Onions, sheep and the importance of passion
Continuing our interviews with the Foundation’s D&I Champions, meet Samuel Guindo from Mali (photo, center right). He talks here about his work with farmers and the impacts of the pandemic. We also asked him about Diversity & Inclusion, his life outside our organization – and Malian cooking.
Lisez la version française*
Syngenta Foundation: What did you do before joining us in 2016?
Samuel Guindo: I first worked for several international organizations in Mali. At Action against Hunger, Caritas, and Oxfam, I ran projects on food security and livelihoods. For the next five years, I was a Scientific Officer at ICRISAT. My task there was to develop and disseminate farm technology in Mali and other parts of the Sahel through a participative approach. The aim was to partner with smallholders and enable as many as possible to benefit from our research.
Your role in our Agriservices team sounds very broad. What are your main tasks?
Yes, there’s certainly never a dull moment! Running Agriservices programs requires a lot of passion. I am closely involved in current projects and the development of new ones, guided by the Foundation’s strategy. The work on the ground needs careful preparation, so I do a lot of planning. Key topics for me are agri-entrepreneurship, youth employment opportunities, and building the farming and business capacity of rural women. As well as training and supporting our own staff, I work closely with beneficiaries such as the «CEMA» mechanization centers and our Farmers’ Hubs. Two years ago, I also become the Mali team’s D&I Champion. In that role, I work closely with our Country Director to turn the Foundation’s policy into reality here.
You mention the importance of passion. What aspects of your job most inspire you?
Working in the field to transform smallholders’ lives – particularly women and youth. The whole team and I are passionate about sustainably improving farmers’ harvests and daily life. One particularly inspiring recent experience was a discussion with female farmers at a field demo day. They gave fascinating insights into the topic of access to seeds.
What was your favorite moment at the Foundation so far?
In 2019, I saw a young female Service Agent invest her first salary. She was working for a CEMA as an extension officer, guiding growers with tools such as RiceAdvice. She got paid 20,000 FCFA (approx. $32) and bought a goat. Her new business flourished, with animals born every six months. She has now moved into sheep-rearing, which is more profitable. Today she is helping her husband pay for household expenses and school fees. That goes to show: that training on the use of digital tools and a single salary is enough to launch a farm business. The lady told me later that becoming a Service Agent had changed her mindset from just wanting to spend 20,000 francs to becoming an investor. Today she’s got ten sheep, as well as all the ones she’s already sold and is a flourishing, self-reliant, highly satisfied businesswoman. That’s a great reminder that one first step doesn’t need to cost a fortune.
What is your advice to young people interested in agriculture?
Picking up on that example: Be ready to start small! First, use what’s already available. Success is a process, and you have to tackle the ups and downs. You can’t wait for other people, but really get engaged yourself. Farming is a complicated business. Getting started financially is often difficult, and you can lose an entire crop to insects or disease. Hard times like those can really demotivate young people. But the ones who persevere usually see their business picking up step by step.
"There’s no substitute for discussing in person"
What does your typical working day look like?
I’m an early riser, which gives me some time for meditation before getting the children ready for school. Depending on the traffic, I’m at our Bamako office between 7 and 8. The day starts with emails, which I’m careful to sort and prioritize! A couple of calls each morning bring me up to date with activities on the ground. It’s really important to keep in touch with farmers and other program partners, both by phone and in person. Like everywhere else worldwide, the need to shift online during the pandemic greatly increased our number of scheduled meetings. But there’s no substitute for discussing in person on-site at our programs.
What other effects did Covid have on your work?
We’re a small team here, so it was fairly easy to deal with all the physical restrictions and hygiene requirements. But many smallholders found it hard to get all the farm inputs they needed. Border closures reduced supplies and put up the prices. Field demo days were also heavily limited. They are normally a key part of farmer education, info exchange, and confidence-building. That side of our work definitely suffered during the pandemic.
What motivated you to become a D&I Champion on top of all your other work?
I’ve always been interested in questions of gender and capacity-building, and I wanted to pursue these further in a work context. The Foundation’s D&I network is an excellent opportunity. I can learn new approaches and principles, also from other countries. Being a Champion helps me pay attention to diversity and inclusion issues in our programs and to encourage colleagues to do the same.
Where do you see the most scope for D&I change in Mali?
You’re right to ask specifically about one country. D&I always needs to match the local context. In Mali, I see three priorities. One is for the Foundation to step up the involvement of women and marginalized people in its programs. More generally in Malian society, I see a need for better decision-making on the use of household resources – and “better” must mean greater female influence on those decisions. The third area for improvement is employment – Mali would benefit greatly if women and men had equal recruitment opportunities.
And on a more personal note: Which Malian dish would you particularly recommend?
Chicken rice with Yassa sauce. Yassa is made with masses of onions, but it's more than just an "onion sauce". And it goes perfectly with large amounts of chicken!
*Our thanks go again to Anne Sippel of Syngenta for the original French version of this interview.