Simone is a pioneer in the development of local resources, turning them to her advantage in the fight against child malnutrition and poverty in Africa. She is the first female business/industry leader in the food production industry in Africa. Simone supported the emergence of women entrepreneurs and positioned the sector as a source of employment and a means to fight against poverty.
The New Idea
Since 1974, Simone has been developing local agricultural resources to fight against malnutrition in children. In 1991, she set up SODEPAL, the first modern agro-food processing factory in West Africa. She also began promoting local agricultural production. She modernized these traditional commodities by creating value added products with improved nutritional value. She then made them easily available through a formal distribution channel. Simone guided SODEPAL into an important position in the region, as it played the role of partner for various international organizations who work in the field of malnutrition and child health.
In 1991, Simone brought together industry professionals in The National Federation of Food and Transformation Industries of Burkina Faso (FIAB) where she could position SODEPAL as a springboard for social and economic development. She provided industry stakeholders with a space where they could work together and innovate within the research and development field by using local resources. She trained operators and urged them towards research and development to produce new products from and for the African market. She developed the first women entrepreneurs and industrial leaders in Burkina Faso by encouraging young women to invest their time and resources in the food industry. Simone has also developed an important network of social entrepreneurs in the development of local resources and facilitated the emergence of agro-foods leaders. This includes entrepreneurs who eventually became Ashoka Fellows, such as Marcelline Ouedraogo, Bouda Blandine and Desiré Yameogo.
FIAB has created momentum for the economic development of local cereals and developed active commercial networks at the regional and national level. It has become a counterpart for the Burkina Faso government in regards to boosting agriculture. Simone has set up several other advocacy frameworks for positioning local products such as INTERFACE (the Agribusiness Professionals Network in Africa).
Like most of the Sahel countries, Burkina Faso is facing a major challenge when it comes to properly feeding its population, especially children. Chronic malnutrition or growth retardation affects 31.5% of children under five. Its causes are several and varied, and its negative consequences are usually irreversible on child development. Since independence, the food security of the population has been of major concern to the government. Although 80% of Burkina Faso’s population lives on agriculture, livestock and forestry, industrial transformation and the upgrading of main agricultural products as a way to fight against poverty and malnutrition was not explored until the 1970s. Thus the import of products has always weighed heavily on Burkina Faso’s trade balances.
In recent years, many policies have been developed to boost the agricultural sector, including the positioning of the food industry in the national development agenda. These efforts have allowed an increase in agro-forestry-pastoral, fish and wildlife productions. These policies have also fostered the emergence of new growth sectors and spurred the need to invest in industrialization for the local processing of food products. Crafts and food small/medium enterprises and incorporations (SMEs/SMIs) play a dominant role in the economy, and act as the interface between production and consumption. They are involved in both the development of local food products and job creation, thereby contributing to poverty reduction. These sectors are facing commercial, financial, and technological challenges.
Marketing initiatives were undertaken in order to promote local production. This momentum was greatly impeded due to a lack of production enhancing mechanisms. Without these, it was impossible to develop value chains and adapt consumer tastes. Similarly, the new operators in the sector, mainly women, did not master manufacturing processes due to market access issues.
In 1974, Simone took over the management of a bakery. That made it possible for her to develop and produce a new range of sweets and biscuits. Starting with a successful new millet flour, wheat, and peanut powder-based cookie she called "Le Petit Rocher," she then decided to further research the nutritional components and values of local agricultural resources to improve the quality and production of traditional foods. She introduced new techniques to simplify the process of preparation of flour from local grains. For example, millet porridge, which serves as breakfast to many village families, is rich in nutritional value. The preparation however, is very labor intensive. Due to such constraints, most urban families turned away from this food and resorted to bread. Aiming to ease women's work, Simone suggested a pre-production of dried millet lumps enriched with tamarind; facilitating the preparation of porridge and saving time. Producing lumps then became a new activity for many rural women's associations; which created self-employment diversity and a new product available in the distribution chain.
With these results, Simone tried to set up a food manufacturing plant, but was blocked due to her gender. Finally, it was in December 1991 that Simone created her own SMI, the Foodstuffs Development Company (SODEPAL). She forged a partnership with Nutriset, a French institution dedicated to research for the treatment and prevention of malnutrition for vulnerable populations, who supported technology transfer in the formulation of nutritional supplements. She worked with a local NGO for the development of local cereals and linked that activity to training farmers and village groups. She then launched a line of local cereal-based foods meant for babies, which were enriched with Vitaline. In addition to informal conventional distribution, Simone sold her products in pharmacies, nutritional recovery centers, NGOs, schools, and emergency and food aid services in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. As she demonstrated the capabilities of local resources to solve malnutrition issues in Africa, WFP decided to buy baby food from Simone.
A month before the creation of SODEPAL, in November 1991, Simone launched the National Federation of Food and Transformation Industries of Burkina Faso (FIAB). For the first time, she gathered all of agro-industrial’s actors working on the processing of agricultural products, livestock and forestry. This included farmers, youth, women, and holders of economic initiatives in the field of agribusiness. The main objectives are to promote the development of the agro-food industry, improve the nutritional value and quality of products, strengthen human resources, and open new markets at regional, national and international levels. Simone has been constantly developing services that can boost the launch of new initiatives and creation of food SMEs and SMIs by low-income producers and processors. Anyone who is in the production, processing or marketing of food products may be a member of FIAB by paying $10 in member fees and an annual contribution of $50.
