interviewBy Julie Strupp
Aspen Institute 2013 New Voices Fellow Salif Romano Niang is the co-founder and chief impact officer of Malo, a company working to revolutionize the rice industry in Niang's home country of Mali. Niang created a new model of rice production and marketing across the entire rice value chain that supports small-scale farmers and their communities. Niang has a BA and MA from Purdue University in political science and French, a minor in economics, and is currently a Ph.D candidate at the Department of Political Science. His research and teaching has focused on conflict, stability, the gap between rich and poor nations, and social entrepreneurship as a modern approach to wealth and peace. Niang has received prizes and awards in a variety of competitions, including the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition, the Pace Pitch Contest, Temple University's Be Your Own Boss Bowl, and the Dell Social Innovation Competition. He is also a founder and board member of Tambaroua Business Farming. Niang sat down with AllAfrica's Julie Strupp to discuss his new fellowship with the Aspen Institute and his work with rice farmers in Mali.
Tell us about your project.
The name of my company is Malo, which means rice in the Bambara language in Mali and other parts of West Africa. Essentially what we're trying to do is take the world's most consumed staple food and turn it into a product that produces nutritional benefits for consumers, that provides farmers with a decent wage, and also provides other products such as fertilizer, animal feed and cooking oil. We're really trying to make rice the engine of development.
How did you get interested in rice agriculture?
My interest in food security and agriculture goes back all the way to when I was a little kid. I grew up in Ethiopia and my dad was a United Nations food security expert and diplomat, so food security was always something I was interested in. But for this project, what really motivated me and my brother, a co-founder of Malo, was the world food price crisis in 2007, which affected rice farmers in Mali. The economy of Mali is based to a large extent on agriculture and a lot of the farmers cultivate rice. My background is in political science. I studied political violence, terrorism, civil war, coup d'etats and my hunch was that if this continued in Mali it would lead to unrest and would put our democracy at stake. So a lot has happened since then, but that's what got my attention. I began looking at the problem and why Mali cannot feed itself.
Tell us more about those challenges.
Very briefly: the lack of proper storage and processing ability for farmers, lack of general infrastructure for the farmer to get their harvest to market on time, and very few modern mills. Despite farmers being able to do a very good job of growing the rice, everything breaks down around harvest. So we began working on a plan called Malo traders to look at how can we bring appropriate storage and processing facilities to Mali in a way that is fair for the farmers, and we began to share these ideas with the experts. We learned white rice is not healthy and we strip away a lot of the vitamins and nutrients during the processing. So countries like Mali that have people who depend heavily on white rice, and don't have access to meat or vegetables or other sources or nutrition, have serious nutritional problems, even if their bellies are full every day.
So, having learned that, we came across a method of fortifying rice in a way that is culturally appropriate and cost effective called, "ultra rice". I'm working with some scientists who have developed the technology in the last 10 years. We then figured out how to produce ultra rice in Mali in a way that is market driven, considering our constraints and given our conditions. We don't want it to be an aid project; we don't want it to be something that's imported. We asked, 'Can we produce ultra rice in Mali purely based on market principles?' And the answer is yes.
How is the Malo model different from the current rice farming structures?
Our model takes the best of what works and adapts it to the landscape of Mali. Right now, 80 percent of the rice that's grown in Mali is processed by the farmers themselves. So farmers are using these small, eco-powered mills, sometimes they get together in co-ops, and that's how they process it. These mills are highly inefficient, they're essentially obsolete technology, some of them have waste of up to 45 percent. So in terms of competitors, this is who we're competing against: farmers that have no choice but to mill their rice on their own. So our proposition to farmers, in working with a 30,000-member farmer co-operative (a third of which are women) is: you do a fantastic job of growing rice. You should not be processing, you should not be storing, you should not be marketing, you should not be distributing - that is not your job. You should not bear that risk. Farming is risky enough, why don't you focus on growing the best crop you can and we take care of the rest.
So that is our model compared to what's currently going on in the world right now. Malo is really about forming a strong collaborative partnership with farmers, but in an entrepreneurial and for-profit manner. We're not here for two years as part of a project, we want to be here for 100 years and that's something new for our farmers. We are Malians who are young, and they get the sense that we're serious and they really respond to that. We're looking forward to the harvest that's coming up in the next few months.
What is your long-term vision for Malo and for the rice industry in Mali overall?
In a nutshell, we want fortified rice to be an industry standard, there's no doubt about that. We don't want it to be government imposed. If the government mandated it, basically everyone would be committing a crime. We want to make this an industry standard created by market forces. It's unacceptable that in 2013, 45 to 50 percent of the rice that's grown ends up being wasted. It just makes no sense from an economic standpoint, and it makes no sense from an ethical standpoint. So we really want to lift the standard of the quality of rice in Mali. Right now there are no brands of rice. Rice is treated as a commodity. If you go to a market you take a little bit from that pile, take a little bit from that pile, you bring your own bag, you put it in and take it home. So what we're doing is we're creating the first brand of Malian rice where when you buy a package you know what you're getting, the quality controls are tested, it could be in a shop in Paris, it could be in a shop in New York, it could be a shop in LA. And we're providing that to folks in Mali at a price that's affordable, without charging a premium. You don't have to be wealthy to purchase it - anybody should be able to afford rice. After all it's just rice, not caviar.
