Case Study: Dutch MFA- Sahel Entrepreneurship

In 2019, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is aiming to Start a powerful new initiative across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to boost Youth Job Creation in Ag Value Chains and Empower Women and Youth Entrepreneurship --  But Where to start and how to be the most impactful in the Sahel?  Catalysts Consulting has just the right team, gender focus, and drive to undertake the baseline country assessment to provide insights how the Embassy and the  Netherlands Enterprise Development Agency(RVO) could best make soon to be in place strategy for intervention.

How do you empower women’s entrepreneurship and youth job creation in the Sahel?

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs is aiming to Start a powerful new initiative across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to boost Youth Job Creation in Ag Value Chains and Empower Women and Youth Entrepreneurship —  But Where to start and how to be the most impactful in the Sahel?  Catalysts Consulting has just the right team, gender focus, and drive to undertake the baseline country assessment to provide insights how the Embassy and the  Netherlands Enterprise Development Agency(RVO) could best make soon to be in place strategy for intervention. 

Starting with an in-depth look at the initiatives already in place in each country, the goals of the various actors involved, and as many lessons learned as we could find, our aim was to find the perfect niches for Dutch interventions that combined local needs with Dutch expertise to create mutually beneficial and high-quality impacts on local, national, regional, and global levels. Once we’d tackled the initial information overload and had a thorough understanding of the general situation in each country, it was time to dig deeper. In order to maximize effectiveness and efficiency while on the ground, each of our field team operatives found at least one local consultant to work with, ensuring that we could connect with locals, interpret between various languages, and reach the areas that would normally be off-limits or too dangerous to travel to as foreigners. The local consultants proved themselves time and time again as crucial members of our team, and our mission would certainly not have been possible without them.

Once our teams were complete, the real fun began! Looking into opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship, with an emphasis on job creation for women and youth, the Catalystas team took to the field, spending a total of seven weeks across the three countries to collect data and speak to as many local organizations, government ministries, companies, individuals, and other economic initiatives as we could, together with our local consultants. We focused on finding gaps to fill in the agricultural sector, where much value is lost along the way from planting to final product, as well as the labor market, where available education and potential employee skill sets often don’t match up with employer needs. 

 Examining opportunities for environmental and economic sustainability, access for youth and women, and conflict sensitivity, among other criteria, helped us narrow down a huge range of possible recommendations and focus on a few major areas with high growth potential. One of these areas was fonio, a common grain found in Mali and Burkina Faso that can be turned into a great tasting, gluten free base for flour, couscous, cereals, and more. Another was dairy, found across all three countries as a commodity with strong potential for expansion and job creation, as well as a perfect connection for a Dutch intervention, known worldwide as experts in the dairy field – who hasn’t heard of Dutch cheese?! (And if you haven’t, try some Gouda!) 

In order to keep track of all the incredible people we met and the amazing places we visited, we utilized GPS technology to create maps of everywhere we traveled, allowing us to share the information of possible partners and stakeholders with Dutch Enterprise Development Agency upon our return. This way, even the small family-run companies and the associations found “off the beaten path” can be involved in future initiatives, and will be able to benefit through direct contact with programs and implementers rather than relying on untrustworthy middlemen, a complaint we heard from many small local organizations, especially unions and collectives run by women.

We balanced the focus of our research between the goals of job creation and stimulating entrepreneurship, with special attention paid to the inclusion of women and youth in income generating activities. Agriculture was the main area of concentration for job creation, and we found that the middle of many value chains present a plethora of opportunities for growth and improvement. In particular the stages of production, transformation, packaging, and marketing across a variety of products offer the perfect openings for interventions that can help update techniques and methods,

boost quality and productivity, and share skills and knowledge that will result in new and improved products for local, regional, and international markets. In Mali, for example, women represent over 80% of the labor force in the fonio value chain from beginning to end. However, outdated early stage processing techniques have resulted in a consistently low-quality final product that has lost the trust of local buyers, who now turn to imported fonio products from neighboring Guinea. By simply providing equipment and training that can update the method of processing, local fonio producers can make a much higher quality product and win back the trust of local markets, leading to increased sales and a need for more workers to meet a higher demand for locally grown fonio products!

