Made in Mauritania: How one woman’s agribusiness is promoting local produce and blazing a trail for women’s entrepreneurship

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A Maaro Njawaan rice paddy in Mauritania

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — In a country where just 5 percent of top managers are women, Safietou Kane is something of an anomaly. Starting your own company as CEO at 23 years of age, on the other hand, might be considered remarkable in any context — male or female — but that is precisely what Safietou did when she founded her family agribusiness firm, Maaro Njawaan, in her hometown of Tékane in Traza, Mauritania, after completing her Bachelor of Science degree in International Business and Management at the University of Tampa in the United States last year.

Hailing from the fertile Senegal River Valley zone in the south, Safietou is no stranger to agriculture and was brought up keenly aware of the problems that plague Mauritanian farmers, most notably the lack of commercial outlets for their production and competition from imported agricultural goods, particularly rice. Like its regional neighbors, Mauritania consumes twice as much rice as it produces. Food imports have increased exponentially in recent years, particularly since the food crisis in 2007. As Safietou acknowledges, however, such a high level of imports often comes at the expense of local farmers and smallholders, whose livelihoods depend on rice.

Despite falling demand prices, however, Safietou saw an opportunity for her and her community, establishing a private company that would support local rice producers by buying their high-quality rice and then milling it in a local factory before packaging and transporting the product to stores in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou in the north.
Working along the entire value chain, Safietou’s firm is able to purchase rice directly from producers, regularizing production and providing stable employment in her hometown. It is widely recognized that nurturing national agricultural production has great potential for economic development and poverty reduction, particularly in rural areas, although Safietou admits that she was also motivated by other considerations.

“What we want to show is that high-quality rice is already available here in Mauritania, and [that] we should be proud of our local products.” As in many African countries, Mauritanian goods suffer from a poor image among consumers. Indeed, Mauritanians often deride their own country's products as being of lower quality, preferring to pay a higher price for rice from Asia.

Private rice companies like Maaro Njawaan are unusual for Mauritania, where a few prominent families dominate the distribution of subsidized foodstuffs, including rice, particularly to the poor. Safietou, however, does not want her product to be seen as a last resort by consumers who cannot afford more expensive imports. She is very proud of the fact that customers often mistake her product for imported rice: “It goes to show that it’s really a question of image,” she notes.

Recognizing that quality alone will not sell her product, Safietou decided to invest in a strong marketing strategy. In a country with high rates of illiteracy, Maaro Njawaan has had to be imaginative in getting its message across, engaging in social media campaigns, costly television advertisements, training employees on a “proud to be local” pitch, and developing flyers boasting the benefits of consuming Mauritanian rice: “Our product requires less water to prepare and contains fewer preservatives than imported rice, making it easier to digest.”

Safietou herself has been a key component of this marketing strategy. From blog interviews to blurbs on the Youth Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page, local and national media can scarcely help but notice Safietou’s achievements. This has not only generated publicity for her company, it also provides inspiration for women entrepreneurs throughout the country.

Mauritanian women have been entering the labor force at unprecedented levels since the 1980s, in the wake of a series of droughts and the subsequent outmigration of men in search of work. Despite being relatively new players in the market, the dynamism that Mauritanian women have displayed in embracing their new economic independence has been widely recognized, at a time when the private sector is increasingly viewed as a viable and lucrative source of employment for women.

Despite growing public support, however, Safietou concedes that some social taboos remain and that they can be obstacles to conducting business. In Mauritania, men and women generally do not mix socially and, although she would like to expand her business, as a young unmarried woman, Safietou would not feel comfortable traveling alone to represent her business in cities where she has no (preferably male) relatives who can initiate negotiations with vendors and suppliers. When opening her business in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, for example, she often had to rely on older relatives who could meet with vendors on her behalf.

Such complexities are compounded by her young age. She sometimes counters the perception that she is too young by dressing more conservatively or by adopting a more serious persona than perhaps comes naturally to her. “Until you’re married, you’re not necessarily respected,” she remarks.

Despite such social barriers, Safietou is not lacking in ambition: She plans to control the whole value chain by the end of the summer with the opening of a new factory in August. This will not only ensure that Maaro Njawaan can better control the quality of its rice (precisely why the product is only sold in company-owned stores), it will also allow it to employ and train more local people, a factor that is a high priority for Safietou and her family.

In the meantime, Safietou appears perfectly at ease in her role as CEO. As for the occasional gender imbalance, she maintains that it rarely bothers her: “I don’t think about it really. It’s more subconscious. There are just some things you have to do to get by as a woman.”

I think most women — Mauritanian or otherwise — can relate.


Safietou Kane, the founder and CEO of the
Maaro Njawaan agribusiness firm.


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