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Salif Romano Niang

Salif Romano Niang and his brother Mohamed Ali are combining grassroots knowledge with modern processes to improve the livelihoods of smallholder rice farmers in their venture Malô Traders.

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Salif Romano Niang
“Our goal is to build a business, reorganize the rice value chain, and disrupt an entire industry.”

In Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, the average worker earns US$1,500. With most of that income applied to food, there is little left for medical care, education, or sundry other needs. However, the country’s history reveals a rich database for mining useful information. “By combining grassroots knowledge—or knowledge gained from our life experiences growing up in Africa—with knowledge of technological trends and market dynamics, we came up with a solution that we believe will make the world a better place,” says Salif Niang, who founded Malô Traders in 2008 with his brother Mohamed.  

That neither brother studied agriculture nor food engineering before starting a food processing company may have been to their benefit. Says Salif, “The fact that we are 'non-experts' allowed us to experiment and develop a model that integrates other peoples innovations and insights in a way that addresses real needs and desires in countries like Mali using market-based approaches.” These innovations include crushing rice into a flour, fortifying it with vitamins and minerals, molding it back into rice-shaped kernels, and finally blending them with unadulterated rice. Because most Malians subsist mainly on meals of cereal and milk, this can drastically boost their nutritional intake.

They gather feedback from farmers, potential customers, and focus groups to make sure the product is culturally appropriate. “The first step we use is to ensure that the product is good enough for our family. In other words, if our grandma likes it, then we are pretty sure that most Malians will too,” Mohamed explains. 

Describing what he enjoys most about the business, Salif responds, “I love teaching and researching and a big part of my work over the past two years with Malô was to educate not just potential investors and institutional partners but Malian farmers, consumers, and policymakers about the benefits of the rice plant and the potential impact of adopting our model.” 

“Finally getting someone to give you his or her hard earned cash for a product," Mohamed adds, "is the best validator, and we are now at that stage of our venture and it is extremely exciting time for us.”