True is the saying: if you educate a woman you educate a nation. Today, all over Africa, women are rising up against all odds to address problems and provide solutions. One woman raising the flag high for Africa and women is Marie Diongoye Konaté of Mali.
Born in Bamako, Mali, Konaté studied in Switzerland. Trained as an architect and engineer, she lived in Brazil in the 1980s and saw firsthand how Brazilians transformed some of their nutritious agricultural crops like soybeans and corn into finished products – ‘while in Africa we usually export what we produce and import what we eat,’ she recalls.
Then she moved to Côte d’Ivoire to work on a government-funded soya project. ‘I thought it was a shame that in a country suffering from malnutrition, soya was only being used as cattle feed,’ she says.
So she asked herself the question: Why must African parents feed their infants imported infant cereal when ingredients are produced locally?
Let’s press the pause button: Do babies and toddlers in your country eat imported infant cereals or ones that are locally grown and produced? If imported, have you asked why?
She identified both a need and an opportunity to provide local homegrown (non-imported!) answers to widespread child malnutrition problems and decided to set up a local business, using local crop inputs, to produce highly nutritious fortified infant food, affordable to the African middle class: Protein Kissèe-La (Kissèe means seed in her native Bambara language).
Why must African parents feed their infants imported infant cereal when ingredients are produced locally?
‘Between local market sellers and giants like Nestlé and Danone, there was a gap to fill,’ she says. Konaté launched her business in 1994 with capital of CFA400,000($800) near the bustling market of Adjamé in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s capital. She used her own money to set up her small food processing operation, which became known as “an African miracle,” because big banks wouldn’t give loans to new small businesses such as hers, and she wanted to show it was possible. She later went on to establish a 5,000m2 factory in the industrial zone of Vridi. Protein Kissèe-La buys soya exclusively from local farmers and peasant producers and since 2012, PKL sells 300tn of Infant food a year, mostly in Côte d’Ivoire, but also in exports to Senegal, Cameroon and the DRC.
Konaté has faced several challenges in the past 20 years, including huge international competitors, post-election civil war and economic turbulence, but one of the biggest crises that nearly sunk PKL about 10 years ago was when multinational Trafigura dumped toxic waste metres away from her baby food factory. ‘We were producing infant cereals…We had to shut down for a while”, she says. It was tough times for PKL and though they have not fully recovered from the impact, they have managed to stay afloat. This is probably one reason why Konaté is nicknamed ‘L’insubmersible’ meaning ‘The Unsinkable’.
She used her own money to set up her small food processing operation, which became known as “an African miracle,” because big banks wouldn’t give loans to new small businesses such as hers, and she wanted to show it was possible
She says her best weapon is “ethics.” The message to fight corruption is posted on all of PKL’s walls: Refuse to be corrupted. It is the best investment you will ever make!
Currently, an alliance of international organizations and development foundations are now calling for Marie’s super-cereal to be rolled out in schools. This is because Protein Kissèe-La cereal is supplemented with powdered vitamins provided by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). ‘Many people in our country don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables and overcooking their food leads to the loss of valuable vitamins and minerals. Cereal belongs to the daily diet of many people here. My cereal not only changes eating habits, but provides all the nutrients people need,’ said Konaté.
Marie Diongoye Konaté is addressing the problem of malnutrition and hunger in the Ivory Coast and surrounds by providing a cost-effective, homegrown, fortified cereal for children.