Keinti Coulibaly, a Community Empowerment Program (CEP) participant, works at the weekly regional market in Sirakorola, Mali, where she cooks small bean and dough pastry snacks, selling them nearly as quickly as she makes them. During the CEP, participants learn a myriad of skills, including numeracy, management, budgeting, and small project implementation. Through the CEP, Keinti has acquired valuable skills involved in running her small business and has learned many lessons from her experience in launching a small income-generating project.

“The Tostan program allowed me to be more open to ideas,” Keinti said. “In class we learn many things that allow us to be informed and participatory.”

As part of the CEP, Tostan’s communities raise their own funds to support community projects and grants. The funds are managed by Community Management Committees (CMCs) and help women develop small business activities, establish cooperative gardens, or provide health and education assistance for families in need.

Keinti’s business is one of these community-funded projects. Starting with an investment of just 2,500 CFA (about $5 USD), Keinti has been able to reliably scale up her efforts to generate larger profits and larger savings. Her successful business operation is a model for other community members.

“The beginning of everything is difficult,” she said. “But with time, when the understanding is getting better, it gets easier.” 

Keinti reinvests some of the profits back into the costs of running her business and is saving the rest to launch another enterprise of buying and selling fabric. She said selling fabric is more lucrative, but, more importantly, it’s safer because there is no boiling oil and fire involved. She has used some of her profits to buy and breed goats, which during the holiday season can generate over $100 USD each.

Keinti cited a specific Tostan session called “The Voyage” which focuses on a story called “The Road to the Village of Knowledge” using the character Mariétou as an example of a story that gave her the confidence to pursue her business. In this particular session of the Kobi, three women set out on a journey to achieve a goal. Along the way they encounter obstacles such as a wide river or a mountain. At every obstacle one of the women gives up and goes home. Only Mariétou perseveres through all the obstacles to reach the initial goal set at the beginning of the journey. 

“Whenever I am faced with an obstacle, I think of the courage of Mariétou and I continue to move forward,” she said.

Keinti maintains that particular story encouraged her to face challenges, such as investing initial money towards oil and sugar on credit with suppliers until she was able to generate enough profits. Eventually she could buy the materials directly without credit and without losing profits due to interest repayment. Being able to withstand that initial challenge has allowed her to invest in a small goat herd and plan to open a second, safer small business. 

“I solve all my problems with the benefits of my business,” she said. She is able to lend her husband money to support his poultry trade. 

“Before Tostan it was as if we were at the side of the road not knowing where to go,” Keinti said. “In commerce there are a lot things that have discouraged some. Those of us who are participants now know the difficulties that must be managed to continue the path to the village.”

Story, video and photo by Tim Werwie, Tostan Graphic Designer