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. <<

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 Haby Koné Kouyaté, midwife at the health center in Boulkassoumbougou

Meet Haby Koné Kouyaté, midwife at the health center in Boulkassoumbougou

Every year, 5 May is dedicated to one of the most important professions in the world – the midwife. No matter where you live, the work of midwives is at the very heart of a family’s health. Their roles are multifaceted and comprehensive, but often underappreciated.

No one knows that better than Mme. Kouyaté Haby Koné, midwife at the community health center in Boulkassoubougou. Haby has served as a midwife and taken care of families in her community for more than two decades.

As a woman, I am proud of my job because I witness all day long the role that midwives play in the health of the family. We accompany pregnant women, newborns, mothers, and families during a very sensitive phase of their lives.

– Haby Koné Kouyaté

Though she has been dedicated to caring for mothers, newborns, and families for much of her life, it can still be a daily struggle. She notes that midwives like her often lack access to technical training and ongoing updates on health standards. She wishes they had more resources to advance in the practice of their profession.

The health center where Haby works in Boulkassoumbougou is a part of our participatory quality improvement program, so she does have access to these resources. They make a difference not only in her feelings about the quality of her work, but in the outcomes for her patients. Thanks to her, more mothers are completing all their prenatal care, coming to deliver at the health center, and returning for postnatal care and their children’s vaccinations.

But as she so effectively and kindly takes care of her patients, she still thinks about all her colleagues across Mali and across the world.

Haby counsels a mother on family planning options
Haby counsels a patient on family planning options

In 2021, the theme of International Day of the Midwife was “Follow the Data: Invest in Midwives.” The 2021 celebration was connected to the publication of a report about the state of midwifery practice around the world, and just how essential it is.

For Haby, the more attention that can be paid to the needs of midwives, the better. She believes more needs to be done, urgently:

I appeal to governments, civil society organizations, and partners to commit themselves to improving the technical platform and support for midwives, and to invest in building the capacity of midwives in order to save lives and improve the well-being of pregnant women, mothers, and newborns.

Together, we can hold policymakers to account and show that the numbers on the impact of midwives speak for themselves and that we need to invest in midwives for midwife-led care now and for future generations.

– Haby Koné Kouyaté
How a strong community health system keeps mothers at the heart of primary care

How a strong community health system keeps mothers at the heart of primary care

In March, one of our health center partners, CSCOMSEKASI, reported 2 new malnutrition cases. That may not seem like many, but malnutrition is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths among children under age 5 in Mali.

One of the areas served by CSCOMSEKASI is Sibiribougou, a peri-urban community. The health center regularly sees some of the highest numbers of malnutrition cases in Commune IV. Sometimes, it has the highest number of cases in all of Bamako.

One of the children who became sick in March was Natenin, age 4. She and her younger sister, age 19 months, live with their parents in Sibiribougou and participate in our community health program.

Our team quickly got to work to organize a nutrition demonstration, a strategy used to help mothers learn to prepare foods which support their children’s development. Led by a nutritionist from the national health program, the session showed mothers how to prepare a porridge enriched with local ingredients, like carrots and pumpkin.

Nutritionist speaking to mothers
The nutritionist speaks to mothers about providing the nutrients children need to grow

The nutritionist shared that a major factor in malnutrition is repeatedly feeding children the same foods, which does not allow them to have a variety of nutrients. The porridge mothers learned to make is prepared with affordable local products that are available year-round; it provides balanced nutrition that ensures the good growth of children.

We invited 25 mothers with children under age 2 from our program to come to the health center for the demonstration. They were joined by our community health workers, the nutrition staff at the health center, and other mothers from Sibiribougou.

She began by sharing the recipe, explaining the ingredients, quantities, and the method :

2kg of sorghum
2kg of wheat
2kg of fonio
1kg of corn
1kg of rice
5kg of baobab flour
10 carrots
1 medium pumpkin
1 tablespoon of salt
10kg of sugar
1 small container of peanut oil

Wash each grain well separately
Mix them in the same container and grind them
Sift the mixed flour and set aside
Sift the baobab flour well
Mix the two flours and set aside
Wash the vegetables well
Boil and mash them

Then, she got to cooking, inviting mothers to help her at each step.

Boil 10 liters of water in a clean pot
When water is lukewarm, using a calabash and a ladle, slowly mix some water into the flour mixture until blended
Pour the solution back into the pot
Mix and stir until a homogeneous mixture is obtained
Then add the mash made of carrot and pumpkin to the porridge and simmer for about 5 minutes.
Then add the salt, sugar and a cup of oil
Let stand a few minutes before serving

Then came the best part – the tasting! All the children attending enjoyed the portions they were served, giving their full approval of this new dish. Mothers equally approved. They not only liked the taste, but appreciated that the ingredients were local and accessible. These nutrition demonstrations not only give mothers access to important health information, it also facilitates a permanent change to more nutritious meals in their households.

At the end of the session, Natenin’s mother addressed the group. She thanked the nutritionist for sharing this information and advice, and with it, vowed that her children would never know malnutrition again.

When mothers are supported with information and resources to keep their children healthy, the results are astounding. While a 2017 UNICEF study found the national rate of acute malnutrition in Mali rested at 10.7%, we had just 14 cases of acute malnutrition among the 2,350 children served by our community health program in 2020. Putting mothers at the heart of health interventions works. Strong community health systems react quickly to community needs by keeping women and mothers at the heart of local, accessible solutions.