Meet the women of Coopérative Bènkadi in Sanankoro

Meet the women of Coopérative Bènkadi in Sanankoro

One morning in March, at the beginning of Mali’s hot season, we went to meet Fatoumata to learn more about the activities of the women of Sanankoro, and their cooperative. Despite the blazing heat, 40° C (104° F) in the shade, Fatoumata generously welcomes us under the shade of mango trees, which offer a slight relief.

Sanankoro is a small community in Lassa, which is a quartier that sits high above Bamako on the outskirts of Commune IV. Like many peri-urban communities around Bamako, Sanankoro is remote with very limited infrastructure. The long and winding road to reach it climbs up the hills and cliffs north of the city, and along the way, the terrain changes dramatically. The earth becomes rocky; trees disappear, long ago harvested for charcoal and to clear land for cultivation. At this higher elevation, you feel surrounded by the haze and dust in the sky, and even the sun feels closer.

The women of this community are renowned for their bravery. Their primary livelihoods are related to agriculture, and they mostly raise groundnuts for cooking and groundnut leaves for animal feed, as well as keeping small market vegetable gardens and harvesting mangoes. But because they are so far away from town, they are forced to walk about 10km a day with loads of up to 50 kg on their heads to reach the markets down in the city. But the proceeds they make from selling in the markets are what help them take care of the basic needs of their households, including food, healthcare, and school fees for their children.

Fatoumata shares her experience living in Sanankoro, and how she first started organizing with women in her community:

I am Fatoumata Ballo Doumbia, I have lived here Sanankoro for 18 years now. Sanakoro is an area considered to be part of the Commune of IV of Bamako but it is neglected. There is a lack of health infrastructure, education, and even access to drinking water. We are forced to go to Lassa, at a distance of 6 km, to satisfy these needs.

One day, several years ago when I went to the health center in Lassa, I met women who told me about a social fund system that allowed them to develop and grow their income generating activities (IGAs) and meet their health needs.

When I returned home, I talked to some women in Sanankoro who bought into the idea. We then made the request to Mali Health to be accompanied in the establishment of our groups.

We set up our first savings group of 21 women. For 12 months, each time a member of the group had a need, she was able to take a loan from the either the fund for health needs or the fund for income-generating activities. Six of us were able to expand our activities by setting up a point of sale in town, and eight others were able to expand our space for market gardening.
At the end of our savings cycle, when we did the sharing of the amount saved, each of us made an overall profit of 12,500 FCFA (over $20)  from the interest on the income-generating activity loans.

With the success of this experiment, almost all women in Sanankoro and those in two nearby communities, Bankoni and Diakoni, have expressed their interest in our program and joining the next cycle.

So we went from one group of 21 women to 13 groups of 264 women! And we are currently in our 6th cycle.

After the success of their savings group activities, the women of Sanankoro, Bankoni and Diakoni asked Mali Health for help in setting up a cooperative. With the strong leadership skills and determination they demonstrated in the savings groups, we readily agreed to partner with them. The name they chose is Coopérative Bènkadi – bènkadi means coming together in Bamanakan.

Fatoumata explains how forming and operating their cooperative went for her and the other women in her community:

We decided that 30 representatives of the 13 groups would join to form a cooperative that produces soap.

In 2021, we received the training and material support necessary to develop our business. We gathered together to do the production regularly, always in the morning under the mango trees, because the soap will get too warm and will not be prepared properly in the heat of the day. We meet in Sanankoro, which is in between Bankoni and Diakoni Many of our members have a long distance to travel, and leave their homes before the sun rises to meet here at the appointed time. But we managed to produce enough to meet the soap needs of our 3 communities.

The income of each member of the cooperative has been increased on average by 35% from 0 FCFA for some to around 2,500 FCFA per week. These benefits are quite important for us for those who know the role of women in communities like ours. She is the one who completes the meal while the husband gives the cereal, she is the one who will have to meet her own health needs and those of her children, she pays for school supplies for the children as well as their clothes.

The soap that members produce is primarily for their own household use and for sale to their neighbors, because before now, soap was a relatively expensive resource that they would have to secure in Lassa, or down in Bamako. After their production activities, women divide the soap between their thirty members. Whatever they do not use themselves, they sell to their neighbors with a slight markup of 50 FCFA over cost, or about $0.10.

The impact of having soap so readily available has been remarkable and has had an immediate impact. Handwashing with soap prevents a significant portion of diarrheal diseases and acute respiratory infections – which are two of the primary causes of under-5 mortality for children in Mali, along with malaria and malnutrition. That’s why we say that soap saves lives – because in these communities, it does.

Other women in the cooperative have joined our conversation. When asked about what changes they have noticed now that they have enough soap, their enthusiasm and relief is clear. They specifically note two differences: that they are able to keep their homes much cleaner, and that there has been a noticeable reduction in illness among their children, and therefore fewer trips to the health center.

In addition, demand for their soap is extraordinarily high. The members of the cooperative use the majority of what they produce, but because of the remoteness of their communities, there is a significant potential market. As the only source of soap within 6km, they could significantly increase their production and sell in all three of their communities. They have already started to think about how to expand their production, but have faced some limitations, including finding a space to locate their expanded operations. The chef du village in Sananakoro offered them space in the community’s mosque, but it wasn’t big enough to meet their needs.

The chef du village speaks with Mali Health Director, Dramane Diarra.

They are encountering some other challenges, too. Despite their results, the demand for their product, and the welcome changes they have noticed in their lives and the health of their families, serious challenges threaten Coopérative Bènkadi’s progress and the future of their business. Inflation has increased the cost of their inputs, including the local shea butter that is the basis of their soaps. So they have cut back on their production in the hope that the prices of their materials might return to where they were – which unfortunately is not likely.

Fatoumata explains their current challenge, but also the opportunity:

Inflation and the high cost of living have dealt a heavy blow to our business; We can no longer produce as much soap as we need for our needs. Revenues have fallen drastically.

Our members are very engaged with this activity and we have more potential to sell our products because we have already been approached by resellers with whom we can collaborate. We need a boost to increase our production in order to satisfy the needs of our 3 communities and to supply the resellers.

If Coopérative Bènkadi could expand their production beyond their own needs and begin selling more of their soap, they could invest in a proper production space, buy more raw materials in bulk at a lower cost, and perhaps even add members to their cooperative – overcoming the obstacles they face, and even growing their operations.

The members of Coopérative Bènkadi prepared a proposal for how they would invest in their cooperative to achieve their goals, and Mali Health would like to help them.  Stay tuned while we work on a strategy for supporting them and all the cooperatives with whom we partner.

>> Update: Coopérative Bènkadi will be the recipient of the very first loan from Gaoussou’s Fund, created in honor of our colleague, Gaoussou Doumbia. To learn more and support this women-led solidarity fund, please click here. <<