In many ways, 2011 Global Fellow Salif Romano Niang appears to be the prototypical social entrepreneur. Born in Italy, raised in Ethiopia, and educated at Purdue, his pursuit of solutions to food scarcity and malnutrition in his own community seems representative of all that a modern investor would love to get behind.
What’s surprising to hear is how frankly he owns the fact that in starting Malô, his organization for feeding Mali, he and his brother Mohamed (also an Echoing Green Global Fellow) had very little idea of what they were doing.
“I’m an academic—I had a degree in political science,” he admits, his voice is imbued with both humility and humor. “We had zero experience. We’re not engineers [or] experts in agriculture. I didn’t know anything about social entrepreneurship.”
Nevertheless, what he did have was a deep and personal concern for the chronic poverty in Mali. Salif says that Ethiopia was a country synonymous with famine during the years he was growing up; he remembers first-hand encounters with people dying of malnutrition.
“Malô was born because of that crisis.”The convention of academia would be to work on the problem by researching and debating it, conferring with think tanks or the United Nations, lobbying with governments. But the urgency that Salif felt for the problem was too great to wait for a better understanding, especially when in 2008 he saw the price of rice skyrocketing, resulting in shipping embargos and riots.
Salif sounds somewhat surprised, even still, at how easy it was to do something, once he was determined to learn how.
“One of our key messages is that it doesn’t matter what your educational background is, if you’re passionate about something, you can contribute. And we’re passionate about food security and poverty.”
Everything they needed to know was right at their fingertips: research on the root cause of Mali’s food security issues, and the data necessary to design a viable solution to combat hunger in Mali. Malô ties together agriculture, manufacturing, and first-hand knowledge of cultural concerns to enlist the participation of Malian producers and consumers. Salif says if they wanted to be more than just a stop-gap solution, as other food relief efforts have been, they had to be incorporated into the local value chain.
He laughs, telling about the challenge they faced the first time they visited the farmers they hoped to work with.
“When we got out of the car, they were thinking ‘Who are these city boys coming in? These are the people who are going to help us solve our problems?’ They assumed we’d been parachuted from the States, thinking we knew everything.
“But once we started talking to them–about the cost of fertilizers, inputs–that created a huge sense of confidence. We spoke the language, we put ourselves in their shoes.”
It was a key moment, Salif says, much like the one he experienced when Mohamed and he pitched their idea for the first time to Echoing Green in 2010.
“I looked at my brother and said, ‘This is not an academic exercise anymore. We have to do it now.'”
A huge part of Malô’s sustainable success is that locals see it not as an outside relief effort, but as a homegrown effort. To truly make a difference to their nation, Malians want to know that the rice they eat was grown in their own country by their own brothers, sisters, and cousins.
“We don’t want to see it as something people eat just to survive, but there’s pride when they’re eating our harvest.”
In only a few years, they’ve gone from working on a business plan late into the night, to establishing an infrastructure for Malô’s growth. In 2012, Malô completed its Pilot Phase highlighted by the successful market trial of locally produced fortified rice–a first in Africa. It also formed a partnership with a 30,000-member smallholder farmer cooperative (a third of whom are women) in Mali’s largest rice production zone and is building its headquarters scheduled to be complete in October. The headquarters (see pictures of the progress here) will be comprised of office space, a flagship boutique, and a storage and processing center capable of producing 3,000 metric tons of fortified rice, enough to feed at least 25,000 people. In addition to being a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, Malô was chosen by USAID’s Feed the Future Initiative to share their model and story in person with President Obama during his visit to Senegal. They are now eagerly looking to hire people with the same enthusiasm for helping a country rebuild itself through industry and reestablishment of community pride.
“Mali is a place that can be a symbol for post-conflict reconciliation and rejuvenation. We’re really optimistic about the future of not only Malô, but also the future of Mali.”