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Amber Waves of Gain: One Woman's Cereal Business Fights Malnutrition

An African cereal company is competing with international giants to fight malnutrition and build economic self-sufficiency.

Social businesses started by Westerners aren’t the only organizations changing how African development work is done. Africans like Marie Konaté, the founder of fortified cereal business Protéin Kisée-Là, are also creating social businesses that spur development. Konaté wants to be a role model for others.

“I wanted to prove you could start small,” she says. “I started with 400 euros.”

In 1994, Konaté bought an old milling machine from France and set it up in a market in Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, Abidjan. A privileged Malian who had spent years living in Switzerland and Brazil, she didn’t have any business training, but she knew she wanted to start a business in Africa and provide a social good. And she saw that “all the soy was going toward animal feed, while we have the problem of malnutrition.”

Konaté began by selling soy flour to bakers and market-goers. Then she started making infant cereals fortified with vitamins and minerals that she imported from abroad. Eventually, she obtained financing to open a factory manufacturing high-protein, fortified infant and adult cereals, and corn-soy blend for humanitarian aid.

Now, in the supermarkets of four countries—Ivory Coast, Senegal, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo—“there’s Nestlé, Dannon, and PKL. And we’re number two,” she says. And unlike the foreign corporations’ products, all of PKL’s products are meant to have a social impact: improving nutrition.

Critics of fortified foods in the U.S. allege that some foods have been over-fortified. This is not a problem in sub-Saharan Africa: In rural areas it’s common to find people suffering from goiters, the swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck caused by iodine deficiency. Folate deficiency causes birth defects and impaired cognitive function in adults. In Ivory Coast, more than 30 percent of children under five years of age are vitamin A-deficient, putting them at risk for infections and blindness. Malnutrition is implicated in about 40 percent of the 11 million deaths of children under five in developing countries, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund.

For a factory owner, Marie Konaté has an artsy, new age air. Tall and slim, she wore a traditional boubou gown when I met her on Abidjan’s industrial outskirts, her hair loosely pulled back. “I’m an architectural engineer, which has nothing to do with malnutrition, but I didn’t feel like building ministers’ houses,” she says breezily. “I’m African and I’m sick of hearing that Africans don’t do anything for themselves. We have the capacity, intelligence, [and] the means.”

Konaté says she wanted to add value to African goods that could be sold back to the population for a cheaper price than imported equivalents. In 1994, there weren’t any African infant cereal brands on the shelves, though the imported cereals are made mostly of corn and soy, which are grown locally, she says.

Like other sub-Saharan countries that have undergone recent civil wars, Ivory Coast has been off-limits for over a decade for most investors, businesses, and even NGOs. But PKL has weathered a military coup, a civil war, and last year’s post-election violence to fight malnutrition and provide a market to local farmers.

Westerners aren’t flocking to Ivory Coast to start social enterprises. And many well-off, educated Africans who might start such businesses leave the continent for better job opportunities in Europe and the U.S., in what has come to be known as Africa’s “brain drain.” Konate, who comes from a privileged family, lived abroad and almost never came back herself. “I never wanted to come home,” she says. “I cried when I left Brazil. [But] my parents educated me in the meaning of development... I needed to do something.”

Plus, Brazil had inspired her. “While living [there] I realized that Brazilians produce what they consume,” she says. “Africans export what they produce and import what they consume. [In Ivory Coast] we export coffee and cocoa and import rice. It’s absurd.”

Still, Konaté says addressing malnutrition is only part of her “social” goal. “Since these products are bought from local farmers, not only am I addressing malnutrition but I’m contributing to [economic] development,” she says. Konaté buys all her corn, rice and soy from Ivory Coast and wheat from Mali. “Everything I can buy here, I buy here,” she says. She has more than 70 employees.

“It’s a business, because it’s not charity, but it’s social because they are products that have been fortified and are targeted toward malnutrition and economic development,” Konaté says. She tries to make a healthy diet as affordable as possible and values the benefits she brings to local suppliers over simple profit margins.

Konaté has also spent years trying to influence humanitarian aid policy. Ivory Coast is currently undergoing a humanitarian crisis, as many displaced by last year’s post-election violence missed the planting season or lost their farms. Konaté says the World Food Programme could have a positive impact on the local economy if they bought food locally.

“We do humanitarian aid, the [corn-soy blend], but it’s very hard to supply to the World Food Programme because they don’t always buy locally,” she says. “Since there was war here they haven’t bought anything . When we ask them why they don’t buy here, they say they don’t buy when a country is undergoing a crisis. Now the country has come out of a crisis. Why don’t they buy? If they buy from the villagers, that can help restart the economy. I did a report showing when WFP buys $100, $60 goes directly into the pocket of the farmer.”

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition has provided financial and technical support to PKL. “We see value in a business like PKL, because it is a local business that is addressing malnutrition through a profitable and sustainable business model,” says Emilie Pasquet, a spokeswoman for GAIN. “The project is also helping to put in place national policies and legislation for fortified complementary foods for infants and young children as well as to stimulate markets for similar products..”

While most rural families still lack the financial means to buy packaged foods, PKL’s partners provide grants to help make the products cheap enough for villagers to afford them.

Critics might allege that a lack of fortified foods is not the root cause of malnutrition, but GAIN spokeswoman Pasquet says that fortified foods are an important part of the “package” for fighting malnutrition: “High-quality and affordable fortified… foods targeted at low-income families are part of a package of interventions that will help reduce infant malnutrition in Cote d’Ivoire,” she says.

Konaté thinks a business like hers challenges the prevailing wisdom of Africa’s agricultural economy. “In Africa… we don’t value our local agricultural resources,” she says matter-of-factly. “We don’t value our intellectual resources, our economic resources. It would be great if in each country we can create [appropriate foods] using what’s locally available. I want to create real multinational [company] that has our interests at hand.”

Photo by Laura Burke

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