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“Quality is the key to success!”

Business leaders

Maïmouna Sidibe Coulibaly’s company Faso Kaba sells seeds of maize, peanut, rice and sorghum that are adapted to the Sahelian climate

© Abdoulaye Mahamadou

Maïmouna Sidibe Coulibaly

Maïmouna Sidibe Coulibaly explains how her company Faso Kaba, which means ‘corn country’ in Bambara, Mali, became one of the leading suppliers of improved seeds adapted to the Sahelian climate.

Whilst living in the US in the 1980s with her husband who was working as an agronomist, Maïmouna Sidibe Couliby discovered the use of improved seeds and returned to her home country of Mali with the conviction that there was a market for these varieties. In a region where farmers traditionally recycle their own seeds, it took her nearly 20 years to get the funding she needed to launch her business. Today, Faso Kaba is tackling low adoption of improved seed, and works with international research organisations, such as CIMMYT, the Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, to test new varieties.

In 2017, together with Professor Ruth Oniang’o, you won the Africa Food Prize. What is different about your seed company that made it stand out to the jury?

When I was in the US, I noticed that the farming plots and crop fields all looked as if someone had pruned them. I wondered why our fields in Mali were so irregular, with plants of different sizes in the same field, and why our yields were lower. I asked the question and was told that American farmers use improved seeds. So, I started inquiring about seeds, and I got interested in the work. I even worked at a seed company there. I decided that when I returned, I would sell improved seed varieties to help our farmers enhance their yields.

My company works with small packages of 1 and 5 kg packs, sold according to each region. For example, for a farmer in Banamba (a town in the northwest of the country), we have recommended varieties for this area. For a farmer from Sikasso (in the south of the country), we have varieties adapted to the local levels of rainfall. We sell what is appropriate for the production area. If you want to plant maize, we can suggest varieties that are adapted to climate change and low rainfall. We also have adapted varieties of groundnuts, maize, rice and sorghum.

What drove you to start your business and how did you overcome the challenges that you faced?

My mother was a farmer; I worked in her field, and I could see that her yields were low. In the US, I saw cornfields that were so totally different to my mother’s fields and those of other farmers in Mali. When I came back, I couldn’t get funding because nobody knew about the seeds I was selling. I went around all the banks, and they’d say, “Who’s going to buy cereal seeds? People are used to keeping part of the harvest and sowing it the following year.” I would tell them this is a lucrative business in America. Fields are cultivated specifically to produce cleaned, certified and packaged seeds for sale. But the banks wouldn’t believe me. Until the day I came across AGRA (the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa), who already worked in this area in East and Southern Africa. I met representatives of AGRA, who believed in my company, my ambition, my vision. They gave me a grant spread out over 30 months, and that’s what started me off. This was in 2007.

A year earlier, Sassakawa Global, a Japanese NGO, had guaranteed my first loan for 5 million CFA francs (€7,600). I needed to set up at least 50 rural seed sellers at village level, produce and sell 180 t of seeds, have a working office, staff, and be registered with the tax authorities with social security. I exceeded all these objectives.

As you have explained, you had trouble convincing investors and banks to help finance the launch of your business. What advice would you give young entrepreneurs who face the same problem?

You need a minimum of funds to get started, because investors don’t give anything to start-ups – they give money to improve or expand a business, but not to start it. You need to do all you can to start off with your own funds or look for credit from suppliers. And then you have to believe in yourself, to love what you’re doing. It’s perseverance and courage that can convince a donor to invest.

You started off selling selected seeds from your home. Now your business has grown considerably. On what did you build your success?

Quality is the key to success! If you don’t have quality, the client won’t come back. If you sell high-quality seeds, they come back, they tell their neighbours, and other clients come in turn. So your focus has to be on quality, on meeting your commitments, being available, explaining things properly to customers. We also sell 1 kg and 5 kg packets to be affordable to everyone.

Do you think that the evolution of digital tools and their place in agriculture concerns a seed company like yours?

Definitely, especially in marketing. If we can put our products online, people can see them, even if they live far from Mali. And if everything is well detailed and available, they can buy online. Today, we sell via mobile money transfer services. People call, we agree on the quantity, price, we give our account number or the phone number registered with Orange Money and the customer pays. We send them the package and they pick it up at their local village shop. This morning, I sold 250,000 CFA francs (€380) worth of seeds this way.

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