|November 10, 2005:
In Madame Sall’s third-floor apartment overlooking Dakar’s
busy Boulevard Général de Gaulle, a heart-shaped wooden
sign hanging over her small propane stove proclaims “Fatou’s
Kitchen.” The modest space is the center of a juice and syrup
business that Madame Sall has built up over the last five years. Her
genius has been to add value and convenience for customers who crave
the nation’s traditional beverage, but don’t want to go
the trouble of actually creating the drink from the red booms in the
Large bags of bisaab (Hibiscus sabdariffa) blossoms sit
in the corner next to buckets full of tamarind (Tamarindus indica)
pods and piles of ginger root. (“Bisaab” is pronounced
“BEEsap;” a final “b” is spoken with the
English “p” sound in Wolof, the dominant language in
Senegal.) The produce comes from several of Dakar’s markets,
or from her brother, who purchases them directly from farmers in
the Diourbel region, a couple of hours into the country’s
interior. In 2005, farmers trained by The Rodale Institute®
were included as suppliers.
“I prefer to buy directly from the producers,” she
says. “The product is higher quality, more uniform. All transformateurs
want to buy a uniform product.”
On her dining room table, she displays a broad spectrum of juice
concentrates of varied hues—orangeish-pink guava, deep crimson
bisaab, ochre ginger, green ditax (Detarium senegalense),
pale yellow madd (Saba senegalensis) , and golden mango.
She slathers glue on the back of a sky-blue label that she presses
firmly to a one-liter plastic bottle of bisaab concentrate.
The label reads: “JANA Sirop de Bisaab au gout nature”,
naturally flavored bisaab syrup. An owl surveys a green tree and
slogan at the bottom of the label: “Pour l’equilibre
des écosystèmes,” for balancing out the ecosystems.
Leveraging her way
Like many women throughout West Africa, Madame Sall purchases
produce and processes it into juice or syrup concentrate for sale
in the city. The production of value-added food products is central
to the livelihoods of most women and girls from all economic backgrounds
in crowded urban centers such as Dakar. Revenue provides them with
economic and social leverage in an otherwise male-dominated society.
Madame Sall moved to Dakar from the Diourbel region in 1986 to
start university. She married shortly thereafter. She shakes her
head smiling with disbelief at how time has flown, “Gaaw na
dè! It’s been fast!” Like many Senegalese women,
she belongs to a women’s group. In 1999 the group participated
in a training workshop on fruit transformation run by Winrock International
She later completed a certification program at the Institut de Technologie
After these two training programs she began training other women
in making beverage concentrates. She now works with a small group
of processors called “Saf Na,” the Wolof phrase for
She started small in her kitchen, making three bottles of tamarind
juice that she sold to friends. Then she made seven more, then 10,
then 20. Five years later, she makes about 600 bottles a month.
“I can’t make more than 600 liters. I’d really
like to make more than that.” Every Monday, Wednesday, and
Friday, she and three employees crowd into the small kitchen to
begin cooking down the produce and adding sugar. “When there’s
dittax, there’s a big demand and I have to hire another person.”
She sells the bottles for about $3 each. Every month she sells
out, mostly to several national grocery chains. She has a verbal
agreement with these markets. To formalize a contract would require
that she open a business account with an initial $100 deposit. Most
of the other women she knows making juice have similar verbal sales
agreements due to prohibitive banking fees. “I know many women
doing the same, but most are amateurs who make only 6 to 10 bottles
a month.” While this informal economy or “petite commerce”
is the backbone of trade in West Africa’s urban centers, it
is difficult to quantify and often overlooked by the government.
Even though she sells all that she currently produces, she complains
that penetration of the local retail market is difficult. “Conquering
the market is very hard, especially if you don’t have transportation,”
she’s found. “You have to survey the products on the
shelves, pass by regularly.”
Barriers separate food from the hungry
The logistics of small-scale production is also difficult. Madam
Sall’s ginger press is too heavy and bulky to bring up three
flights of stairs, so she has to grind the roots below before bringing
them up to her small kitchen.
And she criticizes the lack of government support for small-scale
entrepreneurs like herself. “People are suffering from malnutrition,
yet they throw away produce because there are no buyers! It’s
as if they don’t want Senegal to develop.”
She believes semi-industrial production spaces with food processing
equipment would allow entrepreneurs to get existing food to hungry
people in Senegal. “All the [government has] to do is help
us organize. We have everything we need here, so I ask myself why
people suffer from malnutrition!”
Madame Sall has met with the chief government official dealing
with small business activity, le Ministère de l’Artisanat,
to try to convince him of the importance of improving infrastructure
and capacity building for small-scale juice and syrup producers.
She would like to see additional training in production and marketing.
An incubator kitchen would streamline production and improve hygiene
during the transformation process from fresh produce to processed
Echoing the concerns of small-scale producers worldwide, she voices
her frustrations in trying to compete economically with industrial-scale
processors who benefit from economies of scale. “Sugar is
expensive for me, but the industries buy it a lower price.”
She’s been trying to get around this disparity for some time,
but expanding her market niche takes a discouragingly long time.
“It’s slow. Four years and you don’t move forward.
It’s really hard.”
Yet taking on the structural challenges and sticking with the fight
have raised her profile as a leader. The enormous spread of colorful
made-from-real-fruit concentrate bottles on her dining room table
belies the suggestion that her story is anything short of inspiring
to women and small-scale entrepreneurs throughout Senegal.