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. <<

Collecting data and waste for Gnaman ni Sôrô ni Kènèya

Collecting data and waste for Gnaman ni Sôrô ni Kènèya

The following are excerpts written by Adam Aicha Hanne, an MPH – PharmD student who spent her summer practicum working with the Mali Health team in Bamako. She worked on the Gnaman ni Sôrô ni Kènèya project with the Community Capacity Building department.

The goals of the five-year Gnaman ni Sôrô ni Kènèya project are to improve community health by addressing environmental health hazards and creating opportunities for youth and women’s employment through waste collection, composting, recycling, and repurposing.

One of the goals of Gnaman ni Sôrô ni Kènèya project is to turn what is currently treated as waste into a useful commodity. Based on the Sustainable Community Project from GAYO in Ghana, we want to work with peri-urban communities to convert everyday trash into reusable products. But our very first step towards achieving our goal is to conduct research. Our research is composed of five analyses, three of which I am currently working on:

  • Waste composition analysis
  • Social norms analysis
  • Stakeholder analysis

This week we focused on the waste composition analysis as it is the most time-consuming and physically demanding one. Along with our team of investigators, we went into our target communities – Sabalibougou, Sikoro, and Kalabambougou – to physically analyze the waste generated by the homes participating in the survey. Investigators were provided with a spreadsheet that categorized the different types of waste that are typically found in waste sacs.

Teams of investigators were responsible for adequately weighing the waste sacs, identifying and segregating the types of waste, and documenting the weight of each type. The information will be used to used to identify which waste products are recyclable and the total waste per category will be quantified. Through our analyzes, we will understand the types of waste generated by the participating communities, and how their waste can potentially benefit them.

Learning from History

Adam Aicha Hanne

Last week I had an in-depth. fruitful conversation with my aunt and cousin about pre/post-colonial Mali. So, basically, our conversation was about Mali in the 1880s & 1960s. We spoke about how Mali was succeeding with the ruling of President Modibo Keïta. My aunty expressed that around the time of Modibo Keïta, Mali was functioning sustainably and the streets of Bamako were so clean. She emphasized how the community was centered around the culture, and how traditional ways were respected and followed as laws. For instance, people were frowned upon if they littered or did not contribute to community efforts to keep the country up to par. Mali was united regardless of tribalism or religious beliefs. After our conversation, she told me to take a look at Mali’s original constitution. Therefore, I focused on finding Mali’s first constitution right after gaining its independence from the French government.

However, during this research, I learned that Modibo Keïta had ruled as Mali’s leader during colonialism and post-colonialism from 1915 to 1977. But then my main question became who ruled Mali before colonialism in the 1880s? And what was the constitution or constitution-like understanding of the people of that time? I hope that my Bambara teacher who studies the history and social structures of Mali will be able to fill the gaps in the questions I have about Mali and its history. I honestly believe history is important to understand the future. My motto used to be don’t get stuck in the past but focus your energy on the future. That motto has always come in handy for me and has allowed me to advance in many ways in my life. However, as of today I now understand that it is important to look back at the past and analyze for what may have worked for people or communities and utilize those hidden gems in the future. I hope by revisiting the past I can bring to light the gems of the past to the future, and hopefully what I find can be helpful to my Malian communities.

Meet Bintou and her twins

Meet Bintou and her twins

In West Africa, and especially in Mali, it is customary to go door-to-door when multiples (twins, triplets, etc.) are born, collecting support from neighbors. The birth of multiples can be a significant challenge for families with limited resources. Through this porte en porte tradition, communities provide tangible support to families in need, but it is also a sign of solidarity and social cohesion. Indeed, this custom is also often followed even by families with multiples who are not in need, in which case it is said to ensure that the children will live a long life.

Bintou migrated to Bamako about eight years ago, settling in Sotuba, a peri-urban community in Bamako’s Commune I. She and her husband separated when she was 3 months pregnant with her twins, so she decided to leave her village, along with her three other children. A move to Bamako gave her a better chance of earning an income that would allow her to support all her children on her own.

When she arrived in Bamako, things did not go as she had imagined and she had difficulty finding a place to live. She stayed with a friend throughout her pregnancy, and though her friend didn’t have much, she took care of Bintou until she gave birth. After her twins arrived, Bintou did not want to be a burden, so she and her five children settled in a home that was unfinished. That’s when she began to go porte en porte with her twins.

Bintou carries her tray with all the items she sells.

But as the twins grew, Bintou decided to start selling earrings to make her living. Her friend encouraged her to join a Mali Health savings group in order to get the funds to start her project. So she did. Then Bintou was able to take a loan from her group to purchase what she needed, and started selling. She walks throughout her community each day, selling earrings and other items that can be difficult to find in her community, like toothbrushes and toothpaste, from a large tray that she made.

Now age 7, the twins are doing well and are enrolled in school. For the past year, Mali Health has been working with mothers like Bintou to ensure that the interruption caused by the pandemic does not push families further into poverty, or pose an additional risk to their health. Bintou received support to grow her business, and she has been able to expand into selling a wider variety of items. In the future, her goal is to move her small business into a shop of her own.

