In 2016, Aïssata Diakité launched Zabbaan Holding – a company that makes juices from plants grown locally in central Mali by over 5,000 farmers.
Mopti region holds special significance for 27-year-old Aïssata Diakité. Not only was she born there, but the region is also home to Zabbaan Holding, her company that makes juices from bush plants. The business is even named after a local plant – zaban – which looks like passion fruit and produces sweet juice with an acidic hit that is extremely popular with children.
Diakité left the countryside to study for her baccalaureate in Mali’s capital, Bamako, before heading to Amiens, France, to complete an agribusiness course. But the place where she grew up was instrumental in her decision to become an agribusiness entrepreneur before setting up her own ‘ethical’ food processing company. “My business reflects my career path, my environment and my passion,” she says.
After completing her agribusiness degree, Diakité was encouraged by her family to look for a stable job. She landed a position at Afnor, the French certification body that certifies products to EU regulatory standards and issues the CE marking, which shows that a product complies with the essential requirements of the relevant European health, safety and environmental protection legislation. After 9 months, she decided to branch out on her own, turning the home-made juice recipe she had refined during her student days into a viable business.
Zabbaan Holding was launched in 2016, with initial capital of €200,000 – built up from her own savings and funding from a Malian State investment fund (Fonds de garantie du secteur privé du Mali) – selling a limited selection of juices. Diakité then secured funding from a British investment fund, as well as support from Mali’s private sector guarantee fund, allowing her company to develop a new range of fruit, leaf, flower and stem-based juice products, including ‘The Prince’s Secret’ (kinkéliba, ginger, hibiscus and baobab),‘The Duke’s Secret’ (zaban and baobab) and ‘The Queen’s Secret’ (hibiscus, mango and baobab).
All of the juices are made from wild plants from the African savannah, most of which have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. “Zabbaan Holding operates throughout the agricultural value chain,” explains Diakité. “We have more than 5,000 farmers across Mali supplying us, and we currently employ 65 part-time staff, including 35 women, to bolster our workforce during the fruit-growing season.”
Upstream of the value chain, the company guarantees product traceability by working with Afnor, which ensures that farmers’ cooperatives and the company’s suppliers are compliant with EU standards. In 2018, Diakité set up Zabbaan Equity to help farmers become better organised to reduce loss, and to deliver training in fruit picking and storage. The organisation spans farmers’ cooperatives, federations and partner consortia within the company’s supplier network. Its ultimate purpose is to help farmers ensure their produce is not rejected due to issues of non-compliance with required quality requirements, for instance.
Zabbaan Holding is currently developing its own labels, in conjunction with Afnor Certification, to strengthen its presence on the international market. “The label testifies that the products are traceable, sustainably and fairly produced, and nutritious,” explains Diakité. “It’s about deploying our own processes, practices and methods throughout the value chain.”
The company’s factory in Bamako produces between 10,000 and 20,000 bottles a day, selling its output across the Economic Community of West African States and Europe. “We work with delicatessens and restaurants in France,” adds Diakité.
The company’s success has not come easily. Other than the fruit, almost everything else – including bottles and labels – is imported from Europe. But it would take a lot more than that to discourage Diakité. “Difficulty is part and parcel of being an entrepreneur. Knowing how to grasp opportunities and surround yourself with the right people is vital.”