So our vision is to really get Mali to become a rice powerhouse, and the way we do that is with appropriate technology, and a core value chain from A to Z, from the farmer's gate to the consumers plate, and across the value chain create job opportunities. There will be opportunities for the farmers themselves, there will be opportunities for agronomists to come and work with the farmers, there will be opportunities for truck drivers, there will be opportunities for marketing specialists, for folks across the value chain and really make a rice industry that creates jobs and creates real wealth for the country. We'll hopefully be able to export to sub-regions. The Ivory Coast has huge demand. Senegal has huge demand. Niger, Guinea, Burkina Faso. In Mali, we're blessed with the ability to grow a lot of rice - we have huge potential.
How will your partnership with the Aspen institute help you reach your goals?
One of the core focuses of Aspen is food security. They have a food security program where they try to bring industries and governments together to try to achieve food security. We like to call it nutritional security, because food in and of itself is useless. The nutrition that we derive from food is what's important. As we explain to farmers, just because your kid fills his belly with rice doesn't mean he's not hungry. He's actually hungry because he's not getting the iron he needs, he's not getting the vitamin A he needs, he's not getting the zinc he needs. So when he goes to school his ability to concentrate is diminished. When he's four or five and he's starting to grow, he's not growing at the same rate he's supposed to be growing because he's lacking essential nutrients. After the first 1,000 days of a child's life the effect is irreversible. The nutrients that you need in the first 1,000 days, no matter what you do later in life - the damage is done. The damage is done to your brain, the damage is done to your body.
Once we learned about the impact it just blew our minds. We were like, 'Everybody should be focused on nutrition, it should be the number one concern.' Forget food, focus on nutrition, and you've basically killed two birds with one stone. So with this opportunity I hope to really push this message and to extract economic benefits. It's really a business challenge. It's not charity, it's not aid, it's an investment in the nutritional problems in a country like Mali. It's a business challenge and it's going to create enormous amounts of economic opportunity across the value chain, across society.
How did you know you were on the right track?
Initially, as I said, my brother and I started working on this project while I was still in school. I was working on my PhD, he was finishing up his undergraduate in business school. So a lot of it at first was writing business plans, it was a lot of reading, a lot of Googling, a lot of reading USAID reports, putting this stuff together and sending it to experts. Getting their validation - that in and of itself was very important to us.
We were fortunate enough to win some prize money that allowed us to return to Mali. I put my PhD on hold, my brother didn't put a single resume out when he graduated; we used that money to be able to come back to Mali and start operations. What was the first validator was all of the data, all of the metrics we put together, when we went on the ground and started validating it, all of our assumptions were essentially spot on. So that was very promising. We were able to raise some additional grant funding, and when we did another survey last spring in 2012, we interviewed about 1,500 folks around the capital city. The fact that they were very excited about having a high quality, locally grown product and were willing to pay for it at a price point that we identified in our business plan was very encouraging.
Really the ultimate validator was when we began our market trials. Our initial batch was about four tons of fortified rice and we sold out in like two and a half weeks. That was a validator, like, 'We've got something here.' Then we got about four and a half tons and that was sold in about the same amount of time.
Who has been consuming your rice so far?
We sold half directly and we sold half to retailers. But the stuff we sold to retailers, we kept track of what we sold and all of the rice ended up in households. So it all went to households at the end, but we had help in terms of distribution. So that was phase one, a test of consumption: can we work with local retailers and reach other parts of Mali?
What motivated you to keep working on this project?
One of the things that really grabbed my attention, and how I became a rice fanatic in Mali, was when we'd go out to a restaurant in Mali, and all of a sudden they'd look at us, and say, 'Wait a minute, you guys are the rice brothers.' I didn't know that's how we were known - it sounds more like an R&B group. But I said, 'Ok, I guess now we're known as the rice brothers.'
The other thing was the political impact of food for me. Food security has a very strong correlation with social peace and general security.
How did the recent coup d'etat in Mali affect you?
It definitely affected us in terms of fundraising. We had a shipment coming from India that should have taken a month and a half and instead took almost eight months to arrive, so it really affected our operations in terms of being able to get things done. Like I said, we are a for-profit and we had a lot of advanced discussions with social impact investors in the United States. Before that, the political risk component in Mali was supposed to be low. At least if people read documents that were published about Mali or Googled Mali, obviously you'd see Mali is a model democracy, has been a democracy for 20 years, it's not politically risky, it's a good student of the World Bank and the IMF and it's implementing privatization, et cetera. All of a sudden that argument about political risk just went through the roof. People who had never heard of Mali before are suddenly hearing about terrorism, Al Qaeda, kidnapping, et cetera. So that really affected fundraising. But in the last eight months things have gotten much better. We'll see what happens in the elections scheduled for July 28, we'll see what happens with the accord between the Quaranic rebels and the government. But we're much more optimistic that we will be able to go back to our original plan and begin implementing it.