CIM’s Investment Manager in Mali, Mariam Niangado, talks about the local investment climate, challenges and opportunities of different sectors, and the transformational impact that our investments have.
How would you characterize the investment landscape in Mali?
We are operating in a fragile country where government control in the Northern region of the country is undermined by armed groups. Rural areas are not safe, so many have no alternative but to flee into the capital – Bamako. As the city’s population is growing exponentially, the poverty level rises steeply. So much so, that the average household cannot even afford local fruits and vegetables.
Besides threatening the security of the country’s population, those armed groups are trying to draw in Malian youth. Struggling to find a job, some see no alternative. According to the International Labour Organization, the unemployment rate amongst Malian youth is much higher than the average, 12% in the whole country and 32% in the capital.
Low levels of education amongst young people further hinder access to quality employment. Despite some improvements in the last decade, the education system is still struggling. During the rainy season, many educational facilities are closed for months because the rain floods the classroom – even in the capital. Moreover, according to UNICEF, over two million children aged between 5 to 17 do not go to school, and around half of Mali’s youth are illiterate.
Together with the SME financing gap, such an uncertain environment and lack of human capital creates challenges for the country’s private sector development. These are just some of the issues that we are aiming to address with the West Africa Bright Future Fund.
One of the target sectors for the West Africa Bright Future Fund is agriculture. What is CIM’s approach to investing in agriculture in Mali?
In Africa we say: if you want to change the life of women, invest in agriculture. Gender inequality in West Africa is devastating, and impact investors cannot look away. In most African countries women have the hardest lives. They are doing the hardest work in the fields, have the lowest income, and most of the time their husbands are the ones benefiting from it. Reducing gender inequality by giving women the same access to agricultural inputs, equipment, agricultural training enhances agribusiness productivity and strengthens rural economies.
It is women who are taking care of children and communities. In this way creating decent job opportunities for women empowers the whole society. Luckily more and more enterprises are willing to address gender disparities. Take for example our investee SCS, a mango exporter based in Kamale, the southern part of the country. SCS organizes women smallholder farmers into cooperatives and producer groups, trains them in sustainable crop-growing, provides timely access to the market and offers fair prices for their produce. Without management skills and training, these women would struggle to scale their production, but with SCS’s support, they can gradually transform their farms into well-organised enterprises. Furthermore, SCS has two young women in leadership positions. Such strong female management representation plays its part in the company’s growth and steady increase in annual production volumes. Fortunately, business owners in Africa are starting to understand that having women in leadership roles and management positions is good for business because of their exceptional performance. For instance, the latest report of Grant Thornton shows 39% of senior management positions in African businesses are now held by women, which is higher than the global average of 31%.
Within the agribusiness sector, we decided not to focus solely on established value chains. A narrow focus on mangoes, shea butter or similarly developed industries would simply not result in enough SMEs that would meet our other investment criteria. In these value chains, there are very large companies with financing requirements too large for us, and very small ones whose needs can be met by MFIs. Instead, for the West Africa Bright Future Fund, we are looking at promising value chains that are yet to grow and formalise. We can take the fonio grain production value chain as an example. The market for fonio is growing not only in West Africa but all around the world, as we learn about the health benefits of this ancient grain. And yet this value chain is still being largely overlooked. By investing in fonio we have a unique opportunity to create an impact on many levels. Most of the time fonio farming is done by women - the cultivation is very hard, as the grain is small and hard to work with. Even the processing is done manually. If we can finance the modernization of the industry women can avoid doing exhausting manual labour and use machines instead. Increasing processing capacity will increase exports and benefit the Malian economy overall. Malian agriculture is really diverse, but some of the agriculture is only emerging and this is where we can be most catalytic with our capital.
Another target sector of the West Africa Bright Future fund is waste management. Why is CIM investing in this sector?
The waste sector in Mali is underdeveloped. Garbage can be infrequent, and garbage can accumulate in open sites within the City and in the open countryside. Left as it is, this garbage is polluting waters and soil, and producing harmful gases. A functioning waste management framework can be transformational for society. With WABFF we are able to support those SMEs who are motivated to develop the sector.
One of our investees Macrowaste has the necessary technology, manpower, and drive to realise the social impact that is required to start dealing with this problem. Headed by two Malian Americans passionate to bring catalytic change to their motherland, the enterprise will build a waste processing unit by the landfill in Bamako. The entrepreneurs reached out to the populations in the villages and started to collect waste from them. Suspicious at first, these communities now view Macrowaste as their heroes. Moreover, people in those villages know that there are quality jobs waiting for them once the processing unit is ready. Macrowaste already has provided jobs to many young men and women, whose alternative options are limited.
The third target sector is clean energy. What is the impact of investing in this sector for Malians?
Over half of Malians don’t have access to electricity, and amongst rural populations, this number is much higher.
During a visit to one of our investees Access – one of the largest developers and operators of mini-grids in the country – we met people in the villages whose lives were transformed by the mere fact that they gained access to electricity. Their stories were similar: those young men have spent over 10 years in the capital, fighting for low-paid jobs to survive. As soon as they heard their villages are connected to power, they knew they could come back to their families and support them. Solar energy enables them to start a small business – become a tailor or open a small café. As renewables are cheaper than fossil fuel or biomass alternatives, farmers and microentrepreneurs can increase their margins and grow their businesses. Sun is a readily available energy resource in Mali – as emphasized in the recent COP26 Summit, it is up to investors to empower local social development that helps to preserve our shared environment.
What does private sector development in Mali look like?
Mali is a trading country. We have strong SMEs here who are taking care of imports and exports, but other business sectors are new to us. Yet people in Mali have a truly entrepreneurial spirit and are able to adapt to the challenges that the context brings. New economic sectors may only evolve gradually, but within a year or two, I am confident that we will have a lot more SMEs in sectors like waste management or clean energy.
Nevertheless, there are few peer investors to support us in providing “missing middle” loans. Mostly you can see big investors operating here with loans from €5 million, such as DFIs. Our SME investees are too small for them. Banks also can’t offer these SMEs suitable lines of credit – they only finance trade and are reluctant to try out new sectors. Besides, social impact is not their priority.
Only impact-first investors are able to make that shift. And it is exciting to be part of Cordaid Investment Management operations in Mali and to be pioneering in this.
Cordaid Investment Management’s (CIM) has been investing in small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in West Africa since 2016. Our first investments in Sierra Leone demonstrated the great potential of SMEs in the region and the transformative role that entrepreneurship has for the local economy and lives of individuals. In the past year, despite the challenges of a global pandemic, CIM’s portfolio in West Africa has shown significant growth. We now have 20 SMEs in Sierra Leone and 9 SMEs in Mali with a total portfolio size of €12.5 million.
Knowing there are sustainable businesses lacking finance to expand and flourish, CIM is launching a new West Africa Bright Future Fund (WABFF), contributing to economic development and building sustainable livelihoods in Mali, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, and Guinea. The Fund aims to fill the SME financing gap in West Africa, offering the “missing middle” loans from €250,000 to €3 million. The fund focuses on three sectors – agriculture, clean energy, and waste management – which have proven to be transformational for the region.
CIM aspires to contribute to job creation for women and youth in West Africa, combining loans with technical assistance and environmental, social and governance (ESG) development. To develop an investment strategy that will maximize social impact, CIM engaged an independent research team to assess the performance of the West African portfolio and the outcomes of our investments to date. Sponsored by Dutch Postcode Lottery, this project allowed CIM to gain valuable insights on how to maximize social impact in a fragile context.