Social innovation, tech work together to break poverty cycle in Western Africa

Mohamed Ali and Salif Romano, founders of Malo Traders and 2nd place prize winners of the Dell Social Innovation Competition, share their story about how they have used efficient storage and processing technology to fight poverty and hunger in Western Africa.

“Our interest in food security and agriculture was instilled in us from a very young age. We grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where we witnessed the magnitude of poverty and hunger firsthand. Our parents constantly reminded us of how lucky we were to have a roof over our heads and enough to eat and stressed not only the importance of school but also helping those less fortunate. 

Fast forward to 2008 and to headline after headline of warnings about the Global Food Crisis, and the importance of farming and farmer wellbeing finally sunk in. We decided to learn more about Mali’s agriculture potential and decided to focus on rice given its cultural and political significance for billions of people. We learned that Gambiaka, a rice variety unique to Mali, was the variety most desired by Malians but due to really poor quality and unpredictable supply, consumers—even in rural areas—were increasingly turning to rice imported from Asia.

In 2008, Mali wasted enough rice to feed at least 580,000 people—4% of its population. And while the government and international organizations continue to do a good job of helping Malian farmers improve the amount of rice that is grown, not enough is being done to upgrade the country’s archaic storage and processing facilities. Mali has the land, water, and labor to be a rice powerhouse but unless investments are made in post-harvest technologies and services, it will continue to be a wasted opportunity.

Frustrated with what we learned about the status quo, we came up with an idea for a social venture committed to fighting poverty and hunger by utilizing efficient storage and processing technology. Being much more efficient would not only enable us to increase the quantity of edible rice but allow us to increase the income of farmers and the quality of the final product sold to consumers.

Seattle was the first place we had an opportunity to share our full business plan and we were fortunate to meet the Ultra Rice team at the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH). After that meeting, we concluded that minimizing wastage and improving the physical quality of rice was insufficient. If we really wanted to make a lasting impact, it was vital that we also improve the nutritional content of white rice. It is deplorable that millions of women and children die from illnesses that could be prevented by access to adequate vitamins and minerals. 

As such, our goal is to not simply create the first brand of Malian rice that adheres to international export quality standards but to fortify it with essential vitamins and minerals in a culturally appropriate manner. And it is not expensive. Based on our calculations, it would cost 60 cents per person per year—a cost we will not pass on to consumers. 

Ultimately our ambition is to redesign the rice value chain and raise standards in Mali so that both farmers and consumers can benefit. Smallholder farmers do not need handouts but an opportunity to make a living from their profession and land. Consumer don’t need subsidies and handouts either as long they are not paying exorbitant prices due to a broken value chain that wastes rice and doesn’t provide enough good quality rice.

As young Malian social entrepreneurs, we hope our fellow Millenials in Mali and other developing countries will use their skills, resources, and time to work towards breaking the cycle of poverty and misery by being social innovators. We are grateful to Dell and the RGK Center at the University of Texas for their generosity and commitments to helping us do just that.”

For more on Malo Traders, follow the brothers on Twitter @MaloTraders or join us at @Dell4Good.

About the Author: Carly Tatum