In Burkina Faso, we found a gap perfect for the Dutch to fill with their expertise in water management. Through supporting the creation of boulis, a local term for artificial ponds, the Dutch could help Burkinabe vegetable farmers fight the effects of climate change and food instability, allowing them to plant year round and providing more consistent access to healthy, sustainable, and locally grown food sources (directly contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 2: No Hunger!).

sandra visiting women's collective for dairy productionAlongside these and many other suggestions, Catalystas also examined possibilities for Dutch involvement in programs aimed at stimulating the growth of the entrepreneurship sector in each country. Maintaining our focus on women and youth, we visited a number of incubation hubs, spoke to businesses, individuals with entrepreneurial aspirations, government ministries, and NGOs working in the region. We found a number of major barriers that spanned the whole region. More than anything, accessing finance proved to be a major barrier for budding entrepreneurs across all three countries, followed closely by the unstable security situations, lack of developed and well maintained infrastructure, difficulties in accessing public services and information, and high levels of nepotism and corruption throughout official structures. For women, tendencies toward traditionally patriarchal systems meant additional barriers such as familial and community expectations of marriage and motherhood rather than an entrepreneurial career path. In focus groups held in Mali, we heard from many young women that their entrepreneurial ambitions were simply an activity to keep them busy until they got married, at which time they would give up their businesses to become full-time wives and mothers.

For those women who forged ahead toward their business dreams anyway, many faced difficulties in obtaining financing and loans due to a lack of collateral or assumptions that any funds would be ultimately controlled by the men in a woman’s life. The most successful business women we met were only able to achieve success after becoming widowed or divorced, although we did encounter a number of supportive husbands working together with their wives (Go, male allies!!). Despite the many obstacles, there were also many great initiatives working to help support the growth of entrepreneurship in each country. In Niger for example, we met with incredibly inspiring female leaders who are hard at work realizing their aspirations of creating incubation hubs for women. The Empow’Her program at the Oasis incubation hub, for instance, presented a fantastic foundation for a scalable training model providing support to Nigerien women gaining valuable knowledge in entrepreneurial management skills that enable independence and knowledge sharing with their communities.

As our field teams travelled through each country collecting essential information, local insights, and connections to potential partners, the Catalystas HQ team made sure to centralize and triangulate everything we learned, looking for cross-cutting themes and overlapping gaps and opportunities, and creating a regional strategy for the Dutch to implement in a thoughtful and practical way.  Taking into consideration identified risks and barriers, local needs, Dutch added value, and practical elements such as sustainability and conflict sensitivity, each of our field teams, together with the HQ team, identified their top recommendations for both job creation and entrepreneurship. Once returned from their missions, we developed our final findings, detailed in a report and presentation for a variety of Dutch ministries and government associated organizations. With over 120 interviews held, 250 stakeholders identified, 6 focus groups conducted, and 36 recommendations made, we would consider our summer well spent! While we realize that not every single recommendation will be selected, Catalystas’ goal is to provide a wide variety of high quality, sustainable opportunities that represent local needs and desires while taking advantage of Dutch areas of expertise.

Focus group in Mopti by Catalystas consulting

This informational framework and series of recommendations aims to support the Dutch in laying a strong foundation for effective and long-term impacts across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, and we can’t wait to see the fruits of our labor!

For more information about our methodologies, our findings, or our other work in the region, get in touch!

Catalystas provided the following the services for the Dutch Government:

1. Country Assessment

  • Undertaking baseline and in-country assessment in target regions to support donor policy development
  • provide oversight and situation analysis of security, economic and gender parity context
  • provide recommendations for affective intervention policies
  • provide ecosystem analysis

2. Entrepreneurship Advising

  • Provided insight into incubating Sahelian entrepreneurial ecosystems
  • highlighting best practices
  • outlining legal and political challenges and opportunities

3. Recommended Women and Youth Job Creation Value-Chain

  • Undertook the analysis of value-chains that benefit women and youth
  • undertook market segment analysis
  • production level need assessment
  • mapping out opportunities and challenges
  • recommendations for intervention


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