Passion, challenges – and a bright future?

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L’entretien* avait lieu en français.

Mali was where our Foundation began operations. 40 years on, we’re still there, despite the country’s difficulties. To mark our recent Malian anniversary, we interviewed Country Director Salif Kante. He reveals how he came to agriculture and the Foundation, what his typical day looks like, the challenges he and the team are currently facing, and where we could be in 2030. 

Syngenta Foundation: You've been with the Foundation since 2006. How did you get here?
Salif Kante: Excellent question! I did my studies, finishing with a Ph.D., learned a lot, traveled a lot, and for 15 years as a researcher in the largest agricultural production team at Mali’s Institute of Rural Economy. Then an acquaintance saw a Syngenta Foundation vacancy and thought I'd be a perfect fit. I went through the whole selection process (dossier submission, interviews, project planning, and validation workshop) and here I still am!

What have been the biggest changes in the Foundation's work since you arrived?
There have been lots! We are much more in touch with our international colleagues, thanks to the evolution of technology. In addition, the restructuring of the Foundation and the many initiatives that led to our 2021-2025 strategy have brought their share of changes. The Foundation now has several more country teams than in 2006, and our role in decision-making has considerably increased. 

...and what about changes in the ‘atmosphere’ of international agricultural development?
The general way of working has also changed a lot. 16 years ago, lots of people focused on subsidizing projects. Nowadays, all the project partners have to get involved and take a share of the risk (banks, producers, and so on). And with Covid 19, IT has recently developed a lot! We are all now doing virtual visits to farmers, online training, etc., which is quite a change.

If you think about these 16 years with us, do you have a particular highlight that you would like to share?
I would definitely choose one of the project activities I worked on. It aimed to help women earn money to support their households and also put aside some savings. We started with ten women's associations. We taught some of them to write and then to manage money. At the beginning of the project, we gave them a working capital of 1,500,000 CFA (currently about $2500). After 18 months of activity, they had generated just over 9,500,000 CFA ($16,000)! We were thus able to transfer the working capital to ten other associations to give this opportunity to more women. In about five years, more than 3,000 women have carried out income-generating activities and some have created local markets. Some associations had excess cash and we set up a mutual fund managed by the women to redistribute this money. This mutual fund is also open to men and allows numerous villagers to develop businesses.

And have you had a particularly low point?
A less pleasant moment is harder to remember. But yes, I also had one of those, soon after joining. We launched a project to create “vaccination parks” for farm animals. Each implementing village had to pay 10% of the cost; the Foundation took care of the rest. Construction began in the larger villages that wanted a vaccine park and could afford it. However, one village that could afford it didn’t pay its contribution because of some rather opaque local leaders. I was very disappointed by their behavior.

Going back to the beginning of your career: Why did you choose agriculture – and what has kept you there?
As the son of a trader, I was more likely to go into business than farming, but I always knew that I wanted to do something that would help people. When I was in high school, I hesitated between medicine and agriculture: I wanted to either treat people or help them produce well. I finally chose agriculture, and soon knew it was the right choice: I’m good at it and love it! When I started out, I did a bit of breeding and I even slept with my chicks, that says it all! I'm passionate about this environment, which is the most important thing when you choose a profession. And that's why I've stayed in it for so long. I think that even after I retire, I will continue to cultivate my little garden and raise animals.

What advice would you give to a young person who wants to start farming today?
The best advice you can give to a young person is to choose a job that s/he loves. That’s one of the most important things in life. Loving what you do motivates you; it also helps you endure the difficult days and pursue your goals with persistence. So, if young people want to go into farming today, I advise them to be passionate and persistent. Then the chances are high that they’ll succeed.

How would you describe your main tasks?  
I would say that there are four main parts. There’s Design, supporting the creation of projects by the team, Orientation which aims to give impetus and Coordination of programs and people. The fourth one is Compliance. That means checking that all our projects, contracts, etc., are financially, ethically, and legally compliant, in line both with the spirit of the Foundation and Malian law. Another very important responsibility is to do everything to safeguard and strengthen the image and credibility of the Foundation here in Mali. 

What is a typical day in your life like? (If you have one!)
I arrive at the office before 8 o'clock, except when I’m visiting our projects. I always start with a tour of the office to say hello to everyone and ask about their lives, families, and work. As a leader, I find it really important to connect with the whole team and show that I am there for them. I also take the opportunity to see who is there and who isn't! I read my emails, plan activities and check our contracts or other documents. I also respond to all the questions from employees, farmers, etc. My job as a leader is to keep everyone happy! My day usually ends between 6 and 7 pm.

What is your favorite part of the job? And the leadership tasks you don't like?
I really enjoy going out into the field to meet people or reading technical documentation; you learn a lot! I also love mentoring our young people and helping them channel their ambition to achieve their goals and continue to develop the Foundation. What I like least about being a manager is that I am a figure of authority and have to be strict with people.

How has Covid affected the work of farmers in Mali?
There was a serious lack of fertilizers due to the closure of the borders, which had a very negative impact on us all. There was a drop in yield and therefore an increase in prices. In addition, for some time, gatherings were limited and inter-farmer visits were canceled, so there was much less exchange and networking. But Covid is not the biggest concern we have at the moment... The biggest problem for us is insecurity. Farmers don't dare to go and work in their fields because they are afraid of being attacked, and if this continues, we will have a famine in Mali. Because if no one works in the fields, we won't have any food.

How did the Foundation and its partners respond to Covid?
Very well! The Foundation paid for hand-washing kits with alcohol gel, soap, masks, etc. for staff and partners. There was more emphasis on the telephone, email, social networking, and video to avoid unnecessary contact and there was real flexibility for working in the office or at home.

How do you see the Foundation's work in Mali between now and 2030?
I’m really optimistic! The team is young and highly motivated. New projects are being developed. Moreover, the government’s thinking is similar to ours; we want the same things, which is very positive. Our CEMA (Centers for Mechanized Services) is a pioneering model, and we are working with the government to promote these as well as other agricultural service centers. I think that by 2030 we will be able to reach many more people and aim for a billion CFA in product sales!

What can Switzerland – or Europe more widely – learn from Mali?
One thing I like very much about Mali, and which I think deserves to be shared with Europe, is our rich culture. Examples include Timbuktu, Djenné, the Mandé/Kourougan-Fouga charter, and life and customs on the Cliff of Badiangara. In Mali, manuscripts, other documents, and archives are available for consultation. We can sense this rich heritage in so many ways. I also think Europe could learn a lot from our treatment of the elderly. In Mali, families are much closer and really take care of old people. They don’t put Granny in a retirement home or anything like that. The elderly are surrounded by their children and grandchildren, and in fact by all the children of the village.

On a more personal note, what is your favorite Malian food? And what do you like to do outside work?
That’s easy: I like a lot of dishes with sauce, especially those with peanut paste and okra! Outside my daily work, I like nature walks, visiting and working in the fields, and taking care of animals.

*Our thanks go to Anne Sippel for both language versions of this interview. Anne produced them as a project for our Foundation during her communications traineeship at Syngenta.