In summer 2021, Father Bossou Constant SJ, Miller Center Jesuit in Residence, spent time working with social enterprises in West Africa. These enterprises are all alumni of a 3-day Boost workshop that Miller Center delivered in partnership with West African Jesuits in 2017 and 2018. In conversation with Keith Warner, Miller Center’s Chief Learning Officer, Bossou shares his research and reflections. This is the first in a series of 3 articles.
Why did you want to spend the summer working with social enterprises in West Africa?
The need for sustainable economic development is huge in West Africa which is composed of 70% French-speaking countries and 30% English-speaking countries. The latter in West Africa and elsewhere on the continent of Africa often see more international economic and professional development than their French-speaking counterparts. As a Jesuit priest from Benin, West Africa, studying at Santa Clara, I developed a strong desire to create a positive impact on social entrepreneurs in Francophone West Africa after learning about Miller Center back in 2015. Miller Center, in partnership with the West African Jesuits, delivered 4 Boost workshops in West Africa — a 3-day, hands-on program developed by Miller Center to help social entrepreneurs with their business plans and financial and impact models. The first one was delivered in English (Liberia in 2017) and the remaining three in French (Togo in 2017, Benin in 2018, and Cameroon in 2018). Jose, Pamela, Fr. Bossou, and Fr. Marthins during Liberia Boost in 2017. I spent the summer in West Africa working with alumni of these Boost workshops to understand the positive impact of program, how they are doing thus far, and the implications of COVID.
How many social enterprise alumni do we have in these four countries? And what are some general patterns of their business types and impact models?
We have a total of 112 social enterprises alumni from these 4 Boosts — 25 in Liberia, 30 in Togo, 28 in Benin, and 27 in Cameroon. Most of these social enterprises are relatively small organizations with an average of 6 employees. Approximately 43% of the 112 enterprises are women-led. About half have missions and activities focused on climate resilience through agri-business, including organic agriculture which has become very popular in West Africa in recent years. A few of them specifically target job creation among young people and a few are in the high-tech sector.
In Liberia, most of the organizations in the workshop were nonprofits with little or no income-generating activities. However, during and after the Boost, many of them revisited their strategic plans to include income-generating activities in order to make themselves more sustainable and viable. In Togo, the enterprises we trained have the most diverse business types, from agriculture to wellness promotion. In Benin, 80% of these social enterprises are agri-businesses. In Cameroon, most businesses are in high-tech, beauty products, or health.
How does the social enterprise movement in West Africa overall compare to these Miller Center alumni?
Even though a number of young people in West Africa engage in the social entrepreneurship journey to make ends meet and positively impact their environment and people, they aren’t as impactful and successful as one would hope. Only a handful of them can make up to $20,000 in annual revenue. They certainly need the necessary training to be able to make a significant impact. We have seen how Boosts have helped our alumni to distinguish themselves from the other social enterprises in West Africa. Foufoumix, a Togolese-based enterprise, has probably been the most successful of all. Its breakthrough invention is a machine that pounds yams to make a very delicious West African food called fufu. It is one of the most expensive foods in the region, and women are required to spend a lot of time and effort pounding the yams in a big mortar. Men do not do this work. A couple of years after the Boost, the company created another product — an agricultural tractor which has been almost as successful as the pounded yams machine. Foufoumix is now a multi-million dollar company.
Foufoumix production unit in Togo. They sell their products everywhere in West Africa. Each Foufoumix machine sells for about $450.
- BeauConseils is a Togolese wellness enterprise founded and led by Aïcha Bouraïma. Boost helped her revise her business strategy. She had been having difficulty selling her ideas for wellness and a healthy lifestyle. She came to realize that the idea of wellness is not yet embedded in African cultures. Thus, after Boost, she became very vocal on the issue of the moral, emotional, and psychological poverty of millions of Togolese people. Since then, she has been invited many times on national television to talk about her vision. She now holds paid and unpaid wellness sessions as a private consultant.
- Africa Global Recycling is a social enterprise actively engaged in collecting, cleaning, and selling plastic waste with the goal of making Lomé, the capital city of Togo, cleaner. Right after Boost, it participated in a Togolese competition called Kpekpe 2017 and won second prize for its pitches, and fourth prize overall. In October 2017, the company also won third prize in the international competition Africa Is Calling You, held in Paris, which featured the best African startups of 2017. In 2017, at the time of the Boost, Africa Global Recycling’s annual revenue was less than $20K. As of now, the enterprise has 25 employees and annual revenue of $260K.
- Habiba Natural Care is a Cameroonian social enterprise organic cosmetics company that creates jobs for disadvantaged women in Cameroon. The company’s entire value chain, from sourcing raw materials to distributing its products, is about 90% women. Habiba sources all its raw materials from women in rural Cameroon, thus creating income for them and their families.
- In response to the pandemic, Habiba started holding paid training sessions for women to help them cope with a decrease in sales and, in the process, created many jobs for disadvantaged women. Since January 2020, about 850 women have been trained. Among them are approximately 350 widows, and the remainder are mostly women refugees fleeing war zones in Northern Cameroon where Boko Haram is present and in the English-speaking provinces of Cameroon where there has been a political crisis for about 5 years already. All these women now make their own products and sell them in various parts of Cameroon.
What are the strengths of the social enterprise movement in West Africa?
There is intrinsic interdependence between social and economic development in West Africa. This makes a strong case for social entrepreneurship in the region. Many entrepreneurs tackle social problems without intentionally wanting to become social entrepreneurs. They just happen to be social entrepreneurs because solving economic problems in West Africa most often means working for the social development of the people.