How women build the support and solidarity they need to stay healthy

How women build the support and solidarity they need to stay healthy

For four years, the savings group Belle Dame, or Beautiful Lady, has met every Thursday as a part of Mali Health’s women’s health financing program. Their story begins with Mme. Koné Djénèba Ballo, the group’s founder and treasurer:

Ever since I was a little girl, I have been active and taking the lead on every activity I was a part of – whether it was organizing groups or competitions between friends in our community. One day a friend invited me to her savings group on the other side of Sikoro, but it was too far from home. So I asked if a similar group could be set up for women in our area. The animateur agreed and asked me to invite my close friends for a meeting. After 3 meetings, our group was born and we named her Belle Dame.

– Djénèba Koné

Djénèba invited other women to join the new group and soon the word spread until they grew to 25 members. Every week, they gather at their president’s home and contribute 250 FCFA (about $0.50) each – half goes to their health fund and half goes to their business fund.

Mme Djeneba Koné

Today, Belle Dame is in its fourth savings cycle, which due to COVID-19, is unlike anything they have experienced before:

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected Mali, especially us as poor women. Its arrival slowed down our activities, our children no longer go to school, our husbands are unemployed. As for our group, we could not hold our meetings. There were prohibitions related to gatherings that affected us, but because we did not have access to our small business activities, the members had trouble collecting their weekly contribution. We all sell goods and food we prepare either in the markets or on the streets, but none of that was possible for a while. In a nutshell “the country was on a answering machine” and nothing was going well.

Personally COVID-19 had a large impact on my business activity, too. Before, I could make up to 15 000 FCFA (about $30) per day. Today I find myself in the best case at 2 500 FCFA (about $6) per day.

– Djénèba Koné

But after several months, their savings meetings resumed. Now, they have regulations for distancing and handwashing with soap and water, as their animateur instructs during the health sessions with the group. To help cope with the economic consequences of COVID-19, the group has granted loans to most members to help them strengthen their small business activities, or begin new ones that are safer during COVID-19.

Women are providing each other with the support and solidarity they need to stay healthy, not only during the pandemic, but long before it.

Members of the savings group Belle Dame gather in a circle for their meeting in the peri-urban community of Sikoro.

Djénèba and her husband live in Sikoro-Sourakabougou with their six children. Before her savings group, Djénèba was afraid when a health problem arose because she didn’t know where or how to get a loan to pay for healthcare. She would ask for loans from neighbors, but didn’t want to risk gossip or getting a bad name. On one occasion, she had to use all the funds she had for her small business, forcing her to close it and losing her only source of income. She describes the stability that her savings group offers her:

Thanks to my savings in the group, I can have money to solve my family’s health problems in peace and in the utmost confidentiality. I was able to strengthen my small business, in which I was prospering a lot. As a street vendor of cosmetic products, I was able to set up a small kiosk that serves as a store for my business. Now I can provide for my little needs and that of my children.

– Djénèba Koné

In addition to having a source for loans and support for her business, her group also provides health information and help preventing illnesses:

At the end of each cycle, we buy preventive products such as soap and bleach, then we share the remaining money with all members of the group. It is a moment of joy most awaited by the members, and an opportunity for each of us to be able to achieve something like growing our businesses, take care of our children or even to have fun. There has never been a shortfall, and in our group, we are all friends. I am very happy to be part of Belle Dame and I do not intend to leave her with all the advantages that I enjoy.

– Djénèba Koné

COVID-19 continues to disrupt life in Sikoro and across Bamako, but there are no relief programs to restore what Djénèba and women like her have lost. But the networks they built to help each other stay healthy and access resources before COVID-19 continue to serve them during the pandemic. We’re committed to making sure Belle Dame and hundreds of other groups keep going strong.

Come along to a SHARE meeting

Come along to a SHARE meeting

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the monthly SHARE group meeting in Sotuba is about to get started.

SHARE is our special savings program for pregnant women. At each meeting, women not only save funds for their maternal care and delivery, they also receive maternal health information, as well as sharing and receiving plenty of support. Everyone is welcomed warmly; there are plenty of chairs waiting and you can settle right into one and join the circle.

The meeting starts with the group’s facilitator sharing greetings and introductions. Today, the midwife from the Sotuba health center joins the meeting, as she often does, as well as the president of the ASACO, the community health association. The president is here to get to know the needs of women in her community and make sure the health center is responding to them. You see a few other women from the community walk over to join the circle too, just to hear the health information.

You notice that a few of the women have newborns and have already given birth. The women who participate in SHARE are at different stages of their pregnancy and the topic for discussion changes each month. The group facilitator reminds them of last month’s discussion and then she introduces the subject for this month. Because a few women are due soon, today the midwife walks women through what to expect during delivery at the health center.

She stresses the importance of planning for delivery early, advising women to think through all the details. She encourages them to choose the person who will accompany them to the health center, bring the funds they have been saving and their Mali Health card, bring at least five cotton cloths for the baby, bring soap to wash, and bring clothes for the baby and themselves to go home in. Throughout the conversation, women ask questions and the midwife occasionally stops to make sure everyone understands what to expect. She invites women who recently gave birth to share their experiences. She asks other women about their birth plans and questions they have about their preparations.

