was then joined by a consortium comprising of Agro-farming Industrie Développement SA (AID-SA), which is co-ordinating the project and providing facilities for the project at Selingue, the Institut Polytechnique Rural de Formation et de Recherche Appliquée (IPR/IFRA), the Institut d’Economie Rurale (IER),International Centre for Innovation and Sustainability (ICIS), the Union of Farmer Co-operatives of Bougouni-Yanfolila and an independent expert. WAARI is one of the six agribusiness incubators being established throughout the continent. ICIS has been involved in developing the design and branding of WAARI and in future will contribute expertise for training programmes in sustainability, design, packaging and business planning.
“The centre’s purpose is to create new, and support existing,agribusinesses in the rural districts of Bougouni and Yanfolila. The ultimate goal of WAARI is to develop sustainable agribusinesses, create employment opportunities, generate economic activity and encourage technology development and innovation including environmental sustainability in the long term,” says Togola. The initial focus for the incubator will be around three categories of commodities namely: Cereals including millet, sorghum, rice, maize and Fonio; Fruit, mainly mango and oranges for juice production; and Forest products such as Shea Butter, honey and tea, and possibly other forest products such as baobab, tamarind and hibiscus.
Product Focus
Cereals are by far the most important food commodities in Mali, constituting about 90% of total food consumption. Production of cereals is therefore very important for Malian farmers, including smallholders. Fonio and maize are two of the cereals selected due to its potential for production expansion in the area and for its processing versatility. Fonio will be prioritised due to its non-inclusion in food security programmes. “Fonio is a high value crop and demand is increasing, not only in Mali but the whole of Western Africa. It is easy to cultivate but traditional processing is very cumbersome, in terms of threshing, de-hulling, polishing etc.because the grains are very small. It is only used for human consumption.
Simple machines to more effectively process Fonio exist, but their use is very limited both in Mali generally and in the incubator area,” explains Togola.
Maize will receive secondary attention after the start-up period of the Incubator is complete. Maize is one of the most important cereals in Mali and dominates production in the area. It is the main processed cereal with numerous mills locally and across Mali. Hybrid seeds have been available for a number of years but not in sufficient quantities leaving scope for increased production. Maize is increasingly used as animal feed and prices on the world market have recently risen steeply. There is considerable potential for the improvement of the milling technology used in many village mills to prevent contamination of the final product. This would be necessary to meet export market standards. Also, there are numerous possibilities for processing of maize into prepared foods such as pasta blended with other types of cereals (e.g. sorghum).
Rice will also be one of the primary crops due to its importance within the area as a major agricultural crop within the women’s rice cooperative in Selingue.
With regards to fruit, the incubator locality is very suitable for fruit production which is currently substantial. Mango is the dominant fruit grown in the region but production of oranges is also considerable. Notable is that production of mangoes in the incubator area has increased substantially (about 30%) during the period 2005 to 2008. This may be a result of public mango extension programmes involving small-holder members of the cooperative union (also a member of the consortium). Potential entrepreneurs may benefit from these already existing efforts as close proximity farming to farms are beneficial when processing highly perishable fruits such as mangoes.Furthermore, the different harvest seasons for mangoes and oranges can be exploited to ensure year-round fruit production and processing. Oranges are harvested from November to February while mangoes (those suitable for juice production) are harvested from March to June. “It is envisaged that processing of various other forest products e.g. juice from Baobab, Tamarind and Hibiscus,could add market value to mango and orange products as well as lengthen agricultural productivity throughout the year when mango and oranges are out of season.”
Non-timber forest products are an important income source for rural households, estimated at 10-15 billion CFA per year, constituting between 20-60% of rural households’ income, this is where Shea Butter, honey and tea will feature as product extensions.
Says Togola: “These forest products are all important components in the traditional diet and Shea (primarily in the form of kernels) has considerable export potential for mixing with other tropical oils to manufacture various types of cocoa butter substitutes. Recently it has also been applied to cosmetics, a use which has been known in West Africa for centuries. However, Shea is still primarily used as a frying medium and to produce soap. In relation to the incubator locality,the commodity is available in substantial volumes and there is free access in the forest area. Additionally, there is a huge potential for Shea to move from export of kernels to exports of butter if compliance with the relevant food safety and quality standards can be established. It is notable that a country like Togo (in volume terms)exports 5 times as much Shea butter as Mali, even though Mali is the biggest producer of Shea in West Africa.”
Future
Speaking at the opening of the incubator,Dr William Dar, ICRISAT Director General spoke to the essence of WAARI, “Public-Private Partnerships hold the key for activating the Inclusive Market-Oriented Development (IMOD) strategy in order to replicate and scale-up the benefits of technology interventions and science-based solutions for millions of smallholder farmers. One of the best ways of achieving this is to promote entrepreneurship in the agricultural sector. Agribusiness incubation creates agro-enterprises and jobs which ultimately benefit the small holder farmers. Agribusiness incubators have now become vital to agribusiness sectors worldwide, where technology serves as a precursor for improving the economic, social and environmental conditions especially of rural communities,” he concluded.
“Access to information and data about agricultural systems, agri-methods to improve farming practices and sustainable development including environmental impacts, water management,soil management and adapting to climate change”
– WAARI Incubator management.