Members receive trainings in skills such as capacity building and access to an intra-firm exchange network. A communication system has been set up to provide information on business and market opportunities. FIAB opened discussions with the government and advises the members on opportunities to participate in the development of a variety of sectors depending on their interests. Simone also aims to encourage women, who are traditional actors in the processing of local products, to engage in entrepreneurship and industrialization. She has conducted extensive education on their role in the country's economic development and participation in decision making. Of the 74 initial members of FIAB, 53 are women, many of whom have become great leaders in the economic and social field in Burkina Faso. Among its founding members, there is Marcelline Ouedraogo, an Ashoka Fellow since 1996, who has transformed Shea butter processing and made it into a substantial industry run by women, from production to marketing. Blandine Bouda an Ashoka Fellow since 2012, is another founding member. She is transforming the image of traditional beer producers, generally marginalized women in extreme poverty, through economic empowerment and education.
To increase product visibility and access to larger markets to actors, FIAB organizes "Agro-Food Days" (JAAL/Ouaga), a high-profile event hosting more than 10,000 national and international visitors. Exhibitors who come from the sub-region have the opportunity to share the successful innovations made in the sector and develop better communication and exchange among their network. Conferences on agribusiness development issues are organized with the participation of state authorities and donors for the better development of the sector. Since 2000, seven Agro-Food Days have been held resulting in the recognition of JAAL as a "Public Utility" in October 2010 and the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with the state to hold it every two years. Indeed, a whole range of different local products (dairy pastries, honey, vinegar, dried mango, crispy sesame, Shea butter) are available in supermarkets and shops, to the delight of families who value these traditional ingredients. Education on the consumption of processed local products is also in place in schools.
FIAB currently has over 150 agribusiness professionals with five offices nationwide. It has contributed to the creation of thousands of jobs and increased the standard of living by 10%, thanks to the development and consumption of local agricultural resources. The Federation has signed a direct partnership pact with the government in developing the National Program for the Rural Sector. Following the decision of the Burkina Faso government to increase the production of millet, FIAB has introduced the dynamics of contracts between producers and transformers. This limits the impact of middlemen on market prices and enables better pricing for grain producers based on the quality of their products. Simone was active in the establishment of a financial mechanism to facilitate access to credit for her members, and in this sense initiated advocacy with donors and funding institutions. In November 2015, Simone had a meeting with the newly elected president of Burkina Faso where she addressed the issues that the agro-food sector is facing as well as the need for government support for the establishment of vocational training centers. FIAB’s members are currently working for the establishment of a Multi-Services Centre and agro-food assistance to support SMEs in their development needs
At the sub-regional level, Simone has started advocacy for positioning local agro-food products on the African market, particularly in West and Central Africa, through INTERFACE (Agribusiness Professionals Network in Africa). The impact of the local products valuation concept is tremendous and has led to the creation of the New G8 Alliance for Food and Nutrition Security (NASN) and the Global Alliance for Resilience in the Sahel and East Africa West (AGIR).
Now 74, Simone Zoundi was one of the first women to become an entrepreneur in Burkina Faso. In high school, she was elected 1st National Responsible for the FN-JEC (Young Catholic Students Female). During her study in France, she realized she wanted to invest her time and energy in the food industry. In her economic geography classes, she learned that industrialized countries developed their industry from agribusiness, even though they did not necessarily have a strong agricultural base. That served as a first wake-up call to Simone: "develop agribusiness in her country with agricultural resources." During the 1964 summer vacation, she worked in a biscuit factory in Montpellier and observed that there was a strong female workforce. That was the second wake-up call to "create jobs for women in her country."
She obtained a UNIDO scholarship in 1978 for an internship in biscuit manufacturing in France, which she pursued at ITA (Food Technological Institute) in Dakar on composite flours. The US Embassy in Burkina Faso supported her as she toured 10 US States including Georgia, where she learned about the different processes in expanded cereals. With this newly gained experience she embarked on fulfilling her dream of developing local resources. First she needed approval from the state to create her company, but faced many bottlenecks and was told during a hearing "you are 15 years ahead of others, how do you expect people to understand you ". Nonetheless that did not discourage her and, in 1980, she launched the first Cookies and Candies Factory (SIBB). However, the 1983 Burkina Faso Revolution blocked the initiative and eventually SIBB was liquidated. Simone then became a consultant and carried out several missions in Senegal, Mauritania, The Gambia, and some Burkina villages to train women on small business management. During this period, she also acted as Head of Administration and Finance Department at FAO.
With 46 employees and a production of 200 tons per year, SODEPAL is a major factor in the fight against malnutrition for the disadvantaged. Simone is a pioneer in the dry cleaning service in Burkina, offering filtered water bags. She has also been a producer of enriched baby food, while promoting local produce at the same time. Her initiatives were used as examples and they inspired the creation of many similar businesses in West Africa.