Unlocking Capital, Unlocking Opportunity

Diallo Mali Iwd

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By Carybeth Reddy and Aichata Mohamed Sako

Diallo Mali Iwd

Diallo Sako runs a successful soap import company in Bamako, Mali.

In Mali’s capital of Bamako, Diallo Hawa Traore runs a soap company, one of the first in the city to sell gabakourouni, a special soap from Ivory Coast. She started the company more than a dozen years ago. Diallo’s wholesale and retail customers know that her gabakourouni is the best quality available in Bamako.

But as the demand for the imported soap grew, Diallo began eyeing a growing landscape of competitors. If she was going to keep her reputation as the best in the business, she would have to makes some changes. And to do that, she needed money.

More than a billion women and girls worldwide don’t have access to formal financial services, according to the World Bank’s Global Findex database. Women make up more than half of the self-employed in low-income countries—the need and demand are huge. Globally, women are less likely to get a bank loan, and when they do, they pay higher interest rates. In many countries, women are unable to own land or inherit money, so it’s hard to show the collateral necessary to get a loan.In Mali, women are often denied credit regardless of their ability to repay. Bias, discrimination, and misperception abound—women are seen as more of a credit risk because of their perceived spending and saving habits.

After a long, laborious, and confusing process, Diallo did finally get a micro-loan. She struggled to manage it, but not because her business wasn’t sound and not because she was a woman. She just needed a little knowledge and education.

IESC seeks to bridge this knowledge gap to help women entrepreneurs scale their businesses. To most effectively increase women’s access to financial services, IESC supports both partners in the financial relationship—the lender and the borrower—to help them make smart financial decisions that aren’t based on stereotypes. We train women in financial literacy, business planning, the loan application process, and at the same time, help banks and other financial institutions to develop new loan products, manage risk, and apply sound business analysis to loan applications, rather than make decisions based on gender.

Through her involvement with a U.S. State Department program for women entrepreneurs, Diallo was referred to IESC’s program in Mali that is increasing access to finance for agricultural and women-owned small businesses.

In addition to financial literacy and business management training from IESC, Diallo also participated in a mentorship program for women entrepreneurs. Diallo took her new knowledge all the way to the bank. She qualified for two microfinance loans with reasonable terms.

And her business is thriving. She has 20 new wholesale customers and has hired 25 more people to help her fill orders on time. She has a new contract to begin working directly with a factory in Ivory Coast, and she has even expanded her product line to include plakali, a traditional food made from cassava.

Unlocking capital for women transforms lives and has huge potential to create jobs and grow economies.

Madjeneba Coulibaly works at one of IESC’s partner microfinance institutions in Mali. She says that working with women who have received the training and support that Diallo received is good for business, “because the women are already aware of and know what it means to get a loan.”

These loans have revolutionized Diallo’s ability to do business. She says new opportunities present themselves every day.

And she intends to take full advantage of all of them.

Carybeth is senior program associate and Aichata is monitoring and evaluation manager on the Mali Finance for Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program. The program, which runs through 2020, expands access to credit to businesses in the sorghum, millet, rice, livestock, and agroforestry value chains and to women entrepreneurs and associations. It is awarded through Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA) and is funded jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Swedish International Development Agency.

When Women Help Women, Entrepreneurs Thrive

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Haoua Cheick Seip, IESC volunteer expert, on assignment in Ampara, Sri Lanka, in 2011.

When Women Help Women, Entrepreneurs Thrive

By Marissa Germain

Women in West African cultures’some of which are historically matrilineal’hold positions of respect and strength. As the providers of shelter, food, wisdom, and comfort, they have often been called to firmly hold their communities together in the face of conflict and strife. It is not uncommon for women to turn to entrepreneurship’often at a very young age’to support their immediate and extended families.

In Mali, for example, the adult literacy rate for women is around 22 percent. Business ideas are hatched at the kitchen table, and business skills are not honed in school, but with time and experience and, perhaps most importantly, with the help of other women in the community.

IESC is hoping to leverage this existing inclination toward informal business mentorship into a more formal structure, piloting a mentoring program that will create a space for relationships to build between experienced entrepreneurs with those who are just starting out.