The midwife from the Sotuba health center explains what to expect when women arrive at the health center for delivery
The midwife from the Sotuba health center explains what to expect when women arrive at the health center for delivery

You can feel the relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the group. Even when the presentation concludes, the group continues to chat and those who have already given birth share stories and advice.  One of the women is pregnant with her first child and she seems a bit scared after listening one of the others talk about a more challenging delivery. Soon, the whole group notices her discomfort and begins to console and encourage her. She still has a few more months to prepare for her own delivery.

The purpose of the group is not just to ensure they have information about their pregnancies and make sure they are prepared financially, building relationships is just as important. Women in SHARE value the connections they make with one another and express their desire to support other mothers in their neighborhood. There is an openness among them here in this group that is unique; they don’t have many opportunities to talk with other women about their health, children, and lives. After their shared experience, they tell you how they feel like sisters.

Perhaps the most important relationship they build is with the midwife, which helps them build the trust they need to deliver at the health center with her help. The monthly talks provide a safe space to ask questions and get all the information they would not otherwise have, which also builds their confidence. Women note that their connection with her feels more like that of a trusted friend.

At the end of their meeting, you notice that saying goodbye seems to be the hardest part. Women linger and chat, checking in with those who gave birth, asking about someone who stayed home today. They all must get home to continue with their day’s chores, but they are soaking up every moment, until they meet again next month.

Pregnant women who are members of SHARE in Sotuba
Meet Oumou Doumbia, first president of the cooperative union

Meet Oumou Doumbia, first president of the cooperative union

Madame Oumou Mariko Doumbia was elected by her peers to be the first leader of the cooperative union in September. She lives in Sabalibougou, a peri-urban community in Commune V of Bamako, where Mali Health has worked for several years.

She is 52 years old and is married with seven children. Though she never had the chance to go to school, she has been a leader for women in her community for many years.

As she explains,

« In my community, so many women approached me for financial support or for other social needs. I managed to help many of them through my dyeing business, which I set up to create employment to help women in my community.

In the past, I had great difficulty meeting my needs and those of my children because our resources were limited. I have tried several different income-generating activities that were not successful. Having been through all this, it was easy for me to understand the requests of my sisters because I saw myself in them. »

But with a growing number of requests, Madame Doumbia was not able to satisfy them all. In 2015, she decided to establish a tontine with women in her neighborhood, hoping it would help meet their needs.

Over time, they encountered some challenges, such as when many women in the group became pregnant at the same time. With limited contributions, it became difficult for the tontine to cover all the maternal care and delivery expenses. They also struggled to cover the costs of health care for children, but the tontine continued serving its members.

It was 2016 when Madame Doumbia learned about Mali Health organizing savings groups in Sabalibougou to help women access healthcare. She invited our animateurs to come work with her group, which is how her collaboration with Mali Health began.

She notes how the partnership greatly helped with the challenges their group encountered. Their savings activities increased. Pregnant women receive all their maternal care throughout their pregnancies, and group members can access funds 24 hours/day for health needs. They also have more funds available for their income-generating activities. Thanks to their dedication, Madame Doumbia and her group were one of the first to pilot the cooperative program. They produce and sell soap, which has increased their revenue and allows group members to afford even more basic family expenses, like school fees for their children.

Mme Doumbia describes the changes this way :

« Personally, the support from Mali Health has enabled me to set up a system of social assistance between us women. I was then able to prosper in my business because requests are taken to the group and not me personally; so I can save more money for my family’s needs.

At the same time, I have enjoyed the consideration, respect, and trust of members of my community and political leaders. Political leaders rub shoulders with me regularly for electorate needs. Also, in the health sector, when setting up the new health association, ASACOSAB3, members of my group had the opportunity to make our voices heard and to fill 30% of the elected seats in the association. »

Mme Doumbia’s leadership continues to grow. Today, she is the president of the new cooperative union, a women-led grassroots organization created to support the cooperatives, developed by women in savings groups like hers. Focusing on peri-urban communities, the union currently has five member cooperatives from three different communities around Bamako. They named their union Keneya Yiriwa Ton, which translates to Promotion of Health.

Despite her experience and passion for supporting women in her community, she describes her initial hesitance at accepting the position :

« My sisters have given me the privilege of leading this union, and I accepted it with honor. At first I was worried, wondering how I could get out of it, because I haven’t been to school. But the capacity building trainings we received on leadership and business management made me a new person. I am proud to be at the head of this union. I will work to ensure that it is well-positioned to have a greater benefit to us women. »

Mme Doumbia and the other leaders have great hope in their union’s future and are determined for it to succeed. Noting the development of her savings group and cooperative in Sabalibougou, Mme Doumbia is sure that as they support more women, their strength and power will grow.

Union leaders are already determining how to support women’s leadership in their communities as well as the economic, health, and social well being of the union members. Mme Doumbia tells us, as they see it:

« Through the role that we play as pillars in our households, it is important that we prove that we have potential and that we are capable of change. This union is an opportunity to prove it. »