Working with Malian women to turn a local resource, shea butter, into a tool for economic development.
Crossroader Didier Muamba can look back with great satisfaction on his time working with the women of Zantiébougou, Mali to found a shea butter cooperative. What was once a small rural women’s association has become a social enterprise bringing in $4,200 a month to more than 240 women in 14 villages.
“I’m proud of the experience, because it’s like I witnessed a baby being born,” says Muamba. “It’s something I really appreciated because it changed the lives of those women in general, and it’s something they can really be proud of having accomplished.”
Fresh from completing his Master’s degree in international development with a focus on cooperative management, Didier arrived in Mali in 2003 to start a Canadian Crossroads International placement with the Union des regroupements féminins de Zantiébougou.
The Union had been founded a few years previously to help local women generate revenue by selling shea butter, a product made from a nut which is used in cosmetics and sweets. The Union, however, had fallen into disarray. The funding that was used to create the Union was running out. Participation was weak, and there was not a sense of belonging among local women.
“There were four people working at the shea butter production centre who were the keepers of the project. It was really their organization,” says Didier. “There was not much participation from other women, except in selling their shea butter to the group.”
Didier and the members of the Union quickly got to work identifying the problems facing the region of Zantiébougou, such as education and poverty, and looking at ways of using the local shea butter resource to address them. They decided that the best way forward was to transform the Union into a cooperative for producing and selling shea butter.
“They were very enthusiastic about the idea of changing the organization because it was the only tool that they had to improve their living conditions. However, they did not know how to organize it, how to structure it or how to develop it,” says Muamba. “Transforming the Union into a cooperative was the main solution, along with others such as organizing the work, involving more people and focusing on local development.”
Didier worked with the women for over a year in establishing the Coprokazan cooperative, guiding them through the ins and outs of managing and developing their enterprise. Committees were established to oversee production and increase awareness of the cooperative. As well, Coprokazan’s members began receiving part-time wages to work at the centre. By the end of Didier’s placement, the cooperative had gone from four members to nearly 90.
“After 14 months of work, the cooperative became far more functional,” says Didier. “A certain amount of time was required to increase awareness of the cooperative and for people to learn their responsibilities.”
“And once we succeeded in putting these measures in place, we then had to look at developing markets,” adds Muamba. “We had helped them organize, but we had to identify markets, or it wasn’t going to work. It’s in that context that other [Crossroaders] worked with the women to identify and develop markets and that’s when things really took off.”
While the women of Zantiébougou faced many challenges, such as a lack of resources and infrastructure, Didier was impressed by their resilience and the strong community bonds that united them and allowed the cooperative to blossom.
“A cooperative cannot develop if its members do not feel a sense of solidarity with one another. That’s the first condition,” says Muamba. “The second is to ensure members feel a sense of responsibility: this cooperative is not a project that Canadians are running in Mali but an enterprise that belongs to you. That’s what enabled the women to realize that it was up to them to develop the enterprise, and it was up to them to figure out where they wanted to take it.”
“There were many people who had big dreams for the cooperative, but there were others who only saw it as an entity that allowed them to sell their shea butter,” says Muamba. “But it’s by dreaming big and being connected to one another, which allowed the women to develop this cooperative.”