At the heart of this endeavor is IESC volunteer expert Haoua Cheick Seip, a woman who clearly embodies the West African qualities of strength, determination, and support. Born and raised in Mali, Haoua left at the age of 22 for Ivory Coast, where she earned a degree in chemistry. She emigrated to the United States and started working as a management consultant. Haoua had always been inspired by the vibrant West African women who started businesses from nothing and grew them into successful enterprises.

As she prepared for a trip back to Ivory Coast, some female business associates asked her to bring back cosmetics from New York. In return, they would send her back with a selection of their tie-dyed goods to sell in the United States. That experience led Haoua to build an incredibly successful import-export business.

Since 2004, Haoua has volunteered with IESC six times, in Ghana, Benin, Swaziland, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Lesotho. She has trained artisans to access markets and develop export-quality products. In 2012 in Sri Lanka, for example, she worked with the Sri Lanka Peace Collection, an initiative to assist war widows in traditional hand-loomed textiles and creating a competitive brand for international markets.

For her upcoming assignment in Mali, Haoua will work with IESC’s project team in Bamako to design a women’s entrepreneurship mentoring program, facilitate the first meeting of mentors and their mentees, and plan for the long-term growth of the program.

Haoua is eager for the opportunity to work one-on-one with women business owners to get to know their real problems and figure out how best to assist them.

‘They need to figure out how to grow their businesses and then they need money to move forward’and understand the best ways to use it,’ Haoua said.

While capital investment in these businesses can catalyze growth, there is no substitute for having a supportive network. Haoua’s unique knowledge of the challenges women entrepreneurs in the region face will ensure that the mentoring program responds to women’s real world needs and positions them for long-term success.


Marissa Germain is a senior program associate with the Finance For Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program. Implemented by IESC, the program is funded by USAID and the Swedish development agency, Sida, through the Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance. The program is expanding access to credit to businesses in the agriculture sector and to women entrepreneurs and associations by building their capacity to become creditworthy borrowers. FFSWE also strengthens banks who are part of USAID’s Development Credit Authority, increasing their capacity and willingness to loan to small and medium enterprises. In the first program year, 2,600 businesses registered with the program. Of these participating businesses 62 percent are owned by women. 

An Entrepreneur Focused on Helping Women

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Sanogo Diarra owns a company that employs 22 women from her neighborhood.

Sanogo Diarra’s fruit processing company has created good jobs for women in her community

It was 2009, and Sanogo Diarra saw that women in her neighborhood needed jobs. More than that, they wanted jobs. And she wanted to help them. In Mali’s capital city of Bamako, she founded a company that processes dried fruits and vegetables.

With her company, Unit頤e S飨age Kadiatou, Diarra was determined to create good, steady jobs for women.

By 2015 the company was in full expansion mode; in fact, it was awarded a contract to export three tons of dried mangos for regional and European markets, and that was in addition to a steady supply of requests from local supermarkets. Unfortunately, Diarra couldn’t keep up with the pace of demand. She had a cash flow problem, not enough workers, and not enough equipment.

‘I was desperate to meet the many demands of the market,’ she said.

“This company will be a model in the region.”

‘ Sanogo Diarra, business owner

That’s where IESC’s Finance for Food Security and Women Entrepreneurs Program comes in. The program, jointly funded by USAID and the Swedish government, connects small and medium businesses in agriculture or those owned by women with financing to help them grow and expand

For many entrepreneurs around the world, the loan application process can be extremely daunting.

The program worked closely with Diarra as she prepared her loan application to Bank of Africa. It helped her to deal with the bank throughout the process, responding to their questions and requests for additional information.

Bank of Africa is a partner bank in the Development Credit Authority, a USAID initiative that reduces some of the risk for banks to help get more capital in the hands of entrepreneurs and business owners in developing countries.

Diarra was eventually approved for a $25,000 loan. She used the infusion of capital to improve facilities at the company. The company has built a ripening shed with a washing area and purchased some additional drying equipment. They also bought fresh mangos for the 2016 season. Finally, Diarra used the loan to hire the workforce she needed and wanted: women in the neighborhood seeking an opportunity to make some money.

Today, the company produces one-and-a-half tons of dried mangos every day. Of its 23 employees, 22 are women.

‘With the will and the expertise we have today, this company will be a model in the region in the field of dried mango exports,’ Diarra said.


This story is made possible with the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the sole responsibility of IESC and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.