It’s 9 a.m. on Friday and the December sun is barely visible. At Château market, the second largest market in downtown Ségou, 240 km from the capital of Mali, buyers bargain and street vendors sell their wares. The butchers’ square is crowded and customers bustle and call out their requests.
In the middle of this hubbub is Néné Traoré, who travelled to the market from the city of Markala, 35 km away. She is holding her weekly meeting with the 20 potato sellers in her potato sellers’ cooperative. As she does every Friday, Mrs. Traoré is collecting money from the sellers, and taking their orders for her weekly purchase on Sunday.
It has been exactly two years since Mrs. Traoré and these women formed their sellers co-operative. Previously, each woman bought her potatoes individually from wholesalers, but their income suffered due to high prices and transport costs.
Mrs. Traoré explains: “We don’t have a lot of money like men. Wholesalers buy their potatoes in large quantities, so they get a discount. When women get small orders from wholesalers, we can only re-sell them for 50 FCFA (less than US$1) per kilogram. This does not allow us to meet our needs.”
In Mali, potato sales are dominated by men. Women potato sellers generally earn lower incomes and cannot afford to buy in sufficient quantities to make a good profit. Therefore, they buy small quantities of potatoes from wholesalers at high prices.
To address this situation, Mrs. Traoré and her fellow potato vendors created their co-operative to make group purchases. The co-operative is called CESIRI, meaning “courage” in Bambara, a language widely spoken in Mali. Through a group purchasing arrangement, the co-operative allows each woman to increase their profits.
She explains: “Every Friday, each woman pays for her order. Then I make the trip with the truck, sometimes to Bamako and often to Sikasso, where the male wholesalers from Ségou themselves get their supplies. Back in Ségou on Sundays, each woman picks up her order. With this system, we earn more than 150 FCFA (approximately US$0.26) per kilogram.”
Mrs. Traoré doesn’t earn anything by making the trip, though her costs are covered through the co-operative’s petty cash fund, to which each member contributes 5,000 FCFA per month.
Besides buying the potatoes, Mrs. Traoré and her friends have invested in a system to keep the produce safe from heat damage. During the hot season, many women watch helplessly as their potatoes rot in poor storage conditions, ruining their businesses. To prevent this, the 20 members of the CESIRI contributed 10,000 FCFA each to make a giant wooden display with a ventilation system where the members can keep their potatoes fresh during the extreme heat.
Mrs. Traoré says the system was inspired by the cabinets often found in household dining rooms. When completed, the storage system will be a series of covered wooden compartments connected by wire mesh. The darkness will keep the potatoes fresh, while the wire mesh will allow air to circulate freely and help prevent them from rotting.
Mrs. Traoré says: “With this system, the women can store the potatoes in the market and sell them gradually without suffering too much loss.”
The completed system will stand in Château market, where it will be accessible to all the co-operative’s vendors.
Justin Thera is the newly-appointed Regional Director of Agriculture in San, a town in the Ségou region. He says that women at all levels of potato marketing face enormous challenges and are often unable to make ends meet. He suggests that women form cooperatives like CESIRI as well as seek technical support on purchasing and storage, which are two of the biggest problems for women vendors.
Faced with these many challenges, Mrs. Traoré invites women potato sellers throughout Mali to unite. She says, “If we agree to come together and form a single group, we can achieve economic independence from men.”
This resource was supported with the aid of a grant from The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) implementing the Green Innovation Centre project.
Photo: Mariame Samake, a member of the CESIRI cooperative, sells her share of potatoes at market. Credit: Dioro Cissé.