Making agriculture 'sexy and sustainable' in Mali: Q&A with Salif Niang


Malian entrepreneur Salif Niang co-founded Malo SARL to bring the private sector into the country’s rice industry in an attempt to reduce farmer losses in his country. Photo credit: Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship.

ASPEN, Colo. — At last year’s World Food Prize, Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture, Akinwumi Adesina, presented on the state of the African agriculture industry. He repeatedly said, “We need to see agriculture in Africa as a business. That is the only way it will grow.”

Seeing agriculture as a charitable activity to alleviate poverty, he claimed, has not worked. In some African countries, up to 80 percent of the population works in food production. Despite this, under-nutrition is still responsible for an annual 3.5 million child deaths across the continent.

Adesina’s sentiment is making its way around Africa, with entrepreneurs in all corners working to change the face of agriculture. Four years ago, Malian Salif Niang co-founded Malo SARL, to bring the private sector into the country’s rice industry, which has historically been run by the government. Rice is a staple crop in the western African nation, but up to 50 percent of its harvest is lost before reaching consumers, due to poor post-harvest options. Niang works with 30,000 cooperative farmers to capture this loss: Malo pays farmers a fair price for their harvest, which they then process, store, fortify, and sell.

While at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where Niang presented his work as a New Voices Fellow, he spoke with GlobalPost on the role the private sector is playing in improving food security in Africa.

GlobalPost: What are your thoughts on the food security situation in Mali?

Salif Niang: Mali has had chronic food security issues since the 1970s. It’s almost always due to drought, to climate forces. Seventy to 80 percent of the population works in the agriculture space, and they also tend to be some of the poorest people in the country.

It's also very difficult for farmers to farm where they don't feel safe. In northern Mali, there are hundreds of thousands of people who were displaced, and a lot of them need help to be productive again.

A global trend that's beginning to emerge is understanding that more food is not sufficient. You need nutritious food, including protein and vegetables. Those are much more difficult to grow when you don't have access to seeds, to proper financing, to methods of resisting extreme weather. A lot of developing countries – Mali included – are net importers of food. Which is ironic, because most of their labor force is supposedly in the food production business.

The challenge is this: is there a way to produce these things locally in a sustainable manner, and at the same time create jobs and income? You want to break that vicious cycle of poverty, food security, and malnutrition.

GP: What's the role of the private sector in all of this?

SN: When I think of the private sector, I think of businesses that are registered, have a formal location, have staff and salaries, and are actually trying to grow more food or purchase food from farmers. In a country like Mali, we really don't have that. It's pretty disorganized. You have NGOs and governments that do a lot of work to provide seeds to farmers at harvest, but then it breaks down post-harvest when it comes to storage, packaging, and adding value – taking tomatoes and making tomato sauce, for example. Instead, you have tomatoes rotting because there are no businesses that might turn those tomatoes into sauce, or cold rooms to increase shelf life.

GP: I'm surprised that there's no large player to do rice production, or at least sell it, since it's a staple crop.

SN: For the most part, people see the Malian market as too small. It's 16 million people. You have 2 billion people in Southeast Asia. Where would you go, if you were a big multinational? What some private companies – I'm talking about foreign companies – have done is lease land to potentially use to grow food in the future. There's recognition that of all the geographic regions in the world, sub-Saharan Africa is where you can boost production enormously. McKinsey did a study where they found that 60 percent of the arable land that hasn't been exploited yet is in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, the question is, how do you bring that under development?

GP: Let’s imagine that the private sector develops all of that under-developed land. Who would be left behind in this scenario?

SN: If farmers have property rights, and many of them do in Mali, I don't think anyone necessarily needs to be left behind. If anything, agriculture has been underdeveloped and underexploited, so there's enough room for everyone to grow if it's done properly. What we don't want to see is smallholder farmers getting kicked off the land.

I’d like to see farmers treating farms as businesses and not just a means of survival. Farmers should not be hungry. It's their job to feed the country. If a farmer can't feed himself and his family, that's a problem.

There are people who are right now farming because they have nothing else to do. We need to look at farming and agriculture holistically, and not just as planting, harvesting, and maintaining yield. It's the truck driver who needs to pick up the harvest from the farm. It's the tractor operator, and the mechanic that fixes the tractor. It's the marketing guy that designs the packaging. Some of those folks right now that may be doing basic subsistence farming may find opportunities across the value chain.

GP: How does your company factor into this environment?

SN: My thinking is this: how can we make agriculture sexy and sustainable? Farmers should grow food and make enough money to cover their basics.

When we decided to start the company, about four years ago, we saw a huge opportunity to have an impact post-harvest. From the studies that we read, up to 50 percent of rice grown by smallholder farmers is wasted. We saw that as a business opportunity, and also an opportunity to have an impact on farmers by paying them a fairer price. In addition to that, it was a no-brainer to include fortification.

GP: What role does foreign aid play in supporting food security?

SN: In the past, a lot of food aid was excess grains from the US being dumped in local markets, and that was disastrous. That totally distorted local market prices. Often, you'd see bags that said ‘NOT FOR SALE’ being sold. It dis-incentivized people to invest, because you know some government or NGO is going to bring in tons of cheap food.

What the World Food Program has been doing a lot lately, which I think is great, is instead of bringing in more food, they give folks vouchers – especially in areas that already have food and where people can afford to plant the food. In a lot of cases, and especially really remote areas, that kind of assistance can be the start of creating a free market. There are cases where you have to airlift food, because it's a humanitarian or environmental disaster. But wherever possible, source locally.

GP: What do you see as the future of food security in Mali over the next 10 years?

SN: There's definitely a recognition at the policy level that we have to get our agriculture sector in shape. It's been neglected for decades. With rapid population growth and rapid urbanization, governments – especially democratically elected ones like Mali – are worried that if food prices are too high, it's going to lead to political instability.

I want to see this in terms of an opportunity to generate wealth and jobs, if done well. My idea of nutritional security is governments having a coherent policy around subsidies, tariffs, and how they provide inputs for farmers. I also see the government doing basic research around extension programs, providing weather and crop advice, and helping smallholder farmers secure land rights.

GP: What about the private sector?

SN: If the government does that, the private sector will come in. The demand is there. If there's an enabling environment, you will have an entrepreneur saying, "Hey, I want to be able to feed a million people a year with poultry, or dairy products." For the private sector to be able to function, there has to be the right policies in place, or else they will not invest. If you have that, I'm convinced that if you look at the numbers and if you're smart, you will invest in food production. It's to me an amazing business opportunity.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Sarika Bansal is a journalist who focuses on social innovation and health. She is based in New York.

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