Antoine Sombié has created Association Wouol, the first regional-scale, commercial hybrid value chain that joins European businesses with small local women’s vegetable and fruit producers from across West Africa. Antoine’s program focuses on expanding and legitimizing organically certified food by creating health incentives for local farmers, and developing economic partnerships with food distributors such as AKCO, a major European food company. In particular, Antoine is challenging current operating standards by building a network of producers that are locally supported with benefits such as mutual health insurance and education programs, as well as professional growth opportunities.
The New Idea
An integral requirement for Antoine’s Association Wouol is that each member is entrepreneurial. Antoine believes that his venture must not only connect the distribution skills of his joint venture partners, but also facilitate the abilities of individual producers seeking new ways to produce, process, and sell the food they grow. He began experimenting with this approach by establishing the first women’s producer company in Burkina Faso in 1994, and then in 1999 pioneering another network of small producers, primarily women. The successes of this producer program enabled women’s associations to be active producers of organically certified produce in Burkina Faso for the first time.
In these programs, Antoine gained experience exporting products and acquired a deep understanding of necessary product quality standards. As a result, he has implemented a system that requires association members to meet certain performance standards by designating them with specialized jobs and responsibilities. This process both provides members with the opportunity for professional development as well as ensures the highest possible quality of the final product. Beginning in 2001, Antoine transformed this association into the equivalent of a cooperative production company owned by the farmers. Integral to this approach is that every member of the producer group understands each step in the value chain, why it is important, and who is responsible for its successful operation.
Association Wouol successfully operates because Antoine uses consumer trends, and current knowledge on the functioning of worldwide organic supply chains to direct the association’s operations. He assures his buyers that the association’s products are approved directly by European organic certification institutions such as Ecocert, as opposed to locally conceived organic certification programs. Because he guarantees certification by legitimate European programs, he gives his producer members a marketable competitive advantage compared to producers using illegal methods. Through this network of European certified small producers, Antoine has shifted production from solely domestic markets to international buyers who offer higher prices and viable opportunities for producer members.
Recently, partnerships between European and local African food producers have been beset by problems. In the past decade, the EU began offering financial incentives for European companies to partner with African producers in hopes to fuel economic development. However, after European companies had maximized their profits from these incentives, African producer groups were effectively cast aside. Resulting court cases are currently making their way through national and international courts, however, this has strained partnerships between local and international producers. Additionally, local producers have complained that EU partners operate in name only, leaving the food producer to pursue practices that focus simply on aggregating raw material at the lowest possible price, without local producers accruing further benefits.
An alternative approach to these failed partnerships is for European or foreign entrepreneurs to create small-scale organic farming experiments that target the international market in a social enterprise model. These businesses frequently contain clauses that allow small farmers to earn equity in operations over a period of time at a below market purchase price. Unfortunately, even this solution has not been error-free as international investors report that a low product quality has resulted from workers’ lack of commitment and interest. Antoine believes that the core problem of these approaches is that they do not systematically encourage creativity and innovation in the families of small producers. Without proper support or encouragement, local producer groups find themselves the target of complaints from international buyers regarding food produce quality, which strains vital investment relations.
Antoine’s strategy taps into an overlooked partner to help transform producer relationships: Local women farmers. Among the more than 3,000 people part of Association Wouol, 90 percent are women. By positioning women as effective producers and production process managers, Antoine has found that women are more reliable, and with the right training opportunities, the benefits of their involvement reach a greater portion of society, elevating education and health.
Antoine works with women as much on their health and their social and cultural activities as on the production process itself, from farming to packaging and marketing produce. He believes that, to fully impact the lives of women and their families in education, health, and economic livelihood, a woman producer has to be able to secure health care in addition to professional development that provides the space for creativity. For this reason, Antoine’s program supports its women producers by organizing music and art festivals, educational competitions, local health clinics, and instructional classes in basic subjects.
Antoine believes he has now reached a point where the “network effect” of his various efforts can begin to take root. Rather than working with isolated health initiatives, he is creating a regionwide mutual health insurance scheme for his producers. The next step will be to create village level entrepreneur programs, starting with association member’s children and extending out to other members in each community. Due to his program’s successes, government officials in Burkina Faso and Mali are actively supporting the creation of regionwide health programs and adopting his model for youth entrepreneurship schemes.
Antoine was born into a matrilineal society in Beragoudougou where his mother’s family owned little land and his household included 18 siblings. He went to a Catholic elementary school, and was one of four among 56 children who continued to middle school. A key turning point for him was the opportunity to pursue a high school diploma in Tropical Agronomy at Bingervilles in Cote d’Ivoire. At Bingervilles, Antoine was exposed to the functioning of large-scale banana and cocoa plantations. Antoine continued his studies of agricultural technology by pursuing a graduate degree in Paris and then working in marketing with a multinational company in Abidjan. His studies and this first job prepared him to work with farmers and private companies in West Africa.
From 1972 to 1980 Antoine worked in Banfora as the local representative of SOSUCO, a large sugarcane producer. Through this experience, he became disenchanted with the impact of the plantation on neighboring farms and eventually left SOSUCO to work on several research projects with an Ouagadougou-based organization, SERAGRI. After SERAGRI, in 1991 he returned to the area where he grew up and began working at the local level organizing women’s production groups. Through his different work experiences, he became convinced that there are better ways to collaborate with small producers and he felt ready to make a difference in his region. By 1999 Antoine had assembled a critical mass of several hundred producers and founded Association Wouol to respond to different problems that small producers faced. Wouol has since become a highly professional, women-focused collective that is the precedent for joint venture hybrid value chains in the sub-region.
At each stage in the evolution of his work, Antoine collaborated with government officials to ensure that his association best supports women producers, first as small producer groups, then as collectives, and now as private partners in the international joint venture. Government officials in Burkina Faso and Mali are pointing to his joint venture agreement as the “best practice” model for small farmer groups seeking to enter international markets. With the legal framework in place allowing him to work interregionally and internationally, Antoine has demonstrated that small women agricultural producers can become key partners in the global market for organic food.