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Entrepreneurs in Mali

Being able to read and write is not essential to success in business – as resourceful entrepreneurs in Mali show






Her realm: Awa Diakité (standing) in her textiles business.

• Being born a girl in Mali means you have been dealt a poor hand. Statistics suggest the only plenty in your life will be a wealth of children – six on average. The United Nations figures make gloomy reading: half the population earns under the World Bank global poverty line of $1.90 (£1.50) a day and only a third can read and write. For women, that figure drops to one in five.

And yet everywhere you go in Mali’s busy capital, Bamako, you come across women travelling proudly to their shops and businesses, often on their own motorbikes, some even by chauffeur-driven car. “My parents did not send me to school,” says 45-year-old Awa Diakité, adjusting her green hijab round her face. “They thought I could be successful without going to school.”

Diakité’s stall is in the middle of the great market in the Badialan quarter: a huge maze of covered alleyways thronged with traders’ wares, customers, messengers and porters. “I am the boss here,” says Diakité, watching the hustle and bustle from a stool. “I know this place inside out.” She is far from being an isolated case. Many high-turnover businesses, not just in Mali but across west Africa, are run by women who have never seen the inside of a school. They sell everything from fine food to fabrics, jewellery and cosmetics, and run all the beauty salons, full of adverts of young women posing in luxurious surroundings. A mother usually bequeaths her business to her daughter or granddaughter. Diakité took over her textiles business from her grandmother, who was also unable to either read or write.

As a middlewoman, Diakité specialises in damasks, which are very popular in Mali and neighbouring countries, where they are known as bazin. In her tiny stall, measuring barely five square metres, rolls of fabric are stacked high on all sides. Some glisten in brilliant tones of violet, orange or green; others have batik patterns, embellished with appliqué. “My customers are the small traders from the neighbourhood markets,” says Diakité. “So I mustn’t make my profit margins too high or they will buy from my competitors.”


Street scenes in Bamako, capital of Mali. The west African country has a population of about 18.6 million.

But how does she work out her margins? How does she pay her taxes without keeping written accounts? How does she calculate her exports to Guinea or Nigeria? Diakité smiles. “Hardly anybody in this market keeps written records. I have learned to work everything out in my head.” All she needs are her fingers. Her grandmother taught her to understand the decimal system from tens to thousands. Diakité learned from her as a young girl to keep figures in her head and use her fingers to add or subtract. She hardly ever makes a mistake, as the cash register proves, and she earns more than her husband, a building contractor who also rents trucks. “Women are smarter at business than men. We know better how to hold on to the money. That is why I am the financial boss in my family.”

A feeling for money

There are many success stories of women in the textiles business in west Africa. In the 1960s, the major textiles traders in Lomé, the vibrant capital of Togo, were called “Mama Benz” because they were some of the first African women who could afford a Mercedes. Diakité has not made it into that league yet, but her income allows her to rent a spacious flat for her family and her parents. And she can pay for expensive necessities such as glasses for one of her daughters without taking out a loan.

The most important thing for her business is trust, says Diakité. She strokes the wall of cloth with something approaching tenderness. “I keep most of the stock on a commission basis. My wholesaler keeps the books – and I trust him.” But she knows she cannot do without some kind of control. Diakité employs someone to keep track of quantities in a school exercise book. Once a year the taxman turns up and estimates her turnover. Last year she had to pay the equivalent of €190 (£170) to the state and the rent for her stall came to €130. These overheads are included in the prices she charges. “I learned from my grandmother how to calculate them roughly in my head. My calculations also include the plastic bags and the cost of lunch.”

Diakité is frank about not being able to read or write more than a few simple numbers. Of course, the entrepreneur says, she would have liked “to go to school, like the rich girls” but she does not feel a victim of discrimination. She talks proudly about her export business. Once a year she makes a trip of several weeks to Kano and Abuja in Nigeria. “It is difficult for people to get bazin fabrics there, so I can make big profits.” Does she speak English? “No, but we Africans have so much in common in everyday life that we can still get by with some broken English and a bit of sign language.”

Before setting off, Diakité works out how much cloth she has and the cost of transport, customs duty and renting a stall at the local market. Market research with the help of local contacts on the spot is vital. “You have to know what colour shades are in fashion there.” Fashions change every year and so every year she changes the formulae for dying the bazin fabrics in her yard because the fabrics imported from China and Germany come undyed. “That is something nobody can learn at school.”

Aïcha Touré is another businesswoman who sets great store by qualities not based on formal education. “First, I try to engage the customers in a conversation,” says 28-year-old Touré, flashing a film-star smile. In Bamako’s Baco Djicoroni district she rents out flats to business people and other travellers, relying on word of mouth for her advertising. Her contracts are verbal agreements based on mutual trust –with cash up front. It’s a system that works. Touré serves cola in her spacious air-conditioned flat, which boasts a terrace and wide-screen television set, as she talks about her business trips. “For years I bought great bundles of second-hand clothes that came from Europe and took them to Bamako by bus.” She sold her ready-to-wear goods to neighbours. After a time she had made enough profit to buy a flat – and then another, and then a third. Taking the reporter’s notepad, she shows she can at least write her own name, letter by letter. It looks as if she is painting. Then, smiling broadly, she holds up her smartphone. “I don’t write any messages, but I always ring back straight away when I get one.” Her profits also support her mother and a younger sister. “My sister is learning from me how the market works. She plans to open a restaurant.”

In Mali any kind of work in the health or administrative sectors is closed to people who have not been to school. But most people earn their living in the informal economy. At roadside stalls, people with no formal training will repair your smartphone in an hour or two and only charge a few cents. They rub shoulders with photo studios equipped with just a cheap digital camera and a backdrop. Mobile street kitchens are still offering warm meals at 1am. “No matter what you do,” says Diakité, “you have to watch the older ones at work to get a feeling for money. Otherwise, you might as well close your business straight away.”

She wants her own children to have better chances in life, so she is sending her two daughters and two sons to school. “I want my children to work for the state. I want the older girl to study in America. The other one will take over my business.” Her daughter may not earn more from having gone to school but she will be able to use a computer to calculate what Diakité still has to work out on her fingers and thumbs.