With 226 million people under the age of 25 (as of 2015), Africa has one of the largest youth populations in the world. This population is predicted to grow rapidly in the coming years, more than doubling by 2055. This growth presents a challenge for African countries in terms of meeting the increasing need for education and employment, but this challenge is also an opportunity to channel the innovative power of so many young minds. We need to invest in the caretakers and educators of this generation, the women and the mothers, so that they are able to pass on their knowledge to the change makers of tomorrow.
I saw this dynamic in my own family. My mom balanced two careers, being both a midwife and the owner of five bakeries, all while raising me and my sister and brother. She knew how to make good food from simple ingredients. As a daughter of Africa, she also knew the cultural importance of where those ingredients came from. Meanwhile, my dad, a hydrologist, worked for the United Nations, and as a result we moved around a fair amount when I was young. I was born in Mali, but I spent my childhood in Benin, Chad and Burkina Faso, and then moved to Canada in my teens. Growing up in this environment had a deep impact on me, and inspired me to consider how I too could make a meaningful difference to people in communities across Africa.
My background led me to found Farafena, a social enterprise that aims to mobilize the power of good food to bring new opportunities to women in Africa. These women play a central role not only within their own families, but in African communities as a whole; their success will help lay the groundwork for the success of the next generation.
Business Opportunities in African ‘Superfoods’
Before I started Farafena, I sat down with many women in local communities in Mali to ask them first-hand what they felt they needed to succeed. I learned that these women, young and old, spent countless hours working in the hot sun, only to walk long distances to a market where they sold their goods. They expressed the need for a stable and fair income, and the potential market benefits of being able to share their goods with people around the world. Following these meetings, Farafena – which means “Africa” in the Bambara language spoken in Mali and surrounding countries – was born. Farafena provides women farmers with an opportunity to share their food with the world, and to better their own lives, and the lives of their families and the people in the villages where they live.
Farafena’s approach is to connect communities across the planet with ingredients from Africa. Our farmers don’t work for us, they are our partners. We are proud to now partner with over 850 African women farmers in nine villages to grow, harvest, mill and market fonio, moringa and baobab – three ancient, nutrient-dense “superfoods” that Farafena brings to Canadian and U.S. tables in the form of flours and powders. These indigenous, non-GMO, gluten-free products are grown without the use of chemicals, and each product has a unique African story.
Fonio has been called the perfect grain – it has a texture that’s somewhere between couscous and quinoa, and has been cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa for thousands of years. Baobab are extremely large and very old trees (many live for two thousand years or more) that produce a citrus-like fruit that’s high in vitamin C, magnesium, soluble fiber, calcium and antioxidants. And moringa is often called the “miracle tree” – its leaves are a source of calcium, protein and iron that Africans have been using in teas and other drinks for centuries.
New Opportunities for Women Farmers
Through this model, Farafena is bringing increased business opportunities to women farmers, and providing product earnings above the national average. This is enabling women to start micro-businesses, build homes for their families and educate their children, while also improving the health, prosperity and stability of rural villages. We estimate, based on anecdotal evidence from the women we’ve visited, that the 850 women farmers we partner with are positively impacting the lives of five people each (children, husbands, extended family), increasing the number of people impacted to over 4,000.
As an Afro-Canadian entrepreneur, my dream for Farafena is to set an example of how families in developed countries can engage with and get to know African families like mine, our communities and our authentic foods and culture. It is my mission to reorient people’s perceptions away from the stereotypes of poverty and toward the positive realities and opportunities inherent in Africa, and to bring more opportunities to our mothers and sisters living on the continent.
Now is a particularly exciting time for our team at Farafena. We are thrilled to be using a new blockchain-based tool that enables us to trace the journey of our products from African communities, all the way to Canadian and U.S. tables. We started using this in November. This immutable distributed ledger will document the journey of our products and demonstrate our claims in real time. Its goal is to secure a direct and equitable value chain for our farmer partners, as well as to prove to discerning customers that we know exactly where our products come from and the narrative behind them. We view this as a useful selling point, as North American consumers want to know where their food comes from. And as a purpose-led organization, we’re proud to be able to share our journey from farm to fork with our customers.
Farafena is already creating ripples through African villages (eight in Mali and one in Malawi), and as our business grows, so too will the impact we’re having on African communities. Our hope is that by expanding the market reach of our products, we’ll make a greater difference to the lives of more women, their families and their communities.
Oumar Barou Togola is the founder of Farafena.
Image provided by author.