Jérémie Malbrancke and Simbala Sylla look back at the story of Mali Shi, a Malian company founded in 2019 and the first industrial shea processor in the country. The story of a committed and determined company, which allows the development of a sector creating thousands of jobs and enhancing local resources.
Mali is slowly regaining its commercial and financial standing in West Africa since the lifting of ECOWAS sanctions in July. Following the seizure of power by Assimi Goïta’s junta, the organization of West African states had imposed, along with its members, the closure of borders, the suspension of commercial and financial exchanges and the freezing of assets at the Central Bank.
In this favorable context, the Mali Shi factory, the first industrial shea nut processing unit in Mali, can resume its development trajectory. Before the installation of this plant, Mali, the world’s second largest producer of shea nuts with 250,000 tons per year, behind Nigeria, was in the absurd situation of having all of its production shipped in raw form to Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, and Ghana, which in turn export almonds and butter to Europe.
In total, the world market drains between 400,000 and 500,000 tons of butter per year, representing about twice as many raw nuts. More than 85% of shea butter is used in the food industry, mainly to replace part of the cheaper cocoa butter in the manufacture of chocolate. This is a growing market and a real boon for Mali for a number of reasons.
First, because this activity relies primarily on women. In southern Mali, they are the ones who harvest the shea nuts at the end of the rainy season. After two years of activity, Mali Shi is working with about sixty cooperatives and already 26,000 women in the regions of Kayes, Koulikoro, Ségou and Sikasso. The goal is to eventually work with 120,000 women at full capacity. The factory, which employs 97 people, has purchased 1,600 tons of nuts in 2020, and 7,700 tons in 2021, and is targeting 30,000 tons within two years.
A windfall also because Mali Shi’s activities have resulted in a large number of positive social impacts. The factory has financed the establishment of unions, in partnership with the World Bank, UN Women and the Global Shea Alliance. These bodies have made it possible to organize the constitutive assemblies of the cooperatives in the villages, to accompany the organizations in the procedures of legal formalization with the authorities, to disseminate good practices of collection, production and storage… but also to train leaders in accounting management, marketing and commercial negotiation. In some areas, this support has enabled a seven-fold increase in the volume of nuts harvested from one year to the next.
For Mali Shi, the challenge now is to ensure the continuity of supply in quantity and quality, in close cooperation with the communities. Mali Shi has a dedicated supply team, consisting of area managers and field agents who work closely with the women and their organizations. To secure the supply chain, contracts are signed with all partner production organizations, agreeing on fixed quantities and prices. This is often the only sustainable source of income for the women partners of the factory. Finally, Mali Shi maintains links with its suppliers even outside of purchasing campaigns, through training on good practices for collecting and preserving the nuts, for example, or awareness-raising activities on the maintenance of the shea tree park.
The positive effects are also due to the recycling of production waste. In the transformation process, the nuts are heated and pressed. On the one hand, vegetable oil – commonly known as shea butter because it is solid at room temperature – is obtained. On the other side, the residues of the nuts, the oil cakes, are obtained. This useful “waste” is reused in the factory’s boiler and distributed to the women as fuel for post-collection processing. Nothing is lost, everything is transformed!
The story of Mali Shi demonstrates the emergence of a new economic reality in Africa: determined local entrepreneurs can overcome huge obstacles to develop industries that contribute to creating thousands of jobs by valorizing locally available resources. The funding required, in the order of a few million euros – compared to the budget of certain programs run by international development institutions – proves that small amounts of money, well invested, can have a considerable impact over the long term.
There is no shortage of opportunities in Africa, including in landlocked countries with a reputation for instability like Mali. As everywhere else, to succeed it is necessary to be pragmatic in the approach and vision of the projects undertaken and to surround oneself with the right skills. Let’s hope that Mali Shi inspires other entrepreneurial success stories elsewhere on the continent!