Senegal: Woman entrepreneur and local start-up make fruitful partnership

| January 30, 2017

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Mariama Diouf is a busy woman. Inside the headquarters of her small business, the 50-year-old boss glances under her glasses, scrutinizing bottled samples of her company’s local juices.

She explains, “I also check to make sure that everything is clean and that the juice bottles have not accumulated dust.”

The business is earning Ms. Diouf a good income—and her small-scale fruit suppliers, too— thanks to a partnership with a local online retailer.

In 1997, Ms. Diouf launched a company called Maria Distribution with only 10 workers. The small business now employs 40 full- and part-time employees, most of whom are women.

The company’s small factory is located ​​in Thiaroye, on the outskirts of Dakar. This Saturday morning, three young women wearing white coats and protective hats are busy making bissap juice, one of the company’s top five products.

To make bissap juice, the workers soak red and white hibiscus leaves in large basins of water for a few hours and then filter it. Before bottling and labeling, they pasteurize the juice.

Maria Distribution makes up to 30 tonnes of bissap juice per month. But the company’s most popular product is detakh juice, made with the dark green fibrous pulp of the fruit of the detakh tree, or Detarium senegalense.

Ms. Diouf has signed contracts with a dozen small-scale fruit producers to provide the fruit for these juices. For the farmers, the steady income is a breath of fresh air.

But the entrepreneur didn’t stop there. In 2013, Ms. Diouf formed a partnership with an online store called Sooretul, which means “It’s not far” in the Wolof language. Four young Senegalese engineers started Sooretul in 2011. The start-up is the first Senegalese website to sell processed local products online.

Awa Caba is a co-founder of Sooretul. Ms. Caba says maintaining the website is a daily challenge, but one that is worthwhile because it promotes the consumption of local products that benefit small-scale farmers.

She explains: “I’ve traveled through Senegal. I participated in many fairs when I was a student. I saw the difficulties that women have to face to sell their [fruits], even when they can process them into juices. And often, they are very poor women. So, with a group of friends, I decided to create an online sales platform to give these local processed products more visibility. Thus, the more people buy, the more these women small-scale producers can process their products and make a profit.”

The partnership with Sooretul has allowed Ms. Diouf to sell her products to a growing and increasingly demanding Senegal middle class.

For Ms. Diouf, Sooretul is only one of many projects. Her head is teeming with ideas. In the future, she wants to see canned versions of her local juices line the shelves of large, urban stores next to popular cans of soda. And that would mean more contracts with the small-small farmers she works with.

Before launching Maria Distribution, Ms. Diouf worked as a secretary and had a monthly salary of 250,000 CFA francs ($410 US). Now the entrepreneur makes more and better for herself. She explains: “One of my goals was to make a monthly salary of two million CFA francs (about $3,300 US), like my bosses used to make when I was a secretary; but I am still far away…. I hope to get there by producing canned versions of my local juices.”

For now, there are no financial supports to help her modernize her factory. Ms. Diouf wants to purchase larger processing machines and cold storage rooms to store seasonal fruits such as mangoes. Expanding her business would allow her to tap into the lucrative European and US export markets. She explains, “My ambition is to export 50 to 60% of my juices. […] I want to leave the local market to smaller businesses.”

All in all, Ms. Diouf has done well for herself. She says: “Before, I did not have a car; now I have one. I can even afford to travel abroad. I also help my family, because, as you know, the weight of family and social pressures in Senegal is important. I’ve succeeded in finally having a good salary. After twenty years of sacrifice, it was about time.”

To hear Ms. Diouf talk tips for new entrepreneurs, click here (in French only).