From a Mix of Skills, A Fine Porridge

By Paula Hirschoff
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 3, 2007

What I knew about entrepreneurship could have fit into the cap of my ballpoint pen, so I protested when the Peace Corps invited me to go to Senegal as a small-business consultant. I'd been a teacher and principal during my first Peace Corps stint in the late 1960s, and subsequently my career had been devoted to writing and teaching. Returning to service almost 40 years later, I'd anticipated placement as a teacher again. "Business consultant" wasn't in my repertoire.

But my husband and friends advised me to learn Excel and let the Peace Corps do the rest.

That was in 2005. Now, many months later, my work with the people of Guinguin?o, in central Senegal, is thriving. I've drawn on hitherto unknown stores of knowledge about costing, marketing and team development, as well as some previously unrecognized strengths.

Soon after arriving in town, I found both a delightful group of hardworking women in the neighborhood of Farabougou and a project idea: production of a highly nutritious porridge mix. The women longed to generate income but had failed at their only effort -- a vegetable garden -- because of the scarcity of water. The porridge project seemed feasible. Not only were the main ingredients (millet, black-eyed peas and peanuts) readily available, but the product was greatly needed to improve child nutrition.

The women were enthusiastic and decided to call their product simply by the Bambara name for flour, Muuggu ni kung. Only a few of them speak French, and I was not fluent in their languages, Wolof and Bambara, but I found a fine project partner in Mamadou Wade, a local official who helped with technical training and translation.

Nonetheless, it took months of pushing and pulling before the project began to unfold. Twice, no one attended training sessions because of funerals; phoning to say you can't come is not a common practice here. To ensure good attendance, I started delivering notices the day before, with my phone number and a request to call if they had to cancel. Since Farabougou is far from my neighborhood, I usually hired a horse and buggy, rather than walk there in the 100-degree heat. Sometimes I imagined myself in a scene from the Old West as I galloped across the railroad tracks and down the dusty road.

For weeks we tried unsuccessfully to raise a small sum to cover startup costs. Then Ramadan and other Muslim holidays delayed us even further. Finally, the women decided to chip in for a trial production run, each contributing a portion of the main ingredients and lending oversize pots and other kitchen equipment. I paid for sugar and cooking gas and to rent scales and a sealing machine to close the plastic bags.

We washed and grilled the main ingredients, trying to be as sanitary as possible. Then they went to a nearby mill for grinding, the millet and peas into flour, the peanuts into butter. Measuring carefully, we mixed in sugar and iodized salt. Any moisture remaining in the Muuggu ni kung would have led to spoilage, so for two days, it dried on a rooftop beneath the scorching sub-Saharan sun. It was nearly nightfall on the last day before we finished affixing labels, filling and sealing the bags.

The mix tastes delicious even uncooked, so there had been many taste tests. We should have had perhaps 50 bags of 500 grams each, but the end count was 47.

Before marketing the porridge, we still had to set a price (cost of ingredients and materials per bag plus profit) and finalize a marketing plan. Or so I thought. The women were so excited about their product that they wanted to rush right into the nearly dark street to start selling it.

But they had to know what to charge first, I argued.

The women, backed by Mamadou, had a price in mind: only 300 francs (about 60 cents), because they were concerned poor people couldn't afford to pay more.

I protested that 300 francs would not even cover costs. My husband, Chuck Ludlam, also a second-time Peace Corps volunteer, and I insisted we develop a plan before starting sales. Meanwhile, several young men had burst in, clamoring to buy the porridge mix and snapping photos with their cellphones. Everyone was shouting, no one listening. The scene was chaotic.

In desperation, Chuck exclaimed, "This is why America is richer than Senegal! We charge a premium for a new and better product!"

With the group startled into stillness, Chuck grabbed the heavy basin of filled bags and made his getaway on horse and buggy, taking the Muuggu ni kung home until we could set a price and make a sales plan. The women seemed surprised but they let him go. I walked home with Mamadou to soothe feelings and rekindle a cooperative spirit.

By the time we met several days later, everyone had calmed down. Heeding my lessons about covering costs and generating profits, the women agreed to charge 800 francs ($1.60) per bag, enough for a nice profit. We sold out the first production run and embarked on two more, targeting health professionals who work with malnourished children and mothers of young children. We hope to arrange subsidies for those who can't afford the porridge. The group plans a bigger production run after the harvest in November, when millet, peas and peanuts are much cheaper.

The women of Farabougou seem to have acquired the confidence and skills to take on other projects, such as producing fruit juices. And I am astounded and gratified to have actually helped to create an enterprise that might become sustainable. I still don't think I'm much of an expert on business matters. But maybe practical problem-solving, optimism and perseverance, plus a bottom-line focus and occasional forceful intervention, are American skills that can help create an enterprise that will do some good in Africa.

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