In 2013, amid the political and military turbulence of West Africa and with few resources, Aminatou Touré Souley founded Sahel Infusion. Her vision was to utilize locally grown natural ingredients to blend a range of healthful infusions.
Today her company employs 50 people and operates a factory that processes, packs, and distributes 5,000 cartons of herbal teas a month, output she expects to double in 2019.
Mali is a former French colony of 480,000 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) with a population of 18 million. It is the remnant of an ancient and advanced culture that enjoyed a golden age of literature, art and commerce in the 1300s. An insurrection in the northern provinces and military coup in 2013 led the French to return to defeat rebels and return the country to democracy first established in 1991. Many there continue a nomadic life, only 17 percent of residents have access to electrical service. The desert can be hostile, but arable lands are productive with irrigation.
“If we want to end poverty, we have to patronize and increase the consumption of local products,” Touré Souley told the French language publication AgrinTalk.
Touré Souley explains that her choice of business was born out of a need to innovate; to take something that was part of the Malian culture and make it better. She also wanted to do something different from other start ups in Mali. “We had the idea to create this unit because we realized that the local raw materials were really under-exploited and that we used the gigember, bissap and other plants mainly for juices. We wanted to make another use of these products with infusions. This solution is innovative and has been highly appreciated,” she said.
“To guarantee the quality of our products, we strive to work with local producers, in close collaboration with many partners: cooperatives, supermarkets, distributors and agronomic research centers. Thus, we assure our customers fresh products, ready to release all their strengths and all their flavors,” she told AgrinTalk.
It took a year to develop sources and equip a factory with financial assistance from a Danish government and private initiative known as PACEPEP (Programme d’Appui à la Croissance Économique et Promotion de l’Emploi stimulées par le Secteur Privé du Mali).
“Production really started in 2014. Undertakings in Mali are not easy at all. The beginnings for us were very difficult because people were very skeptical about the fact that the products are natural, and they had doubts about the quality. But as we went along, we changed mentalities through tasting campaigns that we conducted, we went to the public to introduce the product to people and today our image is very good,” says Touré Souley.
The company sells most of its teas near-by but intends to expand with newly opened offices in Burkina Faso and Niger. Exporting to Europe and beyond is the next goal with third-party certifications underway.
Morocco has long been the bastion of green in the black tea dominant Middle East, but Mali also enjoys the pleasant brew of mint and Chinese gunpowder tea. Since the liberalization of the market in the 1990s, the amount of green tea imported from China to the Sahel has dramatically increased, writes Mamadou Diawara in the Canadian Journal of African Studies.
The tea was introduced early in the nineteenth century by Moorish traders from Morocco and has since become a mass market favorite in the Sahel and the adjoint Savannah regions. Originally sought as a beverage with medicinal and vitalizing properties, it was adopted by the aristocratic urban elite in Sahelian trading towns, and much later via the pastoralists by the general population, while spreading out further south, writes Diawara. It is now the most popular tea in the capital city of Bamako where it is taken with copious amounts of sugar in traditional Moorish fashion, writes Diawara.
Aminatou Touré Souley is an example of female entrepreneurs unlocking Africa’s potential.
In a Forbes profile this month Anita Erskine, a producer of the television series “Making of a Mogul” in Ghana, offers this recipe for success: “First, make sure we recognize the beauty and potential in the people, places, foods, and culture,” she says.
Erskine observes that “everything is exportable” but cautions that you need to focus on the reality.
Erskine believes, “you need a certain level of humility. It allows you to see what others just walk past because it’s too low for them to bend down and pick it up. That’s where the real money is.”