Friday, March 28, 2014

A success story?


The photograph was taken yesterday in Dakar at the 'La Vivriere' food plant. Its founder started with $70 and an idea and slowly has built up a substantial business. Her couscous is the leading brand in the local market and is exported to the diaspora especially in France and the Netherlands. She is expanding production and, to a lesser degree, product lines. She has been invested in by Root Capital, the US based impact investor focusing on agricultural value chains, one of our partners in West Africa. http://www.rootcapital.org/

It is an undoubted success story - Mme Coulibaly, the owner, is a successful entrepreneur, the business has sixty full time employees and by promoting a local product, using local grains, supports rural livelihoods and strengthens food security. This is certainly, and not unfairly, how it will be told in Root Capital's brochures!

However, you cannot advance without casting a shadow and in this case it revolves around the woman who, in one stage of the process of making couscous, knead and sift it by hand. This is a traditional skill that once every Senegalese woman would have had but no longer; hence, the demand for Mme Coulibaly's products. However, with rising demand and reducing skill, comes the demand to increase production and mechanise. Mme Coulibaly is off to Morocco to inspect a machine that supplants the women's handicraft. If she introduces it, the women will be unemployed. The most vulnerable will have been displaced.

The very process by which we have relentlessly monetarised our economy was vividly present in this simple example. The paradox is that at no stage can one say this move was wrong. For example, women should be empowered to enter the modern economy of a (slowly) developing city on an equal basis. Yet this moves takes away time to acquire a traditional skill, essential to feeding oneself, that is then outsourced to a commercial enterprise. And so on down the line.

It left me both pleased - by many measures this is a 'success story' - Mme Coulibaly is even exploring the use of solar power in her drying processes - but also touched with uneasiness. The interweaving of a modern economy is both an empowerment and a deskilling. We become necessarily more collaborative (though the balances of power in that collaboration are often dramatically skewed and dysfunctional) and yet less able to care for ourselves.

The displaced women will suffer even if and when the business grows and adds employment (more than likely of a more complex nature).

Thus, even in the simplest of stories, 'development' is complex. Every decision replete with unexpected consequence.

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