A Woman’s Fight to Make Her Way In Mali’s Beef Industry

March 7, 2021

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By Nicolas Douillet and Kouame N’dri, IFC

“When I sit at the table, they think I’m only the director’s assistant,” says Jamila Ben Baba, the CEO of an internationally certified meat processor in Mali.

Jamila is in fact the only female CEO in Mali’s traditionally male-dominated meat processing sector. She grew up in a country where few women are permitted to make critical decisions on important issues such as healthcare or household budgets.

Her father, a successful and widely respected tea and tobacco trader, taught her and her sisters the art of doing business at a young age. She recalls skipping after-school activities—and missing hangouts with friends—to help her father with administrative tasks.

Her path is unique. To date, most active women work in the informal sector and depend on their husbands for access to credit and land.

“In our community, women did not work,” Jamila said. “But my father insisted my sisters and I shouldn’t rely on anyone. You have to outdo yourself to succeed, he would say. Today’s young women need to ‘keep up the fight and avoid pitfalls.’”

Decades later, Jamila still takes that advice to heart and credits her father with sparking her desire to succeed in a male-dominated society. She believes there’s still a lot to be done to help women become full-fledged economic players in Mali. A big part of that is access to finance, she says.

When I sit at the table, they think I’m only the director’s assistant,” says Jamila Ben Baba, the CEO Of Laham Industrie.

A calm but authoritative figure, she got married, then attended business school in Paris. Back in Africa, she travelled to Guinea where she managed a Toyota car dealership, then travelled home to take the helm of Mali’s national association of tea producers. Still full of ambition, she then built her own hotel in Bamako.

“Most of the time, I just forget I’m a woman. What keeps me going is the challenge. I know the obstacles are there, and I work even harder to remove them," she said.

She would soon learn the situation was no different in the meat sector, an industry traditionally run by men and regimented by unspoken rules and fierce competition.

It was another trip to a landmark agricultural fair in Paris that inspired her latest—and perhaps most demanding—endeavor. "I had always dreamt of promoting local produce from my home country, but it wasn’t until I attended the event that I realized just how important meat was. Mali is the main producer of cattle in the sub-region, so I just said to myself: why not take advantage of that?"

In 2016, the mother of four spent a year and a half building a modern slaughterhouse in Kayes, 400 miles from Mali’s capital, Bamako. She then hired and trained 40 meat packers and launched Laham Industrie, which today sources meat from 700 herdsmen, distributing 80 tons of beef every month to its own meat shops across the country.

Although security conditions in the country have deteriorated, Jamila Ben Baba remains very hands on. She insists on visiting the slaughterhouse as often as possible.

“Just to give you a sense of how much consumers appreciate our products, we have clients with modest incomes who come to our butcher shops to spend 500 FCFA ($1) on meat. It’s a sign of our quality that truly gives us great pleasure."

At the end of 2019, Laham Industrie received support from IFC’s Africa Food Safety Advisory Program, helping the company achieve two globally recognized certifications for food safety management, known in the industry as “HACCP” and “ISO 22000.”

“In this environment, you have to fight every day to have clean premises. You have to train your employees to go by the rules, whereas in Europe, these things are taken as a given."

Now that her meat is certified, she plans to approach—among others—a potential new client: the U.N. Mission in Mali.

Thanks to the World Bank's Agro-Industrial Competitiveness Support Project in Mali, Laham Industrie received further support to professionalize 48 pastoralists as part of the supply chain, drawing up contracts, hiring veterinarians through the World Bank, and tracing cattle.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic proved a serious challenge for Laham Industrie. As international borders closed, Laham’s lucrative meat exports to Senegal suddenly stopped. Hotels and restaurants in Bamako shut down, forcing Laham to lay off 30 employees. To top it off, Jamila contracted COVID-19, as did many colleagues in her Bamako office.

The company is now struggling, but sales remain strong thanks to orders from large mining groups operating across Mali. “You have to know how to lose money to make money,” she said.

Jamila Ben Baba remains remarkably resilient. “I’ve encountered a lot of difficulties in my lifetime, but I’ve never given up. Difficulties come and go, and that's what makes us stronger so we can weather the storms ahead.”

Published in March 2021